Table of Contents
- Where do we start?
- Labeling cosmetic and skin care products
- Now we can see how we can protect our skin naturally
- What more should you pay attention to?
I use every opportunity to talk or write about skin protection.
Why I put so much focus on this subject?
Let’s start with one important fact: our skin absorbs 70% of what we put on it.
The ingredients we absorb through our skin go directly to our bloodstream, to our organs, and there are no enzymes to break them down. Getting a harmful ingredient through our skin is as dangerous as when we get them through food.
A study done several years ago noted that people were buying cosmetics and beauty products for emotional reasons.
“The sensation of well being gained from eliminating or reducing feelings of worry and guilt, (…) is the factor with the greatest impact,” the author of the study explains.
And he continued, emphasizing how “consumer satisfaction is greatest when the cosmetics brand helps to strengthen positive emotions through the perception of ‘caring for oneself’.”
We all believe we care for our physical and mental health. Fortunately, today, as we have become more conscious shoppers, we do read labels on cosmetic products and care to know more about the ingredients. Nearly 60% of women read product labels before purchase to check for harmful components. This is great news!
However, as we try to be more eco-friendly and eco-conscious, some might still believe that the products advertised as organic or natural contain no harmful ingredients.
So my question is: how can we be sure that the cosmetics we use are truly good for our skin? Moreover, do we even have to use such products? If not, what can we do?
There are many reasons for us to be mindful of what products we choose to use to protect our skin. And not only mindful but to get the right information and stay up to date with the latest researches.
Where do we start?
In this article, I will try to explore and go deep into the subject of reading labels on skin care products.
On the one hand, and the other, I will explain and present how we can use food, herbs and plants and other natural ingredients to protect our skin. I say try as I would like to point out that not all cosmetic products are harmful. We only need to know what to look for.
Here I explore what we need to take into account before we decide to buy either sunscreen or a lip balm.
We start with basics. We need to understand the marketing and advertising vocabulary and decypher the most common terms and their meaning: natural, organic and synthetic.
What does it mean natural?
According to the dictionary, natural means – formed by or existing in nature.
However, this does not mean that products labeled as natural in fact contain natural ingredients. There’s always a certain degree of physical processing that might include non-natural components. All in all, we can use the term natural when we are using the herbs and plants from our garden, mixing and mashing them and applying on our skin. Otherwise, as I already pointed out, the term natural doesn’t tell us much about the product’s ingredients.
What does it mean if the product is market as an organic product?
We see and hear the term organic almost everywhere. It’s a catchy word but highly problematic. For a product to be marked as organic, the ingredients must be (made from) the plants and herbs that are produced without the usage of pesticides, additives, hormones and other harmful components. Organic products have to be certified, to contain a recognizable logo or a seal of the organic product. These symbols confirm that organic-certified products are non-GMO and are not fertilized with sewage sludge and nonirradiated.
The company that produces and sells the agricultural ingredient (food) needs to be certified by the accredited organic certifying agent or bodies and has to have a certificate. According to the certificate, the products then falls to one of the four categories:
- 100% Organic – every ingredient is organically produced
- Organic – when the product contains at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients
- Made with organic ingredients – when a product contains at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients and you can find up to three products listed on the principal display panel
- Less than 70 percent organic ingredients – the product cannot use the term organic anywhere. The ingredients can be however listed on the information panel.
So, where’s the problem? The problem is that the FDA does not regulate and control products related to beauty or personal-care products. A manufacturer can make organic beauty products but no regulation or control can be done to confirm the source of the ingredients. To put it simple: we cannot be sure that ingredients are organic.
What does it mean synthetic?
Synthetic ingredients are not necessarily made in the lab, and some can be safer and more effective than the natural ones. So, synthetic doesn’t equal bad. The example is vitamin C, that is, L-ascorbic acid. As a potent anti-aging ingredient, it is used in skin care products when in a stable form. Moreover, we can usually buy it in the form of powder in health food stores. Thus, just because something is synthetic doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad.
What we need to understand next are common product claims and phrases used on skin care products.
What does it mean clinically proven?
Your first guess might be that the product is rigorously tested, and that’s not necessarily the truth. It does mean the product was tested, but it could be tested on a small group of people for two months, for instance. We don’t know anything about the amount of the product that has gone through testing, nor how or when. To be sure we can only find the specific study and research and look into the actual results.
What does it mean dermatologist tested?
