In my teens I used to wander the aisles of the local drugstore staring at the dozens of skincare products and wondering what on earth I should buy. It was a mystery to me how to tell the difference between all the options in jars, bottles, tubes, and capsules. I knew that healthy, beautiful skin was very important to how the world saw me but I had no idea what changes the products were supposed to make and which ingredients would be the most effective. I was 18. My skin was fundamentally perfect at that time, but because of advertising and marketing messages I believed I must be missing something. I felt surely my own skin by itself was obviously not enough – it needed to be smoother, brighter, more plump and radiant.
Usually these shopping trips would end in either a random grab for a jar of something after ending up entirely flustered or just walking away with nothing. The few things I did try didn’t offer me anything discernably great. Some just made my face feel uncomfortable.
In my late 20s my skin got much pickier. At about age 25 is when the human body hits physical maturity. It’s a time when new sensitivities crop up for many people. Our systems are no longer healing as rapidly as they were in the past. Skin cells don’t reproduce as quickly or slough off as efficiently. The result for me was that I had breakouts, dryness, oiliness, and a lot of flaking skin. In younger days skincare was optional. In my late 20s it became a life-altering quest to find something that would comfort my skin and return it to balance.
The body care aisles at the natural food store became my haunt. I experimented with practically anything priced under $20. Eventually I gave up and went to the dermatologist and got a prescription cream, which made my face burn, skin peel, and didn’t help. After years of feeling discouraged I was resigning myself to the fact that this might just be the way things would be from now on.
I had herbal ingredients on hand for my aromatherapy product line and eventually I started tinkering with some simple recipes for my skin. Lo and behold, my skin improved within days from even just simple combinations of basic herbal ingredients. I was stunned. I looked at the jars of creams with complicated formulas in my cabinet and promptly threw them all out. My skin has been happy and comfortable almost ever since.
So what was my problem for all those years? Unfortunately what I didn’t know and many people still don’t know is that mass produced skincare is actually ruining their skin and compromising their health due to the contaminated, hormone altering, and untested ingredients it contains. You may have heard that as your largest organ your skin absorbs products that are put on it. While the percentage is debatable and depends on the substance this is indeed true. This makes it that much more amazing and rather alarming that cosmetics ingredients are not tested for safety or regulated by the FDA. Furthermore the actual priority of many manufacturers has nothing to do with safety or efficacy and a lot more to do with marketability and profit margins, cute packaging, and shelf stability instead of healthy results for customers.
If you are currently frustrated with the condition of your skin you are not alone. Furthermore the products you are using may be making it worse instead of better. Fortunately you can change your relationship to your skincare and your overall skin health by understanding why what to avoid and then making clean choices instead.
3 Ways Synthetic Skincare is Harming Your Skin and Health:
1. Synthetic skincare contains petrochemical ingredients that block pores and irritate skin.
Many of the compounds used in mass market skincare are based on petroleum oil. None of these compounds are truly compatible with your body or your health. Petroleum oils have no nutrient value for your body. They contain no vitamins or beneficial cell building blocks. Many also coat the skin and sit on top, leaving a film through which your pores cannot sweat properly and you cannot slough dead skin cells. The result is dull, congested, confused skin.
Many websites will recommend Vaseline or mineral oil (both petroleum based) for extremely dry skin. It is true that these products sit on the surface of the skin and “trap” water inside the skin. But they also block everything that needs to come out, and your skin has to respire to stay healthy. A holistic, healthy approach would use moisturizing ingredients that don’t block the body’s natural elimination and renewal processes. It is possible to drastically throw off your body’s production of natural sebum by coating it constantly with clogging products. It produces either too much or too little as a response. The answer is to let your skin breathe by using non-clogging botanical oils if you need a moisturizer.
All petroleum oil compounds come from crude oil that is pumped out of the ground for use in gasoline and dozens of other chemicals for industry. Petroleum is then fractionated into its various hydrocarbons. The CDC reports that contact with crude oil for short terms can create skin irritations and dermatitis. Prolonged contact is listed as causing edema (swelling), skin rashes, and burning.
This sounds a great deal like the allergic reactions people experience to many skincare products. Why are we using petroleum oil at all in our skincare products when it has no nutritional value and comes from irritating, toxic crude oil?
