In politics, you can be on the left, far left, moderate, right, or far right. And when it comes to skin care and beauty, it seems like increasingly more people are falling into various areas on a similar spectrum: Scientific, very scientific, moderate, natural, or only all-natural.
I would describe myself as “scientific” on this spectrum. While I’ve written FutureDerm posts debunking the claims of many natural and organic skin care and beauty companies in the past, I also acknowledge there are some natural ingredients with previously undiscovered merits until recently, like turmeric, rose hip oil, and plant flavonoids. That said, I do acknowledge the nonsensical fearmongering that natural product companies often resort to as B.S. from a scientific perspective, but I try to be respectful nonetheless.
That said, when NBC recently declared that Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness brand, Goop, uses fear to sell snake oil, I thought that this was too juicy a topic not to throw my own hat into the ring. Here is where I stand on Goop:
Natural Ingredients Can Be Just as Toxic (if Not More So) Than Synthetic
In answering the question as to whether or not there is any difference between natural and synthetic ingredients in skin care, many natural proponents claim that natural ingredients are simpler, safer, and “non-toxic.” After all, experts like those at Goop claim, your ancestors used plant extracts on their skin. We evolved together on this planet. Surely using lemon essential oil on the skin is better and safer than using, say, limonene, a synthetic ingredient derived from citrus fruits.
Yet this isn’t necessarily true. Due to the mode of extraction, usually distillation, essential oils may contain a variety of volatile molecules such as terpenes and terpenoids, phenol-derived aromatic components and aliphatic components (Food and Chemical Toxicology, 2008). For coming from a group of people who tell you not to use anything on your skin you can’t pronounce, that vial of “natural” essential oil contains more chemicals than your average skin care product.
Even worse: Essential oils actually increase free radical production within the cells. Though they are considered by many to be antioxidants, some pure essential oils “can act as prooxidants affecting inner cell membranes and organelles such as mitochondria” (Food and Chemical Toxicology, 2008). Please note that only some concentrated essential oils act in this fashion.
This is the basis of many Goop and Goop-site-like recommendations: Natural is safer, better, cleaner. But in many cases, it isn’t.
Natural Ingredients Can Be Harder on the Environment
Natural extracts can also cause damage to their natural environments during the extraction process. Extracting natural coconut, for instance, depends on a chemical found in the bark of a Malaysian tree. Extracting this chemical involves the removing of the bark, which also kills the tree. So although this “natural” coconut is exactly the same as that in an organic chemist’s laboratory, it is also much more expensive and hazardous for the environment.
If you want to be green, look for products that are “eco-friendly.” For instance, Kiehl’s sells millions of ounces of argan oil each year, but makes sure it is not destroying the environment in doing so. Through the Targanine Cooperative, thousands of Moroccan women work to preserve the Argan Forest by planting new trees and harvesting argan nuts. Because argan oil is exclusive to this land, it is “a source of dependable income and a means of improving their financial independence, access to healthcare, and education,” according to a Kiehl’s press release. All work in Morocco for Kiehl’s products is also fair-trade, fostering a healthy, safe, environmentally friendly work environment in which workers are fairly compensated for their labor.
Natural Ingredients are Not As Regulated as Synthetic Ingredients
The toxins in natural products can be dangerous for the consumer. Plants make many toxic substances. Some of these toxic substances are created by plants to combat other plant species. One class of these, called the triketones, have been used as pesticides (Toxins, 2010). Notably, when plants are treated with these pesticides, they can cause the tissues of the plants to turn white from the bleaching of chlorophylls (Toxins, 2010). Do you really want to put these toxins on your skin?!
Another example are the allergens that can be found in numerous natural products. For instance, the all-natural ingredient chamomile, which is known to be soothing for the skin, also contains ragweed. Repeated exposure to chamomile has been known to induce a highly irritating rash resulting from a ragweed allergy, according to the nutritional guide The Prescription for Nutritional Healing.