This common phrase is another misleading claim. It can, however, mean that the dermatologist tested the product by doing a patch test to see if the product is irritating to the skin, but it does not mean that the product was tested to see if it can reduce wrinkles, for instance. Moreover, it does not mean that dermatologists recommend the product. If there is any study or research, it’s best to look into data and make sure what tests have been performed.
If a product is fragrance-free, what does it mean?
This phrase is used to indicate that a product contains no artificial fragrance, but that’s not always the case. We know that it takes hundreds of chemicals to produce a fragrance, and more than 100 are known allergens and can lead to contact allergy. It’s best to check the label for artificial or synthetic fragrances, as manufacturers sometimes add chemicals to mask the natural odor of the product, and in most cases, products are also labeled as fragrance-free.
What if a product contains 99.9% Aloe Vera?
Aloe Vera herb is known for its numerous health benefits from the early days. Most are familiar with the plant’s powerful benefits, but claims such as a product contains 99.9% Aloe Vera can trick us to believe the product is made entirely from this plant. However, one drop of Aloe Vera solution added to a product can get listed as 99.9 % Aloe Vera.
Labeling cosmetic and skin care products
Fortunately, it’s regulated by law what information is required to be listed on the labels.
- Name of the product
- Name of manufacturer, packer or importer and the address
- List of ingredients
- Precautions and directions of use
- Storage instructions
- Batch reference
- Logos and symbols
What interest us the most is the part with the listed ingredients.
The common ingredients and the meaning behind
Although most are familiar with the following words, not all understand the terms correctly and thoroughly. It’s important you do your homework and walk into a beauty shop prepared. So here are the most common words we hear almost every day:
- An emulsifier – the term is used for any ingredient that helps keep ingredients, commonly oil and water, from separating, helping them to stay mixed. The examples include polysorbates and laureth-4.
- A stabilizer – the ingredients that stabilize the formula and balance the ingredients so that each component can function. Preservatives are considered stabilizers, as well as certain antioxidants and chelating ingredients that prevent color changes.
- A preservative – natural or synthetic ingredients that are added to products to prevent spoilage and fungal growth in products, damage caused by microorganisms and degradation caused by exposure to oxygen.
- A keratolytic – agents that loosen and assist exfoliation of the skin cells, soften the skin cells, help the skin to bind moisture, and are shown to be useful in treating dry skin conditions.
- An emollient – this is a term used for moisturizers and is found in many beauty products. Emollient helps with water loss and keep the skin moist.
- Humectants – ingredients that prevent loss of moisture. We also know them as moisturizers.
- A pH adjuster – ingredients used to keep the product’s acid balance stable.
How ingredients are labeled?
Now, before we dig deeper into the subject of harmful ingredients, we need to make sure we understand how ingredients are labeled:
- Ingredients must appear in order of concentration – ingredients listed first are more prevalent than those listed at the bottom. In lotions, water is listed first, indicating that there is more water by percentage than other ingredients.
- Ingredients can be listed by their chemical or botanical names (tocopherol acetate for vitamin E)
- The small amount of certain ingredients is sometimes enough to indicate that the ingredient is active and will show certain benefits. This is the case with anti-aging products.
Remember: Certain ingredients can be disguised, such as some newer preservatives
Now, we are prepared to dig deeper into the world of harmful ingredients that are hidden in the skin care products we use on a daily bases.
Ingredients we should be avoiding
Would cosmetics and skin care products be possible if alcohol was banned? Alcohol in cosmetics is a controversial topic. This is how the FDA explains the term alcohol-free:
For many years cosmetic manufacturers have marketed certain cosmetic products that do not contain ethyl alcohol (also known as ethanol, or grain alcohol) as “alcohol-free.” However, “alcohols” are a large and diverse family of chemicals, with different names and a variety of effects on the skin. In cosmetic labeling, the term “alcohol,” used by itself, refers to ethyl alcohol. Cosmetic products, including those labeled “alcohol-free,” may contain other alcohols, such as cetyl, stearyl, cetearyl, or lanolin alcohol. These are known as fatty alcohols, and their effects on the skin are quite different from those of ethyl alcohol. Isopropyl alcohol, which some consumers may think of as drying the skin, is rarely used in cosmetics. To prevent the ethyl alcohol in a cosmetic from being diverted illegally for use as an alcoholic beverage, it may be “denatured.” This means that it contains an added “denaturant” that makes it undrinkable.
What’s the problem?
Alcohol is used as a solvent, as a modifier (enhancing the absorption of creams) and as a preservative because of its biocidal properties. It is also known for its astringent properties.