The cosmetics industry loves petrochemical oils because they are available in bulk and very stable. The supply of skincare petrochemical ingredients is plentiful as they are a byproduct of the petroleum refined for gasoline fuels. They aren’t dependent on growing seasons or weather. They also don’t go rancid over time, so the products made with them have a virtually indefinite shelf life. This makes them easy for manufacturers to purchase and work with. It does not make them good for customers though. The issue of stability plays into the next point on why synthetic skincare is not good for you or your skin.
2. Mass market synthetic skincare is heavily preserved with a range of hormone disrupting and skin irritating chemicals.
Most skincare at the average grocery or drugstore is made to stay “fresh” for up to 3 to 5 years. It is not expiration dated so customers can shop intelligently for fresh product, and it uses significant quantities of a variety of preservatives to keep the product free from bacteria during the time it is first on the shelf at a store and then in your cabinet at home. These chemicals both irritate your skin and significantly add to your chemical body burden over time.
Parabens became a hot topic in the last decade as these compounds were discovered in significant concentrations in breast tumor tissues and urine in proportionally higher quantities in young females. (Calafat, 2010)
This reflects the fact that young girls use far more personal care products than young men due to societal messages that we “should”. Like me at age 18 most young women believe beauty products are a necessary part of being a grown woman. The chemical exposure of women through personal care products alone is basically creating a slow but insidious health crisis.
There are multiple paraben compounds such as methyl, ethyl, propyl, and butyl paraben generally used in combination in products. They are very effective preservatives, so they do their job well in the products. They are also able to be absorbed through intact skin, which means they are taken into your bloodstream and body tissues.
The big problem with parabens is that they are hormone disruptors. Parabens mimic the action of estrogen, one of our natural sexual hormones. They bind to the estrogen receptors in cells and in vitro (in lab studies) they have been found to increase cell gene expression towards estrogen related cancer growth.
An excess or imbalance of hormone disrupting chemicals in your body can increase acne, weight gain, cause inflammation, and eventually even contribute to cancerous cell growth. These substances throw your system completely out of whack. It only takes a small amount of hormones to completely change how you feel each day – they are powerful substances. Therefore any hormone mimics should be treated with extreme care in medicinal applications or just not used by the general populace.
Unfortunately large brands of personal care still use parabens as they do generate bacteria-free products. But as you can see the cost to our health is extreme.
Other choices have been popping up over the years since the information on parabens first came out. Now many lines proclaim they are “paraben-free” but have simply replaced the parabens with other preservatives that may be equally as irritating to your skin and body and whose long term safety is yet unknown. A simple declaration of “paraben-free” is not enough – you need to dig deeper to know that your products are truly clean.
Waterless products are a great way to avoid preservatives altogether. You can look for dry products and oil based products to save yourself the exposure to any and all preservatives. If you do use water based products seek out recipes that are preserved with botanical anti-microbial ingredients and other barriers to microbe growth like lower PH and packaging that keeps the product from being touched and contaminated.
Don’t expect to keep your skincare for 3 years. Purchase minimally preserved products and use them within 6 months. Discard anything past that. Food goes bad over time and so does your skincare. Buy only what you need and use it promptly to give yourself better, safer results.
3. Mass market skincare contains hidden ingredients such as phthalates and undeclared preservatives that may cause an allergic reaction and don’t allow you to shop intelligently.
Due to loopholes in FDA labeling law the skincare products made by most large companies contain ingredients that are not declared on the final ingredients label. The fragrance in your personal care products can contain 500+ individual chemical compounds including phthalates which are highly absorbent, hormone disrupting compounds. They are included in fragrances to “extend” the aroma, like MSG enhances the way our tongues taste flavors. Unfortunately they also have been shown by research supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to affect your thyroid’s healthy function, which is crucial for your body’s energy metabolism.
Fragrance recipes are protected as trade secrets, and as such they legally only need be listed as “fragrance” instead of as individual ingredients. We literally have no idea what we are using when applying these chemical soups.
