While I certainly appreciate what skin care ingredient databases like The Good Guide and the EWG’s Skin Deep Database are trying to do, I don’t support their methods entirely, because these databases assume all studies are valid, repeatable, and applicable to practical use of skin care and cosmetics. And, quite frankly, all of them are not.
I worked in labs as a technician while in undergrad and during medical school for eight years. I know there can be tremendous pressure to publish. I also know that there are a lot more funds available to, say, find a link between a commonly-used ingredient and some form of cancer than to ascertain which cosmetic ingredient is the most efficacious for wrinkles. I get that. Now, I know many of you reading are probably like, “Well, Nicki, it should be that way, cancer is more important than wrinkles!” But that’s not what I’m trying to say.
Too many negative studies about skin care and cosmetic ingredients and not enough positive ones lead the media and some well-meaning organizations to make assumptions that all synthetic skin care and cosmetic ingredients are evil. And to jump to the conclusion that we should all run out into a field and start rubbing plants on our skin or go au naturel because that’s the only way we can possibly protect ourselves from greedy Big Business that is killing us all with their (gasp) chemicals.
In reality, natural and organic is also becoming Big Business — estimates show natural and organic beauty will be worth nearly $16 billion by 2020.2 What’s more, that estimate doesn’t even include the money that is earned by chemical manufacturing companies creating what we are made to believe are “safer alternatives” to parabens or retinol or whatnot.
But I digress. Here’s what I do about it.
How I Read Scientific Studies: The 8 Criteria I Look For
I once read a scientific study that put skin cells and an ingredient I’ll call Ingredient X in water. The skin cells died. The scientists concluded that Ingredient X was “toxic, inducing apoptosis”. The study was flagged in a popular cosmetic ingredient database online.
But what the scientists failed to account for is that skin cells put in water will die. This doesn’t mean that water is toxic. This means that cells need the proper media — water and nutrients — in order to live. This is just one example of where science has been misconstrued in what seems to be an effort to continue a dialogue toward a preferred conclusion.
So what are some criteria you should look for to determine whether a skin care study is significant, irrelevant, or just plain propaganda? Here are some signs of a significant study:
- 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.
Why “Safe” Skin Care Isn’t Always What It Seems
As someone who is pregnant at the time of this writing, I know that safety is paramount. But many consumers erroneously believe that “natural always means safer,” which is not always the case. I have personally had many readers (and friends) come to me asking what to do when their children developed rashes from plant-based ingredient allergies, or when they themselves were having issues.
It is known that some natural ingredients aren’t supposed to be used regularly. Take, for example, the all-natural ingredient chamomile, which is widely believed to be soothing for the skin. Repeated exposure to chamomile may induce a very irritating rash resulting from a ragweed allergy.1 Several other “natural” ingredients, such as arnica montana used to treat bruises, may also induce detrimental effects with repeated exposure. In fact, according to Leslie Baumann M.D., “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.” (LeslieBaumannMD.com)
Another issue I have with the “natural not chemical” movement is simply that consumers are often ignoring the numerous double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-center studies backing certain chemical ingredients. They are abandoning decades of efficacy and safety studies in favor of clever marketing giving the impression that you are somehow putting yourself and your family at danger if you don’t use all-natural and organic products. And that is a problem, because there is no research to date demonstrating that all-natural skin care products are always better or safer, while there is substantial research indicating that some natural ingredients are detrimental and certain chemical ingredients – retinol, niacinamide, vitamins C & E, and chemical sunscreens, to name a few – have proven long-term benefits for the skin.
Of course, this is not to say that chemical always trumps natural either. There are benefits and risks with certain chemical ingredients, just like there are benefits and risks with certain natural ingredients. And while you may catch me being angry about the inclusion of the drying chemical sodium lauryl sulfate in certain products, you won’t catch me being skeptical about parabens, retinoids, SD alcohol, or phenoxyethanol (other than keeping products with phenoxyethanol for too long!) anytime soon.
My point is, you don’t want to be dragged into using only “natural” products like it’s one of those big poufy-shouldered dresses from 80’s. Although natural sounds hip and trendy now, you might have regrets later. Regret from not treating your skin with more potent skin care ten years down the road. Regret from reading well-meaning advice telling you the sun is “natural” and not to wear sunscreen. (UV light is a known carcinogen!) Regret from not realizing that natural ingredients can hurt your skin too.
Be aware. Balance chemical and natural!
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