Alcohol is typical in perfumes, colognes and hair products (sprays, gels, foams, aftershave, and acne, dandruff and other hair loss products). The concern of alcohol usage is related to ethanol, listed on products as SD alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, or alcohol denat.
How alcohol affects our skin?
Products that use these types of alcohol give a quick-drying feeling, but these types of alcohol cause irritation, that result in dryness and damage. Moreover, as a result of these studies, alcohol might be reclassified as a carcinogenic and reprotoxic substance.
The most common ingredient in cosmetics, from lip balm, creams and ointments to hair products, mineral oils act as a moisturizing agent but only to the area of the skin they are applied to. This is a case for a red flag as mineral oils do not provide any nutritional benefits to the skin.
What’s the problem?
The oils are odorless and colorless, and inexpensive, but pose a significant threat to our health. Mineral oils are derived from petroleum and may be contaminated with cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), according to the Environmental Working Group.
As mineral oils are available in different grades, the unpurified form of oils contain contaminants that have been linked to an increased risk of cancer. “Untreated and mildly treated mineral oils are known to be human carcinogens based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in humans.”
Although in cosmetics we won’t find the unpurified form, a rather cosmetic grade mineral oil, scientist are concerned as “mineral oil hydrocarbons are the greatest contaminant of the human body, amounting to approximately 1 gram per person. Possible routes of contamination include air inhalation, food intake, and dermal (skin) absorption.”
They found out that milk and fat samples collected from women were contaminated with mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH) concluding that this is due to the repeated exposure and accumulated compounds. Not enough research has been done, and more data is needed. However, the results available today are of great concern.
How mineral oils affect our skin?
Some researchers say mineral oils are perfectly safe while others are strongly against its usage. Mineral oils are considered comedogenic – they help the skin age prematurely, clogging the pores, and increasing the risk of acne and blackheads. Moreover, mineral oils offer no nutrients that are beneficial to skin – only preventing our skin from breathing.
When oils are more refined, they are less comedogenic, but the problem is that there is no way for us to know the grade.
Luckily, we have alternatives and can use natural oils or plant extracts that are both protective and beneficial to our skin.
Yes, fragrance might be the first thing that draws us into buying a product. That mesmerizing, evoking smell, whether natural or synthetic, is problematic for our skin. Unfortunately, ingredients used in synthetic fragrance may be derived from chemicals including benzene derivatives, phthalates (we’ll talk about this next) and other toxins that can be found on the EPA’s list.
If we take into account that the average fragrance product contains around 14 chemicals that can disrupt hormones, cause problems with the reproductive system and even lead to increased risk of developing cancer, no wonder manufacturers are not eager to disclose the name of ingredients on the label.
What’s the problem?
The International Fragrance Association has created a list of 3,059 materials and chemicals that are reported as being used in fragrance compounds and some are linked to health concerns related to allergies and toxicity.
The problem with synthetic fragrances only gets scarier as current law has a loophole. Apparently, the laws do not provide the FDA with the authority to require disclosure. While companies are required to list ingredients, if it’s the question of preserving fragrance as a trademark, the regulation doesn’t apply.
The following is the explanation from The Environmental Working Group:
“When you see ‘fragrance’ on a personal care product’s label, read it as ‘hidden chemicals.’ Companies that manufacture personal care products are required by law to list the ingredients they use, but fragrances and trade-secret formulas are exempt.”
How fragrances affect our skin?
Fragrances in skin care product cause allergic reactions and are among the most common cause of sensitizing, irritation, and inflammation. The major problem is that signs of irritation are not visible on the surface, but rather are happening inside, causing collagen to breakdown and decreasing the skin’s ability to heal.
These synthetic preservatives are not always disclosed on the labeling as they are included under “fragrances” group of chemicals. The problem is that phthalates are linked to birth defects and decreased sperm counts, and liver and kidney damage.
Apart from fragranced lotions, they are found in color cosmetics, body washes, hair care products, and nail polish products, including treatments.
What are the health concerns?
Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals according to the research data collected in two decades. The hormone disruption can lead to a critical change during the prenatal genital development period.
The European Chemicals Agency classifies DEHP and DBP as reproductive toxicants.
Based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity of animal studies, the National Toxicology Program and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report that DEHP is to be anticipated to be a human carcinogen.
What can we do?
Remember to avoid main phthalates in cosmetics: dibutyl phthalate (nail polish), diethyl phthalate (perfumes and lotions) and dimethyl phthalate (hair spray).
Parabens, which come under the names of butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben, or propylparaben or any other ingredient ending in -paraben, are synthetic preservatives that interfere with hormone production and release.
What’s the problem?