Another labeling loophole allows hidden preservatives into products by way of herb extracts and other ingredients. If the preservative is used to keep an herb extract fresh after the original manufacturer makes it and then that extract is added to a final cosmetic product the final company does not have to list that preservative on the product label if it is not in the product at a level that is deemed to be contributing to the preservation of the total product. That doesn’t change the fact that it is in the product though, and could be causing you adverse health effects without your knowledge. This practice is incredibly common, as most cosmetic ingredient manufacturers don’t provide preservative information in their brochures on the ingredients they sell. If the final product manufacturer wants to know what is in there they have to inquire further with the technical team to discover the added ingredients. Many companies don’t even bother to do this. As a result there are hidden preservatives in many, many products.
These two issues don’t even begin to cover the problem of actual ingredients list fraud, which definitely happens. Final products are not tested for labeling accuracy by anyone, so it is just simply a matter of the company being honest or not whether you can believe that the ingredient list on the product is accurate. Companies know that consumers read those ingredients panels as part of their shopping experience. Many companies with an agenda of pure profit will leave off ingredients they know will make their product less desirable or play with how they list the ingredients to make the product look better. No one is there to verify so there is no need to be accurate.
There is much more wrong with how synthetic skincare treats your body but these are some good basic reasons to detox your beauty routine and turn to cleaner alternatives. Just like with food, though, you need to be a smart shopper. Not all skincare calling itself “natural” or even “organic” is just that. It is important to be educated and form real relationships with the companies that are producing what you use. Even many of the products sold at major natural grocery stores have dirty ingredients lists. You are your own best advocate in making healthy choices, so use your smarts and investigate all your options.
Many of the best creators of clean natural skin and bodycare products may sell independently in your local community. Many also sell direct online.
10 Tips on Shopping for High Quality Natural Skincare Products!
1. All ingredients are listed on their website for you to review, not just the feature ingredients but the whole nitty gritty ingredients list. No ingredients list, no purchase no matter how tempting the descriptive text may be.
No parabens, petroleum compounds, PEG ingredients, synthetic colors or fragrances or even dimethicone are found in the product.
2. The product is made from primarily plant and earth based natural and organic botanical base ingredients and the ingredients list is easy to read and understand (botanical names may be in Latin).
3. You can get to know the people behind the line through their website and even contact them if you want to talk about the recipes and any questions.
4. Certification seals from one or more of the Leaping Bunny program, Vegan.org, BDIH, the USDA National Organic Program, Ecocert or other quality natural and organic certification programs.
5. Reviews of the product line are posted on quality natural beauty blogs for you to research and see the opinions of natural beauty experts. Click here to see a list of the 10 best natural beauty blogs to read.
6. Don’t shop for the cheapest item you can find. Too cheap often means compromises in quality. You also don’t need to purchase the most expensive items either. Products between $15 to $50 per item offer a great range of choices while still allowing enough room for the company to support quality ingredients.
7. Shop based on established nutritional and botanical research instead of new ingredient trends. There are plenty of time-honored natural ingredients out there. Sticking with tried-and-true basic naturals is a fine way to get benefits without emptying your wallet or risking your health.
8. Bigger companies are not always better when it comes to natural. Allow yourself the knowledge that flashy packaging doesn’t always equal a quality end product.
9. Be willing to consider small batch, handcrafted herbals from your local community especially when you can get to know the artisan.
10. Try making your own handmade, fresh masks, splashes, and other treatments from herbs you gather in your community or purchase. Herbs like dandelion, plantain, oats, avocado, green tea and more are simple and inexpensive ways to treat your skin well and cleanly on a very small budget.
Reading and Resources:
For an in-depth read on some of the best herbal and natural ingredients to look for in your skin care you can get my booklet “Natural Anti-Aging Ingredients You Should Know”. It covers all my favorite herbs and nutrients that are known to be the most effective at keeping your skin in healthy shape with no negative effects.
If you’d like to read up on what does and doesn’t absorb into your skin and at what rates you can follow up on these well-written and authentic smaller websites. Their accounts and information are balanced and give you a real picture of the complexity of this important issue.
For lots more resources for different skin types and tons of natural beauty tips check out my Expert Natural Skincare Advice Page.
My goal since I discovered the healing power of plants has been to share knowledge, confidence, and great non-toxic results with others. I hope you are able to start your journey to clean skin and body care and achieve gorgeous skin in a healthy way.