Sarah Schafer, MD
Choosing skincare for health
Updated: Oct 14, 2022
By Rebecca Lobo, PhD, Guest Blogger
What you put on your skin is as important as what you eat and breathe, especially if you have dry skin. With dry skin, barrier function is impaired and chemicals, pollen, microbes, and dust, which should be kept out but get in, trigger inflammation. Just like using an air purifier or avoiding inflammatory foods, what you put and do not put on your skin improves your health and quality of life. It did for me, and I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned.
One of the easiest ways to significantly improve your health is to avoid skincare products whose description and/or ingredients include “fragrance”, “flavor”, and/or trademarked and patented ingredients, such as:
“Fragrance”, “flavor”, and trademarked/patented terms are intentionally created to describe complex mixtures and hide substances that can make you sick (A). These terms are intended to make life easier for, and protect, manufacturers, their trade secrets, and their profits, and, specifically, not you (B). “Fragrance” often includes endocrine disruptors, such as phthalates, and/or known allergens (C, D).
Trademarks and patented terms are most likely trojan horse terms for ingredients that functionally act as drugs, e.g., Matrixyl™ (E). Please see the end of this blog post for more on Matrixyl™.
When in doubt about an ingredient, ask the manufacturer (if possible). Ideally, skincare formulations should contain everything your skin needs and nothing else. It’s important to find out whether the ingredient in question benefits your health or merely the shelf-life and stability of a product, or something else. For example, I use a "proprietary blend" in my products, which rightly should raise a red flag. If you ask, I’m more than happy to tell you what is in that particular "proprietary blend". I use the phrase because it’s quicker, easier, and cheaper to print labels that way, and it allows me the flexibility to make formulations tailored to each individual. Most important is whether the product is effective without the trojan horse ingredient, because then you can still determine product safety.
Here’s what else to consider when choosing skincare products for health:
1. Who is endorsing the product and what do they get out of their endorsement? Celebrities, wellness influencers, doctors and advocacy organizations may genuinely care about their followers, believe in the product, and want them to benefit from it, but the fact remains that the process is usually driven by the skincare company’s desire and ability to purchase endorsements, promotions, and sponsorships. 2. Is one of the selling points of the product fashion and beauty awards, e.g., Allure, Vogue, Glamour?
Fashion and beauty awards are specifically created to promote the illusion of skin health, not actual skin health. The more beauty awards a product has, the more I avoid it.
3. Does your definition of beauty pose a risk to your health?
The skincare industry focuses on a narrow definition of beauty, “young and flawless-looking”. Aging is a natural biological process we all experience. I chose not to fight against my biology for an unattainable definition of beauty. Instead, I redefined beauty.
4. Is the product you’re considering described with scientific-sounding terms that are inaccurate or meaningless?
“Dermatologist-tested”, “hypoallergenic”, “organic”, “non-toxic”, and "clean” are terms specifically intended to provide an illusion of safety and to create expectations rarely backed up by the ingredients, and, perhaps, worsened by them. For a more comprehensive list of terms deemed meaningless by the FDA, click here.
5. Does the product make claims that seem too good to be true? Do the ingredients back up the claims in such fashion that they are health risks? Terms such as, “instant”, “fast-acting”, “boosts collagen synthesis”, “contouring”, “clinically effective” should send up red flags. If the ingredient list contains what functions as a drug, I avoid it. Click here for an example of how a product that functions as a drug is legally sold as a cosmetic.
6. How is the product packaged? Plastics leach endocrine disruptors and other toxins. Products packaged in clear glass without airtight seals are exposed to air and light, which degrade them and makes them less effective.
7. Is the product volume and full ingredient list stated on the package?
These are required by the FDA (F). If you don’t see them, the product is out of compliance.
8. Does the product contain drugs masquerading as nutrients or plant extracts?
Just like supplements, nutrients (peptides, vitamin C, niacinamide) and plant extracts (bakuchiol, essential oils) used at unnaturally high concentrations, in isolation, and/or with modifications to their structure, functionally act as drugs, but are not FDA-approved drugs.
9. When it comes to ingredients, more is not better.
It’s easier to bury harmful substances and drugs in a list of 50 ingredients than in a list of 5. There are also more chances for 50 ingredients to react with each other and irritate your skin than there are with 5. But 1 ingredient, like coconut oil, isn’t enough to significantly improve the long-term health of dry skin. What’s best is the right amounts of ingredients in forms that your body can recognize and use to restore and support your skin health.
In summary, choose skincare products that:
don’t have harmful ingredients
do have helpful ingredients in forms and concentrations your body can use,
are made by manufacturers you trust, and, ultimately,
restore your skin health to where you no longer have dry skin or need to use the product, or use very little of it to maintain your skin health.
I hope these two posts give you some information to help you make skincare choices to benefit your health. If you have questions or want more information, please contact me at my website or @bexiphd on Instagram, Facebook & Twitter.
A. Health and societal effects from exposure to fragranced consumer products
B. FDA regulations on fragrance and trademarked terms
C. FDA regulations on phthalates in cosmetics
D. FDA list of allergens in cosmetics E. FDA definitions of drugs and cosmetics F. FDA requirements for cosmetics labels
G. Sederma’s in-house studies on Matrixyl
More on Matrixyl™
Matrixyl™ is found in anti-aging and firming skincare products. Matrixyl™ is composed of synthetic peptides that signal changes to your skin’s metabolism (G), making it, functionally, a drug (E). But, unlike FDA-approved drugs, Matrixyl™, as a cosmetic ingredient, has not undergone any of the same toxicity and testing for side-effects. So, while we know it works well to increase collagen synthesis and change protein structure in your body over the course of 2 months, we don’t know what it does to your body over the long term.