We can find them in many products as they are used to prevent the growth of bacteria, mold and yeast. Research done by the National Institute of Environmental Health Studies shows that parabens as endocrine disruptors pose a great risk during the prenatal and postnatal period. Methylparaben can lead to UV-induced damage of skin cells and disrupt cell growth rate if we use personal care products that contain this chemical. Another study showed that parabens and other estrogenic chemicals can influence the development of malignant melanoma, a form of skin cancer.
Remember: before you decided to buy a skincare product first look for all chemicals that end in -parabens.
Ethanolamines, a chemical group comprised of amino acids (MEA, DEA, TEA and others) are found in soaps, shampoos, lotions, shaving creams and numerous cosmetic and personal care and household caring products.
What’s the problem?
Diethanolamine (DEA – used as an emulsifier in shampoos, cleaners, and detergents) and triethanolamine (TEA – used as a fragrance, pH adjuster and emulsifying agent ) are key examples of these chemicals that are prohibited in Europe, but freely used in the United States.
When they are used as preservatives, they can form nitrosamines that are listed as possible carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. When DEA accumulates in the liver and kidney, it causes organ toxicity and tremors. If the mother is exposed to DEA, the memory function and brain development in offspring could be permanently affected.
Remember: Read labels and look out for DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (Monoethanolamine) and TEA (triethanolamine).
Triclosan and Toluene
Toluene is used in hair dyes and nail products, and triclosan is found in antibacterial soaps and detergents, toothpaste, antiperspirants and deodorants and shaving products.
Toluene is a toxic chemical, restricted in EU, and found on the list of unsafe for use in cosmetics by the International Fragrance Association Codes and Standards.
Moreover, the California Environmental Protection Agency listed the chemical as a possible human development toxicant. One research showed that a mother exposure to the chemical during pregnancy can result in developmental damage in the fetus. Exposure to toluene brings headaches and dizziness, as well as cracked skin, and more serious problems such as reproductive damage and complications with the respiratory system.
Research has linked triclosan (that is registered as a pesticide with the EPA) with concerns regarding endocrine disruption, and bacteria resistance. Studies have also found that triclosan decreases thyroid hormone concentrations and one research showed that the chemical was present in the urine of nearly 75% of people who were tested. The chemical is flagged as a compound that poses a serious risk to both humans and the environment.
What can we do?
Unfortunately, these chemicals are essential ingredients in many products, but we need to avoid products that have these chemicals displayed on labels, although they can be found under different names as benzene, toluol, phenylmethane or methylbenzene.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) & Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
There is much controversy regarding SLS and SLES chemicals. This is what we know: 90% of personal care products use it – without them, we would not have products that foam up.
What’s the problem?
On one side we have nearly 16,000 studies providing information and data on the health concerns, and on the other, we have a strong opposing community of scientists who are questioning the data and results from these studies.
The problem lies in the fact that during the manufacturing process, these compounds are being contaminated with a carcinogen by-product. Aside from the wrongly interpreted results and research, studies did show that SLS have damaging effects on skin and oral mucosa. A study reported that SLS could cause irritation and strip the skin of protective oils.
As already mentioned, avoid products that contain these chemicals displayed on labels.
How can we further avoid exposure to these chemicals?
We need to learn more about the harmful chemicals as there are more chemicals we need to avoid. We can get help from the Skin Deep database, one of the most efficient tools for identifying products. With it, we can see safety ratings and ingredients with a hazard score. You can download the app and scan products in the store.
Now we can see how we can protect our skin naturally
Although we still need to use cosmetics to protect our skin, we can make our skin stronger and more resistant with natural resources, and we can do it easily – including food full of skin-protective nutrients into our diets.
To do so, we are going to explore what nutrients to look for in the food, and where we can find them.
We start with a powerful antioxidant – astaxanthin. It is a naturally-occurring compound with many health benefits for the organism. Extensive research showed that astaxanthin plays an important role in reducing damage caused by ultraviolet radiation, and that helps the skin greatly with maintaining moisture, elasticity, and smoothness. Another important benefit of this antioxidant related to skin protection is its ability to protect the cells. It is found to be 6,000 times stronger than vitamin C, and 550 times stronger than green tea catechins.
Where can we find astaxanthin?
We can find it in algae, salmon, shrimp and crab. The highest concentration is in the muscles of salmon. You can also take astaxanthin supplement, as you need about 6 ounces (165 grams) daily to get a 3.6-milligram dose, but shop carefully and wisely. Taking this dose for six to eight weeks can significantly reduce the age spots and improve the skin.
