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I’ve been blogging for about six years now, and in the midst of it, I’ve seen a massive flux in the way women view their skin care. No longer are we interested in blindly going to an expert, whether it be a dermatologist, scientist, or even the trusted makeup artist at the cosmetics counter. Instead, it seems cosmetic customers everywhere are interested in doing their own research and coming into the derm’s office or local Sephora fully prepared. From the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database to beauty books like Jessica Alba’s New York Times bestseller The Honest Life, it seems women everywhere are more concerned about researching the safety and efficacy of products and ingredients for themselves.
And while the DIY approach can be lovely at times (see: Etsy), it can also be downright misleading or even dangerous without the right scientific training. Luckily, what you need to know to fully empower yourself in a world filled with seemingly well-meaning, but ultimately fear mongering natural product companies and political advocacy groups is rather simple:
1.) “If I can’t pronounce it, I shouldn’t use it on my skin.” TRUTH: There are just as many great hard-to-pronounce ingredients as easy-to-pronounce ones.
Whoever thought of this one was simultaneously a genius and, well, kind-of a dud. For three reasons:
First, every plant in existence has a common name (or several common names) and a scientific name. For instance, some companies list “green tea” on their ingredient lists. Other companies may list Camellia sinensis extract. But guess what: They’re exactly the same thing. Making the extract easy-to-pronounce for the average consumer does not change its efficacy in the least.
Second, independent, peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown some of the very best ingredients for the skin have vague, hard-to-pronounce names. Check out the following list:
- Cocamidopropyl betaine. An organic compound derived from coconut oil. Helps thicken skin care products and reduce frizz in hair care products.
- Niacinamide. nī-ə-ˈsi-nə-ˌmīd A derivative of vitamin B3. Naturally found in the body as a breakdown product of niacin.
- Salicyclic acid. sa-lə-ˈsi-lik- a-səd A beta hydroxy acid. Naturally found as the active component of white willow bark.
Third, without getting all Chemistry 101 on you, a basic understanding of chemistry will help ingredients lists to look less daunting or dangerous, and more familiar and safe (which the vast majority are, trust me). We often fear what we don’t understand. But knowing that a compound ending in “-ol” is an alcohol, and one ending in “-oate” is an ester, is empowering. Understanding further that a compound like cocamidopropyl betaine is a major constituent of coconut oil, or bromelain and papain are anti-inflammatory agents found naturally in pineapple, also keeps the cosmetic industry more friendly to the average consumer.
2.) If a database says an ingredient is toxic, it is. TRUTH: Not all studies claiming an ingredient is “toxic” are relevant to skin care, hair care, or cosmetics.
I have a lot of respect for what the Good Guide and Skin Deep Database are trying to do. I fully understand and support the underlying mission.
Unfortunately, it’s also confusing and fear-inducing for the average consumer. How can you trust a company you’ve been buying from for years when a team of scientists is showing you actual studies saying their products contain potential carcinogens? How can you ever think the beauty industry is anything but selfish and obtuse, putting you and your family at danger after you find resources like that?
The balanced truth here is you need to know how to read studies. Databases that “flag” studies are a fantastic idea, except they currently miss one crucial step: You need to have each study evaluated individually for its relevancy to skin care, hair care, and cosmetics. There needs to be a weighted average of studies that show how toxic an ingredient is. After all, not all studies showing an ingredient are toxic are created equal, and they should not be treated as such when being measured towards a meta-type “toxicity” score.
For instance, let’s say that I am an accomplished scientist and I want to get published in a journal. It doesn’t matter which journal – it doesn’t have to be Nature or Science – just enough to keep my quota of publishing afloat. So, I expose my experimental group of rats to 35000 times the average dose of an ingredient used in beauty products – we’ll call it ingredient A – and demonstrate the ingredient not only caused more tumors in the experimental group than the [non-treated] control group of rats, but also estrogen mimicry. Because the rats now have grown little breasts!
The issue is that this study is currently treated in databases like the Good Guide and Skin Deep Database with the same level of relevancy as studies showing small doses of true carcinogens like formaldehyde, in humans, when breathed in or ingested, are truly carcinogenic. Instead, it makes it look like ingredient A is just as toxic as formaldehyde. And that’s not correct.
