Labels Matter

Six years ago, I thought I knew a thing or two about treating my skin right. My collection included an assortment of cleansers, toners, serums, scrubs, creams, and makeup from the drugstore aisle as well as the department stores. A little of this, a little of that. And I felt pretty good about it.

Come to find out, I had a lot to learn. And learn I did after I fought a months-long war against a little skin condition called perioral dermatitis on my face. More on that here.

Since I was newly enlightened about several key ingredients that don’t bode well on my tender skin, I set out on a years-long obsession mission to learn more about what I was putting on my body and how it affected me. And boy, did I learn a lot!

For starters, not all products are created equal. And more expensive does not mean better for you, or more effective. Also, did you know that Europe bans in excess of 1,300 cosmetic ingredients, compared to the FDA list of 11 in the US? Talk about a huge discrepancy!

Your skin is your largest organ. And while it doesn’t absorb everything, there’s no question that it absorbs a lot that your body has to either metabolize, accumulate, or eliminate. (Isn’t the human body amazing?!)

My question became this: Do I have to expose my body to skincare and cosmetic ingredients that may be toxic, or questionable at best? And the answer I discovered, is absolutely not.

Let’s start with three of the big offenders that rear their ugly heads on your product labels.

  1. Hydroquinone. This ingredient is used in many products to lighten pigmentation from age spots and freckles, and is available over the counter in concentrations up to 2 percent, and greater by prescription. In 2006, the FDA proposed a withdrawal of the ingredient from the GRASE (Generally Recognized as Safe and Effective) list. With significant research, “some evidence” was found that this ingredient may be toxic and carcinogenic. (If you’re as nerdy as I am, you can read more here.) Additionally, hydroquinone is listed as a Class C ingredient to avoid for pregnant and nursing women. The ingredient has been shown to cause birth defects in animals, but was inconclusive in humans. If you’re currently using or considering this ingredient, I encourage you to consider if the benefits outweigh the potential risk.
  2. Phthalates. (pronounced “thah-lates”) This is a tricky ingredient, as it’s found in everything from plastics to flooring to adhesives to insecticides. It’s also in your skincare, preserving fragrances and helping lotions penetrate your skin. This tricky ingredient can show up as a few names on your ingredient label, though the most common is diethylphthalate (DEP). So what’s the deal with phthalates? They’ve been linked to a laundry list of issues from breast cancer to diabetes to asthma to infertility. And with respect to keeping our tiniest people safe, The National Academies Press concluded that it is “biologically plausible that adverse reproductive outcomes could occur if specific phthalates or mixtures of phthalates reach the developing human fetus” in a 2008 report. (If you can’t sleep, the entire 188 page report is available here, because hey, sharing is caring.)
  3. Mineral oil. Baby oil, and sometimes also labeled as “paraffin oil” or “white mineral oil,” it is derived from petroleum. Yes, the same thing that formulates the gasoline for your car. Only mineral oil has been refined several more times and added to your skincare. Mineral oil can work its way into the body through both environmental exposure and skin absorption. It has been linked to hormonal issues, endometriosis, ovarian dysfunction, and weakening the immune system. This 2011 article suggests that mineral oil builds up in the body over time by testing subcutaneous fat removed during c-section, as well as breast milk, from postpartum mothers. It was concluded that cosmetic use may be a relevant source of the contamination. I will go on to further point out that this ingredient doesn’t actually do anything for you! It is an “occlusive” chemical, which mostly just sits on your skin, not letting any moisture in. The good news is, this ingredient is highly unnecessary and there are so many  healthier alternatives that will deliver moisture and nourishment to you skin without the harmful accumulation in the body.

With an eye toward stripping out the potentially harmful offenders in your skincare routine, let’s look at a few healthier options that your skin will drink up and love.

  1. Bakuchiol. This plant-based ingredient is an outstanding natural alternative to retinol to treat both acne and signs of aging. This study concluded that after 12 weeks of applying bakuchiol as a finished skincare product, the results showed “significant improvement in lines and wrinkles, pigmentation, elasticity, firmness and overall reduction in photo‐damage was observed, without usual retinol therapy‐associated undesirable effects.” The Wikipedia page even reports anticancer activity in some preliminary models. I personally use this ingredient daily. Not only does my sensitive skin love it, it’s the first product I’ve been able to use that has improved the appearance of fine lines and brightened my overall complexion, without the nasty irritation and drying I’ve experienced with other ingredients. I was nothing short of shocked when I tried it.
  2. Green algae. Talk about a super-food for your skin! For starters, it’s a great antioxidant, which protects your skin from free radicals that lead to premature aging. And I’m all for aging gracefully, but that doesn’t mean I want to do it early! This lovely green stuff is also rich in proteins and fatty acids, which absorb deep into your skin to lift, firm, and rejuvenate your skin. In other applications outside of skincare, it has been shown to promote heart health, reduce inflammation, and promotes the proliferation of stem cells. What can’t this stuff do?! Sign me up for a double dose, please!
  3. Cotton. Yep, you read that right. Cotton isn’t just for your super soft t-shirt that you wear every weekend. Cottonseed oil is rising in popularity as it is relatively easy to produce and is great for a variety of uses. Dr. David Bank, dermatologist and author of Beautiful Skin: Every Woman’s Guide to Looking her Best at Any Age, explains that “cotton and its derivatives are high in vitamin E, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, which are all anti-inflammatory, helping to soothe skin and calm redness.” He goes on to add that this ingredient “also fight[s] free radicals, which have been known to inflame skin.” Having personally battled redness, inflammation, and irritation with my own skin, this is yet another ingredient that I can personally vouch for that has helped my skin both look and feel better. Win!

Advances in new ingredients and new skincare technology happen every day, and there is no question that there is growing demand for more natural, botanically based products that are both safe and effective. You may eat organic to keep unnecessary chemical exposure to a minimum, so why treat your largest organ any different?

Those labels matter, so the next time you’re shopping for a new lotion or potion, check out what’s on the back of that bottle.

Cheers To Your Health,


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