Another important antioxidant we already know gives fruits and vegetables their color is beta-carotene. When we eat fruits and veggies rich in beta carotene, our body converts it into vitamin A. One study showed that beta-carotene provides protection against sunburn. Apart from protecting our skin, studies have shown that people who eat four or more servings of food high in beta-carotene decrease the risk of developing various cancers.
Where can we find beta-carotene?
In carrots, sweet potatoes, red peppers and broccoli. Carrots especially contain a high amount of beta-carotene. When you consume carrots every day, you can help prevent sunburn from UVB rays. Eat them raw or lightly cooked.
A phytonutrient found in red fruits and vegetables is widely-known skin protector. Lycopene pigment acts as an antioxidant and protects us from the free radicals. Many studies showed various health benefits of lycopene, but we’ll look into studies that confirm the benefits for our skin.
One German study found that women who ate 40 grams of tomato paste daily for 10 weeks reduced the risk of redness (UV-induced erythema) by 40% compared to women who did not consume tomato or any tomato products. The same research was repeated in 2010 and found similar results – participants who consumed tomato paste had 33% more protection against sunburns than participants who didn’t consume tomato or tomato products. Watermelons are another sweet food rich in lycopene as two wedges of fresh watermelon contains more lycopene than 40 grams (⅓ cup) of tomato juice.
A yellow-colored carotenoid, lutein protects our skin from UV damage. It is known as “the eye vitamin,” but it plays an important role in protecting our skin by preventing oxidative damage and peroxidation. Lutein supplements are popular as they have been shown they help with skin protection. However, we can also find lutein in many vegetables.
Where can we find it?
Spinach, kale, peas, broccoli, and dark leafy greens have a high concentration of lutein. It is also good for your skin when you apply it topically, as a cream or ointment.
We cannot talk about skin protection if we don’t talk about somewhat problematic vitamin D. We know that the source of vitamin D is the sun, but we need to reduce sun exposure. Vitamin D deficiency is a common problem and if we have to avoid the sun, we need to turn to other sources as this vitamin also has a crucial role in our immune system. Luckily, we can find it in eggs, shiitake mushrooms, salmon, cow’s milk and cod liver oil.
Selenium acts as an antioxidant, and when mixed with vitamin D, it has a significant impact on preventing skin cancer. Its antioxidant properties are closely related to improving skin elasticity and protecting skin from the damage from free-radicals.
A study showed that selenium could modulate gene expression, which results in suppressing a protein responsible for the growth of cancer cells and tumor onset. But the same study warns that not all forms of selenium have this effect on preventing skin cancer.
Where can we find it?
We need 50 to 100 micrograms daily and can find selenium in mushrooms, sunflower seeds, shellfish and Brazil nuts.
Epigallocatechin gallate (ECGC)
When you think about this antioxidant, think about all the health benefits of the green tea. A study found that one cup of tea per day can lower the incidence of melanoma. Another study showed that epigallocatechin gallate can significantly decrease the risk of UV-induced DNA damage. Learn more about the health benefits of green tea as it is one of the most powerful beverages on the planet.
Where can we find this antioxidant?
Besides green tea, black tea is rich in ECGC as well. We can find it in rosemary, thyme, oregano garlic and cocoa.
Vitamin E and Vitamin C
I have already written about the importance of vitamin E and C, and their health benefits. You can learn more about vitamin E in this article, but I need to stress that it’s important always to get vitamin E in its natural form as that is the only way the vitamin can help with skin protection. Vitamin C, on the other hand, is a super-powerful vitamin we need for many health benefits it has. I am a big fan of the food rich in Vitamin C and have had an opportunity to test its power. I have written in details about its usage and properties.
For more advice and tips on how to protect your skin, you can read this quick guide.
What more should you pay attention to?
The most common cancer in the United States is skin cancer. Between 1992-2006, skin cancer has risen by 77% and it is increasing annually by 4%. The most disturbing information is that we do use more sunscreen than before, and spend more time indoors. That’s why we need to be more conscious about the cosmetics and skin care products we use, and commit ourselves to a healthy lifestyle and healthy diets.
The skin has many important functions – it protects us against pathogens, regulates temperature, provides insulation and plays a critical role in the production of vitamin D. Being more cautious about harmful chemicals we put into our body is mandatory. A healthy diet rich in natural sun blocking and protecting nutrients and antioxidants can ensure our bodies are more protected.
It’s always up to us and the way we take care of our body.
Images credit: depositphotos.com
What’s your experience with skin care products? Share with us in the comments.
Last article update: 3/28/2019