Decoding Skincare: Part I

The Quest for Safe and Effective Skin Care

Skincare can be daunting. There are about a zillion products from a zillion different retailers, each touting unique ingredients and benefits. They’re at the drugstore, the department store, the med spa, the internet–everywhere. And now there’s an entire industry devoted to “natural,” “organic,” or “free of [demonized ingredient of the moment]” skincare. So, how does one choose?

Many insist that all-natural skincare products are the answer to healthy, beautiful skin. In another camp are those who say effective, results-driven skincare only comes from lab-generated, scientific formulas. The truth is there are safe and effective ingredients and irritating, toxic, ineffectual ingredients on both sides of the aisle.

Misleading Marketing

Skincare falls under the heading of cosmetics as far as the FDA is concerned, and cosmetics aren’t regulated the way drugs are. (Things like sunscreen or acne medication are considered drugs.) The primary requirement is that skincare products be safe for their intended use.

Terms like “organic,” “natural,” or even “hypoallergenic,” are not defined by the FDA and can be slapped on any skincare product. The FDA does say cosmetic labels should not be “misleading,” but labels don’t require FDA approval before hitting the market. (And how many skincare products have you purchased that made misleading promises?)

Many companies count on the consumer not looking beyond the glossy graphics and buzzwords on the packaging. Reading the ingredients is always your best bet, but you must know which are safe and effective and which to avoid.

Some companies take the additional step of paying for certification through the National Organic Program. These products carry the U.S.D.A. Organic seal. A spokesperson for the department, Joan Shaffer, clarifies that interpreting the U.S.D.A. Organic seal to mean a product is safe or efficacious is a mistake.  It simply means that any agricultural ingredients in the product are produced following organic guidelines. “Steak may be graded prime,” she says, “but that has no bearing on whether it is safe or nutritious to eat.” In other words, it’s marketing.

Organic farming is better for the environment, but unethical sourcing of natural ingredients isn’t unheard of, nor certain harvesting practices that have negative repercussions on the environment.

Ingredients are considered “natural” if they’re not made in a lab. “Synthetic” or “chemical” ingredients are made in a lab to mimic components of the skin or encourage functions within the skin. Lab-made ingredients are sometimes more effective or better able to penetrate. Another advantage of synthetic ingredients is their consistency. You always know what you’re getting every single time.

You may have heard that ingredients with hard to pronounce, complex names don’t belong in your skincare. If you believe this, then Ascorbyl Glucoside could make you wary until you learn that it’s just a stabilized version of natural Vitamin C. Or Glycoaminoglycane might look scary, but it’s just another name for hyaluronic acid (a substance that occurs naturally in our body.)

What Does Science Have to Say?

There’s no scientific proof that natural or plant-based products are safer or more effective than their synthetic counterparts. Several naturally-sourced ingredients have no place in skincare. They’re too harsh and cause irritation or sensitivity over time. (See part II for which.)

Skin irritation can sometimes go undetected. You may not see that there’s an issue, but an ingredient can compromise your skin, leaving it unable to defend against environmental aggressors. Unseen irritation can also break down collagen, interfering with the skin’s ability to repair and renew itself. It’s a gradual process, much like incidental sun exposure causes photo-damage over time (even if you don’t see a tan or burn).

Just because something comes from a plant doesn’t make it safe or beneficial to use on the skin. Many plants can be hazardous to our health, such as poison ivy, or tobacco. Many dermatologists warn of potential skin reactions associated with specific natural ingredients. Essential oils, while naturally-sourced are active chemicals and several cause allergies or irritation. Tea tree oil, chamomile and green tea cause irritation for some. There are even studies suggesting that mixing lavender oil and tea tree oil can have endocrine-disrupting effects. Something previously only blamed on parabens or phthalates.

I’m not saying you should avoid all natural products. Many natural ingredients do beautiful things for the skin. Just as there are synthetic ingredients with research to support their long-term skin benefits. (Retinol, niacinamide and glycolic acid are a few you may have heard of.)

Allergies are a possibility whether ingredients in a product are chemical or organic. You can be allergic to anything. And here’s what the industry behind “organic, natural” skincare doesn’t want you to know: All matter is made up of chemicals. Substances derived from plants are chemicals. Human beings, water, our food, the air we breathe; they’re all chemical compounds. It’s impossible to live a life free from chemicals, and chemical-free products don’t exist.