Many other “natural” ingredients, such as the arnica montana used to treat bruises, are also able to induce detrimental effects after repeated exposure. In fact, according to Dr. Leslie Baumann’s Cosmetic Dermatology, “Prolonged treatment of damaged skin [with arnica] often causes edematous dermatitis with the formation of pustules; long-term use can also give rise to eczema.” Synthetic ingredients are less biologically complex and have less allergenic potential in general.
In this regard, I’ll say that Goop really should recommend products that are not exclusively all-natural or organic. There are products that are all-natural, synthetic, and parts natural/synthetic that are fantastic. Natural does not guarantee safety or health, and certainly does not guarantee efficacy or purity (quite the opposite, in fact).
“If You Can’t Eat It, Don’t Use it On Your Face” is Complete B.S.
Acidic or neutral pH products are best for your skin. This is because your skin has a natural barrier that is significantly disrupted by agents with a pH higher than 7.0 (Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 2006). Your skin becomes more exfoliated with products that are highly acidic, with a pH of less than 5.5. (Hence why glycolic acid peels are so popular!) And your skin’s healthy physiology, containing microflora and healthy bacteria, is maintained at a neutral pH (Acta Dermato-venereologica, 1990).
However, the exact opposite — an alkaline/basic, or high-pH — diet is best for your health. This is because the hydrochloric acid in your stomach has a pH of approximately 2.0, neutralizing and ultimately breaking down high pH food residues much better than acidic food residues. It doesn’t hurt that the vast majority of healthy fruits and vegetables are either alkaline (like leafy greens) or leave an alkaline ash in your system (like lemon and other citrus fruits).
On the Other Hand, Traditional Medicine (and Science) Does Have Its Modern-Day Limitations
For this, I’ll lead off with a personal story: A few months ago, I was suffering from mono. I didn’t know you could get mono a second time, but after seven years of remission, I had another bout of it. And it was bad. As a type-A person, I was resigned from a life of working full-time, running, Pilates, journaling, and writing to simply doing what had to be done to keep things together as best I could.
Traditional medicine did little to help. “It has to take its course,” my physician told me. A second physician trained in medicine told me the same thing.
Meanwhile, weeks passed. Then months. By month 3, I had had enough.
“I’m going to see a holistic doctor,” I declared. My husband, who was incredibly kind and patient through this whole ordeal, agreed to take me (and agreed to us spending the $400 plus ultra-pricey vitamins and minerals and other supplements out-of-pocket).
I had to get eight vials of blood extracted. I was put on something called an “elimination diet.” Three weeks of no dairy, meat, nuts, legumes, soy, or processed food. Part of me thought I was going to die from food boredom, but I went along with it anyway. (And, quite frankly, with mono, I was sleeping 15-20 hours a day anyway, who had time to eat?)
At the end, I was diagnosed with a severe dairy allergy and vitamin B12 and vitamin D deficiencies. I also found — to my delight and surprise — I had lost five pounds and was free of mono. Completely. I was told the dairy allergy was severe enough that it was compromising my immune system and not allowing me to clear the mono virus.
Personal anecdotes aside, traditional medicine has proven to have its limitations. Even worse is science. Today there are the “scientific” databases of ingredients like the Good Guide or the EWG’s Skin Deep Database that claim to be scientific, but which don’t bother to screen studies for their validity or relevancy to skin care and beauty products. To give an example, even vitamin C is toxic in 1 million times the typical dose, yet some of the studies “flagging” ingredients as dangerous use the ingredients in those types of concentrations. To give another example, incubating skin cells in plain water will kill the cells, because they need more nutrients than just water to survive. Yet scientists will put skin cells in solution X (like rubbing alcohol) and when the skin cells die, they’ll claim solution X must be “toxic.”
