Seeing is believing, and personal experiences are powerful. It's human nature to believe that which we can feel, see, and touch. At some point we've all been told about an amazing city, a really good book, the tolls of dog ownership or raising a child, or that difficult coworker or boss. But we cannot fully understand or believe what we are told until we have experienced it for ourselves. The Spanish language makes this distinction much more succinctly by using the verb conocer to express a deeper "been there, done that" understanding and using the verb saber to express a more hypothetical, surface level understanding.
But what happens when we can't see or feel the consequences of our actions, as is the case with our skincare choices? This "seeing is believing" phenomenon comes into play in a less than helpful way here. With summer here in the Northern hemisphere, we're showing more of our skin, and our attention naturally gravitates towards it; how it looks and feels, how best to keep it moisturized and protected from the sun's harmful rays while also getting Vitamin D and tanning it to be beach-ready. But what we may not be thinking about is how healthy the skincare products we're using really are for not only our skin but our entire body.
Skin is a very thirsty absorption organ. Just think about how nicotine or birth control patches work. With our skin absorbing up to 60% of substances we put on its surface, it sure would be in our best interest to start thinking about and believing in the consequences of our skincare choices, even if we can't see them right away.
So to help us make more informed, conscious decisions about our skincare products this summer season and all year long, I've rounded up a list of five of the most toxic ingredients commonly found in our everyday products and tips on how to avoid them.
Parabens: A commonly used preservative that extends shelf-life and protects the range of personal hygiene products from bacteria growth. Parabens are readily absorbed, metabolized, and accumulated in the human body. They are also endocrine disruptors. Mimicking our natural hormones, especially estrogen, parabens have been linked to the proliferation of two estrogen-dependent breast cancer cells and have been found in breast cancer tumors.
Look for "paraben-free" on the packaging.
Petrochemicals + Petroleum Byproducts: Many unrecognizable ingredients are petroleum byproducts, which are either known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects, and negatively impact the kidneys, liver, and nervous system.
Search ingredient list for words such as paraffin wax, mineral oil, phenoxyethanol, DEA or MEA, Benzene, any word with "propyl" or "butyl" or that contains "eths" and PEGS (myreth, oleth, laureth, ceteareth, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, oxynol). If the company is truly transparent and committed to not using petrochemicals they will label their products, or state on their website, as being free of petroleum and petroleum byproducts.
Sodium Laureth/Lauryl Sulfate (SLS or SLES): This foaming agent found in most personal care products has been linked to skin irritation, endocrine disruption, cancer, and neurotoxicity. SLS and SLES is often contaminated with a petroleum byproduct, 1,4 dioxane, which is a likely carcinogenic (see above).
Look for "SLS-free" on the packaging.
Phthalates: A group of chemicals that cause hormonal imbalances and are linked to reproductive birth defects and the rising incidence of infertility and breast cancer. One study found that 80 percent of popular cosmetics tested contained phthalates, but they were not even listed on the label. Synthetically scented products such as perfumes, shampoos, and deodorants contain phthalates, with perfumes containing the highest concentrations.
Our best bet is to avoid products with "fragrance" listed in the ingredients.
Aluminum: Found in antacids and antiperspirant deodorants, aluminum is a potent neurotoxin and high doses are often detected in our systems. Antiperspirants have a relatively high concentration of aluminum ranging from 10 to 25 percent, which allows the deodorant to work like magic effectively squeezing shut sweat ducts . This may keep us dry but it also flat out blocks one of the primary pathways for eliminating toxins. Some evidence suggests aluminum may be linked to breast cancer. Furthermore, aluminum in our bloodstream can alter the blood brain barrier and might be a factor in Alzheimer's disease.
I know, I know. Unless you are like my grandmother who simply did not sweat, I (and probably most of you) can't completely give up our vanity and be a hot, sweaty mess everyday for the sake of our health. But we can choose to sweat smartly. For example, use a non-antiperspirant when working out and on calm, low-stress days in order to mask odor but allow the body to sweat. Taking it a step further, choose a truly natural, chemical-free deodorant brand for most days (there are some pretty fabulous ones on the market today -- see below), and save your antiperspirant use for only the busiest, longest, and most stressful of days.
This list of toxic ingredients only breaks the surface. But the point is not to dry up our emotional bandwidth playing the Where's Waldo game just so we have an exhaustive list of culprits in hand. When it comes to improving the quality of products we use, we just have to get started. My philosophy is "better than before". I did not get to where I am overnight, and I still use a few less-than-ideal products. It's been a process over the years where I took my time finding the right cleaner alternatives for me. I started by replacing one product I used most often. Maybe for you that means switching to a paraben-free face wash, a body lotion free of petrochemicals, or an aluminum-free deodorant on off days.
By swapping out just one item, we are making a better choice, a change. And the cumulative effect of these small changes over time has a great impact on reducing our overall exposure and toxic load in our body. The best news is that making these swaps does not have to be time-consuming. By concentrating my efforts on finding one or two honest, pure, and clean skincare lines I was able to take the guess work out of my searches. From there, I knew I could trust each and every product in that line with which I could safely and confidently experiment, rather than jumping from one brand to another scanning each and every ingredient label.
And to help take the guesswork out of your own search, I've compiled a list of practical, affordable, and functional clean skincare lines that I personally use and trust.
My simple rule of thumb when shopping for better skincare is the same as when shopping for food. I look for products with a short list of whole ingredients. In other words, I avoid unrecognizable, unpronounceable ingredients that sound like they were made or refined by lab technicians instead of by nature.
The below skincare companies are American or Canadian, but they are either shipped internationally or available in other countries. See their websites for international availability, and check here if you live in Europe.
- Just the Goods* (skincare - read my interview with Milena here)
- Vapour Organic Beauty (cosmetics + skincare, though I only use the cosmetics)
- RMS Beauty (cosmetics)
- Soapwalla (for heavier sweaters - does not contain one form of aluminum considered risky: aluminum zirconium)
- Just the Goods (for lighter sweaters - does not contain the forms of aluminum considered risky: aluminum chlorohydrate, aluminum chloride, aluminum hydroxybromide, or aluminum zirconium)
- EWA - Skin Deep
- Organic Consumers Association
- The Green Beauty Guide
- Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power
Bonus Sunscreen Tips
Most sunscreens are chemical-based containing oxybenzone, a hormone disrupter with estrogen-like effects and a free radical that can damage cells and lead to cancer. Instead choose zinc oxide based sunblocks. Here are my two favorites.
And don't forget a few other nourishing sun tips this summer.
- Chlorophyll and antioxidant rich foods can protect against free-radical and oxidative damage in the body.
- Tanning beds are a no-no.
- And don't forget to soak in the rays, especially on arms and legs, without sunblock for 5-30 minutes a few times a week in the morning and late afternoon for a healthy dose of Vitamin D!
*This is an affiliate link which means that I receive a small commission if you purchase a product within 15 days of visiting the site through this link. I have been sharing the good word about Just the Goods on my own accord for years because I respect, trust, use, and appreciate Milena's transparently clean skincare that is practical and accessible to all. I only recommend products I personally trust and use. Thank you for your support!