What is "Clean" or "Organic" Skincare?

The trend in skincare is “clean”, “natural” or “organic”. But what does that mean and is it important? These buzzwords are used by various people to mean either without certain ingredients, with plant-based ingredients, with organic plant-based ingredients, or not tested on animals (“cruelty-free”). The main ingredients people avoid are parabens, phthalates, mineral oil, fragrances, sulfates, SLS, SLES, formaldehyde, oxybenzone, coal tar, hydroquinone, and triclosan.

Let’s first discuss parabens.This is a preservative. Why do we need preservatives? Because bacteria and fungi like moist things, like skincare products, and tend to grow in there unless we have something that keeps them at bay. Otherwise, we will be going to the store for fresh skincare every day or few days, just like we get our vegetables. Parabens happen to be one of the most effective preservatives. They have been well studied and at the tiny concentrations that are used, it is highly unlikely that they can cause problems. They are believed to be “estrogenic” ie could promote breast cancer, as they have been isolated from breast tissues. However, in a statement from the American Cancer Society, there is no evidence that these cause breast cancers. Obesity and taking hormone supplements have a far higher rate of contribution to breast cancer than preservatives. One problem with parabens is that they do cause contact allergies in 3% of people, meaning itchy red skin.

There is better evidence that significant exposure to phthalates can cause some health issues. Phthalates are used to soften plastic and improve the spreadability of skincare products. Again, the issue is, how much is significant exposure? One good thing is that phthalates stay in the body for only 5 hours, so they do not accumulate. Excessive exposure has been shown to cause hormone disruption, particularly for children or pregnant women, as well as reduced testicular development in male fetuses. However, there is now a mountain of evidence that these chemicals do contribute to a multitude of health issues, but they are so ubiquitous in our food supply and skincare and aren’t even required to be listed! There are movements afoot to regulate their  usage. One way to avoid them is to avoid plastic, especially in food containers, so the plastic doesn’t touch the food. If you can move your food to a glass container after you purchase it, that would be wise.

Mineral oil is a liquid by-product of refining gasoline and other petroleum products. It is a transparent and colorless oil and has a low density. When it is highly refined (such as in most skincare products), it is not carcinogenic. It is used widely in many industries and orally as a laxative. The highly refined version is not usually comedogenic (acne-inducing). In skincare products, it is moisturizing by helping to reduce water loss. Since it is inert, it is usually not irritating. Baby oil is mineral oil with fragrance. It gets a bad name due to its association with petroleum as well as claims it is pore-clogging, but it is an effective moisturizer that is non-irritating.

Sulfates such as SLS and SLES are produced from both petroleum and coconut or palm oil and create lathering in shampoos, liquid soaps, laundry and dish detergents, and toothpaste.They are disliked due to their association with petroleum and are mistakenly believed to be carcinogenic. Their main drawback is that they can cause skin irritation if left on for too long, or if the skin is sensitive. Also, if they are inhaled, they can damage the lungs. Palm oil is controversial due to the destruction of tropical forests to make way for palm tree plantations. Many products with sulfate are tested on animals, another contentious area for clean skin proponents. Although sulfates in their current concentration don’t appear to cause significant side effects, if any of these side effects do disturb you, there are sulfate-free alternatives that don’t foam or lather. This won’t interfere with how clean you get, but cleansing may be somewhat less enjoyable!

In part 2 in the next newsletter (coming soon!), we will take on the other ingredients in the “clean” hit list. Also remember that everything around us as well as in us is a chemical (even water is considered a chemical, it is H2O), so not all chemicals are toxic. The people most susceptible to toxicity in substances are unborn fetuses, babies, children, and pregnant women. Toxic substances affect children the most since the recommended threshold % of chemicals is created for adults and is a higher percentage for children's bodies because they weigh less overall and also they have developing organs that could be more susceptible to damage than already formed organs.

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