The public has increasing distrust of traditional medicine and science, and in that regard, Goop has come across in a time where people are looking for someone — especially someone who looks thin, youthful, sophisticated and with access to very expensive health and wellness experts — to guide them. And, truthfully, who would’ve thought yoga and meditation would have truly beneficial effects when they first became mainstream in the west?
Here’s My Balanced Approach
That said, I call my approach to the Goop-s and natural brands of the world “scientific, but curious.” I follow the following guidelines when evaluating the studies behind the ingredients of ANY product, whether natural or synthetic:
- Large study size. The larger the study, the more likely it is that the results are applicable to the population in general, not just the few people studied.
- Randomized. People must not be “selected” to be in the treatment group and “selected” to be in the control (no treatment) group; the process is randomized.
- Placebo-controlled. Basically, in simplified terms, if you give a patient anything, s/he tends to feel better. This phenomenon has been well-documented. In a placebo-controlled study, all of the patients (even in the control group) receive something that seems to be a form of treatment, so you can measure if the treatment is efficacious and results are not just the placebo effect at work.
- Published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, as opposed to a company brochure or press release. While there surely are great studies conducted outside the realm of published scientific research, well-versed scientists tend to give more weight to more respected journals — and so should you, as an educated consumer. The peer review process simply keeps science honest by subjecting researchers’ work to a well-educated, not-to-be-duped board of equally brilliant researchers. That’s why it’s hard to find “9 of 10 women report softer skin” in the headline of a scientific research journal article, as opposed to seeing it frequently in some product advertisements. Some great sources include The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, the journal Dermatologic Therapy, and the textbook Cosmetic Dermatology-Second Edition. Journals like Nature and JAMA are gold standards but rarely mention cosmetic ingredients or products.
- Not affiliated with the company of interest. This can be extremely difficult, particularly in the U.S., where FDA approval is not required for the development and release of many skin care products. As a result, sometimes the only research available about a skin care product or ingredient is conducted by its founding company. In an ideal world, however, the studies are from independent third-parties investigating the efficacy of the product or ingredient.
- Human subjects in vivo (in the body). It can be difficult to obtain these gems, but they provide valuable information. Of course, if it is believed a treatment may cause cancer (or anything else detrimental!), it is only common sense to test in culture (in vitro) and not potentially harm anyone in the study. Again, it’s just that the ideal case is human subjects in vivo; for instance, human subjects in vivo studies have shown the benefits of ingredients like niacinamide, retinoids, and sunscreen over time.
- Concentrations are feasible to the subject of interest. I have received a surprising number of emails and comments from angry consumers about the FDA choosing not to outlaw parabens from skin care products. However, one of the reasons the FDA chose not to outlaw parabens was simply because skin care products utilize very low levels of parabens in comparison to the levels used in the studies: “Based on maximum daily exposure estimates, it was implausible that parabens could increase the risk associated with exposure to estrogenic chemicals.” 3 Further, the truth of the matter is that natural, healthy fruits and vegetables like blueberries, carrots, and passion fruit contain parabens that are directly absorbed into the bloodstream after ingestion, sometimes at higher doses than the 0.25% upper limit found in cosmetics. But I digress.
- Repeated results, especially by other authors, in other studies. When retinol (originally an acne treatment) was touted for its anti-aging properties in one study, it was a brilliant suggestion. When retinol’s skin smoothing and wrinkle-fighting abilities were verified in several studies, it was a confirmed fact that retinol is an anti-ager. And now that retinol is validated as an anti-aging powerhouse by hundreds of studies, it is considered to be a gold standard by many dermatologists. In other words, repeatability equals reliability. To be a well-educated consumer, don’t be willing to throw out your skin care products (or buy all new ones, for that matter) on the basis of a single study. Be patient, and keep reading.
So while I’m not likely to buy the Goop “clean beauty” line (even the name implies other names are “dirty” by comparison, ew), I will keep an open mind for treatments that seem like they might have some degree of scientific validity or promise for the future. That said, I’m still 80% scientific — though I am eating my salads and drinking green juices more regularly!
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