So use the following three-point system when you read any study:
- Tested on subjects, not cells (in vivo, not in vitro). (+1) Guess what happens when you incubate human skin cells in 100% pure water. Just guess. You guessed it: They die! Incubated human skin cells need an environment with specific conditions in order to survive. The fact that human skin cells die when incubated in water doesn’t mean a.) you shouldn’t apply water to your skin, b.) you shouldn’t drink water, c.) water causes cellular death. So learn to separate causation from correlation. Better yet, just don’t trust any study that incubates cells in vitro as much as studies that test an ingredient in the body, or in vivo.
- Tested on humans (+1). If the study was conducted on animals, the study doesn’t get this point in my system. Some ingredients have been shown to be toxic for animals, but humans have many more genes, some which enable higher degrees of resistance to certain ingredients. What’s more, human exposures of an ingredient in experimental conditions tend to be of a much more relevant concentration than some of the doses lab rats are exposed to in quite a few studies. Which brings me to my next point:
- Ingredient is used in concentrations typical to a dose actually used (+1). If I ingest 20000 times the average dose of vitamin A, guess what. I’ll experience vitamin A toxicity! If it’s 200000 times, I’ll die! So why studies that expose rats to 20000 times the average dose of, say, parabens used the typical dose of a skin care product are used to say that parabens cause hormonal disruption is beyond me. Regardless, databases need to take into account that these types of studies do not in and of themselves suggest that parabens and other ingredients are toxic in the doses they are used in beauty products. Now, these types of studies are useful because they indicate doses that are toxic, which is relevant to the beauty industry, as well as due to the fact they show more research needs to be done to determine the smallest dose that still produces toxicity. But they do not in and of themselves demonstrate the conclusion the public is drawing, which is, “This substance is toxic! Stay away!”
Someday, I’m thinking about starting my own ingredient database that not only flags studies, but determines a weighted average safety score based on the relevancy of each flagged study to beauty products. But we’ll see. I’m actually happy if someone steals my idea – it needs to be done, and I probably am years away from producing it!
3.) “If you can’t eat it, don’t put it on your skin.” TRUTH: Some of the best ingredients for your skin can’t be ingested.
I agree that we all need to be more cognizant of what we eat. (I just read Salt, Sugar, Fat, and it terrified me. Talk about fear mongering – I don’t think I’ll ever eat anything out of a package ever again!)
But when it comes to your skin, it’s a different beast. Take, for instance, the antifungal agent ketoconazole, found in prescription Nizoral. Completely indigestible, ketoconazole is so safe, it is the #1 most-prescribed treatment for fungal infections in severely immunocompromised patients, like those with HIV or on chemotherapy. It’s that well-tolerated. So don’t believe natural products companies that try to tell you that something is not safe unless you can pronounce and/or eat it. It’s simply not true. Honestly, it’s just a sales pitch that is not backed up with actual science or medicine.
What’s more, many foods are terrible for your skin when you apply them. Lemon juice, for instance, not only makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, but it also has been shown to be a significant skin irritant in studies dating back to 1975 (Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 1975). Milk, while full of skin-beneficial lactic acid, also can contain growth factors that have been linked to acne vulgaris (Experimental Dermatology, 2009). And food handlers also have higher rates of contact dermatitis than the rest of the population (Contact Dermatitis, 2006).
Don’t take the easy way out with your beauty products: You can’t trust companies claiming their products are “safe,” “non-toxic” and “natural” when they are telling you lies like this. If you don’t believe me, just remember prescription ketoconazole, which is both hard to ingest and inedible, yet so safe for you that doctors recommend it for those with HIV and on chemotherapy. And, by the way, a complete miracle for fungal infections.
The irony of beauty in modern society is that there are two groups: Those using only natural and organic products, fearing toxicity, and those who are into injecting even substances called “toxins” (i.e., Botulism toxin = Botox) into their skin, fearing aging. In truth, I think the best approach is more balanced: Find a trusted resource to evaluate ingredients and formulations (like FutureDerm or The Beauty Brains), analyze studies on your own for relevancy (i.e., human-based, not in animals or petri dishes, relevant dose), look for concentrated active ingredients with substantiative research behind them first – and if it contains organic plant extracts instead of non-organic, all the better. But definitely not a “must” on the latter.
What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear in Comments below!