Green Beauty Guide
It would make sense, I suppose, to start from the top with hair care products, but instead I’ve decided to start with your skin (not including the face just yet, that’s a whole other thing). Your skin is your largest organ, and what we put on it has a lasting impact on your body chemistry and the buildup of toxins in your blood and tissues. But before I go too much further, I want to preface with a few founding principles. 1. The studies on the effects of chemicals and toxic ingredients in skin care vary greatly. It seems for every study that says something is fine, another will say that it is toxic—it’s a confusing landscape. Science operates under a system of absolute proof, which is necessary, but the downside being that if something is suspected as toxic, with good reason, it can still be declared safe—innocent until proven guilty. This is good enough for some, but in my mind, why expose our bodies to unnecessary, even if just potential, harm? 2. Not everything absorbs into the skin. More on this later. 3. An argument often used when talking about risky ingredients in skin care is that at low levels, it’s not toxic. True enough, except… I’m not sure we truly understand how well our bodies are able to excrete chemicals (and I know of a few that our bodies can never excrete). It depends on each individual, what they eat, where they live, how healthy they are… you get the picture. When you consider a lifetime of exposure, I think it’s fair to say this is an area that we should, at the very least, proceed with caution—Gillian Deacon calls this chemical body burden.
Now for a bit of science which harkens back to my days studying physiology at university (see, I knew it would one day be useful!). Our skin is comprised of layers: three major ones with several sub-layers. Each layer has a super specific purpose, but the overall function of the skin is to protect your inner soft tissues and prevent loss of moisture. But skin is not impermeable… it’s actually a semi-permeable membrane, which means that under the correct conditions certain molecules can be absorbed. Typically, small, fat-soluble (dissolved in fat, not water) molecules are readily absorbed, whereas large, water-soluble molecules are not. I personally am not sure which chemicals are which, and outside of a chem lab I’m not sure you’ll ever know, but understanding how skin absorbs things is useful information to know in order to make your own informed decision about products you are willing to use on skin. It’s also worth noting that although some chemicals are too large to pass through the skin to reach the blood or lymph streams, they can still be absorbed by glands in the skin, build up, and then excrete into the body when the concentration inside the gland becomes elevated. So while this process is slow it still occurs—this is the main concern with aluminum in antiperspirants.
Now, let’s think about the function of skin care products: to nourish the outer layers of skin so that we appear on the outside to have nicer skin. This is usually accomplished with water, which plumps up the outer layer of skin cells so that they literally swell up and look smoother, and a host of other ingredients designed to nourish or improve the appearance/regeneration of skin—it’s a temporary fix, and it breeds dependence. Unfortunately, as it turns out, many synthetic ingredients have a habit of not staying put and find themselves in our blood where they can potentially cause harm over time. Also, other ingredients used purely to increase shelf life or scent moisturizers are often where the most harmful chemicals are found… something to think about.
It also should be mentioned that whether an ingredient can be absorbed into the skin or not, there is an added cost and consideration: When we wash in the shower, the creams and lotions are carried down the drain where they break down into tiny particles that are difficult to remove by water processing plants. Thus, they end up in our bodies anyway via our drinking water and they end up in fish and aquatic life / ecosystems, which are known to be sensitive. The effects on aquatic ecosystems have been studied and the results, my friends, are not pretty.
WHAT TO AVOID
There are hundreds if not thousands of ingredients in skin care and it would be impractical to discuss them all. Thankfully, studies have been done on some of the most common ingredients and we now have a group of worst offenders to avoid. I’ve read several books on the topic and reference David Suzuki’s “Dirty Dozen” list often, but my favorite list is from Gillian Deacon’s book There’s Lead in Your Lipstick (2011, Penguin, Canada). According to her research, here is a list of products to avoid (abbreviated from her book by Treehugger):
Note: not all of these chemicals are specific to moisturizers or skin care, but I wanted to include them all for future reference.
- Coal Tar: A known carcinogen banned in the EU, but still used in North America. Used in dry skin treatments, anti-lice, and anti-dandruff shampoos, also listed as a color plus number, i.e. FD&C Red No. 6.
- DEA/TEA/MEA: Suspected carcinogens used as emulsifiers and foaming agents for shampoos, body washes, soaps.