What matters is “the dose” of the chemical.  Apples, for example, contain formaldehyde and acetone. Peach pits contain cyanide. Oranges contain methanol. You’d have to eat an awful lot of oranges to get methanol poisoning, though.

You may remember when I wrote about Botox; I quoted Paracelsus, the father of toxicology, who famously said, All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not poisonous.If all you ate was spinach, you would eventually overdose on Vitamin A. A tiny amount of Botox gives smooth, wrinkle-free skin (and never Botulism). Certain potentially toxic ingredients in precise amounts are beneficial and don’t lead to toxicity.

Parabens, and Phthalates, and Sulfates, Oh My!


Paraben is a scary word that many products now boast they don’t contain. In 2004, a study found parabens in breast cancer tissue, which led to much fear and alarm about the ingredient. There was never any proof that parabens were the cause of the breast cancer, however. The reason for their presence wasn’t confirmed.

Parabens are used as preservatives. For this reason, most products without them have a very short shelf-life. Without a preservative, a product can become contaminated or spread bacterial infection. Each time you dip into a jar of moisturizer, you’re mixing in some bacteria. Without any preservatives, skincare can not only go bad but also become less potent and even unsafe to use. There hasn’t been enough research to establish whether paraben alternatives are any better for us.

Parabens are a large molecule that sits on top of the skin. Skincare chemists work hard to ensure the good-for-you ingredients bypass the top layer of the skin. Our skin is a protective barrier made to keep out moisture, germs, and toxins. There is debate about how much topical parabens can even penetrate the epidermis.

Also, parabens are in foods we ingest on the regular, like ketchup. According to Scientific American, as much as 90% of the food at a typical grocery store contains some amount of parabens. If we’re going to worry about parabens we put on our skin, perhaps we should look at the parabens we’re putting in our skin. The FDA considers propylparaben and methylparaben safe as long as they make up less than .1% of the ingredients of a product.

There was a study done where researchers found a high level of methylparaben in sunscreens marketed as “green” (AKA natural). The same researchers detected parabens in a few other products that didn’t list parabens anywhere on their labels. Should the FDA have more oversight when it comes to skincare products?



Another ingredient we are told to avoid is phthalates. Phthalates are sometimes used in skincare to help dissolve things into a consistent solution. Phthalates and parabens are believed to act on estrogen in the body and have been linked to things like decreased sperm count, endometriosis and insulin resistance. Still, the FDA concluded that phthalates used in skincare products do not pose a significant health risk. The amount found in skincare is not high enough to cause concern. DBP, DMP, and DEP (three types of phthalates) were deemed safe for use in cosmetics by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review. The FDA has noted a trend of fewer phthalates showing up in cosmetic products overall.

Fragrance in your skincare is a wise idea to avoid for many reasons. It’s an irritant; whether the source of the scent is natural or synthetic. Our skin doesn’t like fragrance. But perhaps more importantly, the FDA does not require a list of every ingredient that makes up the fragrance in your product. You’ll see the word “fragrance,” and that one word could represent seventeen or more ingredients; some of which are often phthalates or other irritating substances. Avoiding fragrance in your skincare products is a smart way to reduce your exposure to phthalates or the like.



And what about sulfates? Sulfates are cleansing agents. Sodium lauryl sulfate is a popularly used sulfate. You’ll find them in shampoos and cleansers. The chief issue with them is they can be drying and sensitizing. But so can their alternatives; even those found in “natural” products. The primary research on sulfates comes from a patch test where a concentration of sulfate was left on the skin under a bandage for 24 hours. Of course, you would never leave a cleanser on your skin for that long. The key with any cleansing agent is that it’s formulated in an appropriate concentration and balanced with ingredients that help buffer it.

Sometimes “natural” products will list their cleansing agent as something derived from coconut, but this is also a synthetic ingredient. “Sodium coco-sulfate” is created by blending fatty acids from coconut oil with lauryl alcohol and acid.

It’s best to use cleansing agents in moderation, especially if you have dry hair or dry skin. They’re meant to eliminate product buildup, makeup, and oils, but our skin and hair need a bit of oil to function optimally.

You can draw your own conclusions about these and whatever other ingredients concern you. There’s tons of information out there.  Peer-reviewed, scientific publications are the most trustworthy source of information (and you can even find them online).

Everyone’s skin is different, so what works great for your friend could give you major issues. Skincare is trial and error, but it helps to know what ingredients to look for; which are clinically proven to be effective, and which don’t belong on your skin.

To read about the most effective ingredients in skincare click here.


References and further reading:


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