- Ethoxylated surfactants and 1,4-dioxane: Never listed because it’s a by-product made from adding carcinogenic ethylene oxide to make other chemicals less harsh. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has found 1,4-dioxane in 57 percent of baby washes in the U.S. Avoid any ingredients containing the letters “eth.”
- Formaldehyde: Probable carcinogen and irritant found in nail products, hair dye, fake eyelash adhesives, shampoos. Banned in the EU.
- Fragrance/Parfum: A catchall for hidden chemicals, such as phthalates. A Fragrance is connected to headaches, dizziness, asthma, and allergies.
- Hydroquinone: Used for lightening skin. Banned in the UK, rated most toxic on the EWG’s Skin Deep database, and linked to cancer and reproductive toxicity.
- Lead: Known carcinogen found in lipstick and hair dye, but never listed because it’s a contaminant, not an ingredient.
- Mercury: Known allergen that impairs brain development. Found in mascara and some eyedrops.
- Mineral oil: By-product of petroleum that’s used in baby oil, moisturizers, styling gels. It creates a film that impairs the skin’s ability to release toxins.
- Oxybenzone: Active ingredient in chemical sunscreens that accumulates in fatty tissues and is linked to allergies, hormone disruption, cellular damage, low birth weight.
- Parabens: Used as preservatives, found in many products. Linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity.
- Paraphenylenediamine (PPD): Used in hair products and dyes, but toxic to skin and immune system.
- Phthalates: Plasticizers banned in the EU and California in children’s toys, but present in many fragrances, perfumes, deodorants, lotions. Linked to endocrine disruption, liver/kidney/lung damage, cancer.
- Placental extract: Used in some skin and hair products, but linked to endocrine disruption.
- Polyethylene glycol (PEG): Penetration enhancer used in many products, it’s often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide, both known carcinogens.
- Silicone derived emollients: Used to make a product feel soft, these don’t biodegrade, and also prevent skin from breathing. Linked to tumor growth and skin irritation.
- Sodium lauryl (ether) sulfate (SLS, SLES): A former industrial degreaser now used to make soap foamy, it’s absorbed into the body and irritates skin.
- Talc: Similar to asbestos in composition, it’s found in baby powder, eye shadow, blush, deodorant. Linked to ovarian cancer and respiratory problems.
- Toluene: Known to disrupt the immune and endocrine systems, and fetal development, it’s used in nail and hair products. Often hidden under fragrance.
- Triclosan: Found in antibacterial products, hand sanitizers, and deodorants, it is linked to cancer and endocrine disruption.
SO, WHAT TO DO?
I am not proposing you forgo putting anything on your skin… due to lots of external environmental factors, we often need to give our skin a moisturizing boost. It’s known that our skin most easily accepts and makes use of plant-based oils that resemble its own natural oils. Here is a rundown of the Pure Green moisturizing body skin care routine… it’s tested, proven, and works wonders, chem-free.
- Drink lots of water and hydrate from the inside out.
- Exfoliate: this removes the outer layers of dead skin and reveals softer smoother skin underneath. Exfoliation should always be a gentle process, however. Our favorite method is to introduce body-brushing to your routine just before you shower.
- Heat helps to improve the absorption of oils into the skin, so moisturizing right after showering or bathing, or before bed (our body temp elevates at night) is a good time to do so. If using plant oils, heating the jar gently in some hot water also helps (and thins the oils slightly as well as helping them to glide on).
WHAT PLANT OILS TO USE: the three most popular are pure coconut, sweet almond, and sesame. Ayurvedic practices believe that one is better than the other according to your specific dosha, and suggest applying them in a certain way to benefit the body further… it’s called Abhyanga.
If you would rather use a commercially formulated product, that’s fine too, just make sure you check the ingredients against the list above (there’s a handy guide you can download here). Basically, though, the ingredient list should read pretty straightforward—plant and flower based ingredients are typically listed after the latin name in English and you should be able to recognize each of them.
EWG’s Skin Deep: I LOVE this resource. It allows you to search individual products and check their ingredients for toxins. It’s a great way to see what’s currently in your bathroom cabinet or a product you’re unsure about purchasing.