With natural products flooding skincare aisles around the globe, there is no doubt that we are all becoming increasingly aware of the ways in which our skin health is tied to what we put in and on our bodies. Avoiding toxic chemicals and ingredients that can be potentially harmful is now an essential factor to consider in our skincare and beauty regimen. So what are the basic steps to get clear skin naturally? How can we avoid the jargon and greenwashing and find our own toxin-free path to healthy, blemish-free skin?
Below we go over the fundamentals you should be doing to get clear skin naturally.
Are you eating those fruits and veggies?
As much as we may tire of hearing it, it’s true that what we put in our bodies is just as, if not more important than, what we put on them. Diets that are low in sugar and rich in colorful vegetables and fruits ensure our body has all the acids, nutrients and proteins it needs to maintain our skin cells. Even if you are following your skincare routine religiously day and night, you may still notice breakouts and a duller complexion simply because you aren’t feeding your body what it needs to thrive.
Doctor Jessica Wu, author of Feed Your Face, a guide to eating for skin health, recommends eating vegetables that are red, yellow or green especially because they are high in the antioxidant lycopene, which helps your body fight free radicals. She also advises against consuming a lot of dairy products, which can be linked to breakouts from the hormones often present in milk.
You may have also heard the word about leafy greens by now. These wonder plants are touted as the answer to all our health concerns, and while they may not solve all our health problems, they are great for our skin because they are packed with beneficial vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, compounds present in plants that improve your body’s ability to fight off oxidative stress. Leafy greens are also hydrating as they hold a lot of water in their cells. Incorporate these into your diet in the form of a green juice or smoothie, eat them whole in a salad or buy liquid chlorophyll if you aren’t a fan of the leafy taste.
At the end of the day, what you eat is important because how your body digests what you eat is important. Whole, unprocessed foods are easy for your body to break down and unlock their nutrients. This keeps your digestion running smoothly and puts less stress on your body. When you eat processed foods, not only are they lacking in nutrients, but you are also slowing your body’s digestion, and these issues in your gut will likely show up on your face.
Quench your thirst
Hand-in-hand with what you eat is what you drink. Your skin cells thrive on water because, like our bodies, they are largely made up of water. Every day, our body uses water for its many processes and sweats moisture out to regulate our temperature. To keep the body running effectively, we need to hydrate often so that our body has the H2O it needs to operate. When the skin is lacking in moisture, it will look dry, flaky and sometimes even crack. Drink plenty of water throughout the day and apply moisturizer to the skin to keep it supple and hydrated.
Sweat it out
Another benefit of exercise is that it has been shown to relieve stress. Stress plays an intimate role in our skin health because sebaceous glands, the glands that produce oil in the skin, are linked to stress hormones. When we are stressed, our body produces more oil, which can cause acne and breakouts. Any type of exercise that gets you moving and sweating will help improve your body’s circulation and extend the benefits to your skin; however, in some people who are underweight, excessive cardio training can sometimes result in dull-looking skin. Consider adding resistance-training exercises to your fitness routine as they have the added benefit of toning muscles, which makes the skin look firmer and smoother.
Know the good skincare ingredients from the bad
Now that we’ve covered the lifestyle choices we can make to get clear skin naturally, let’s take a look at the ingredients we should embrace and those we should avoid. It’s important to understand that not all chemicals are created equal, that is to say, not all chemicals are bad. But if you don’t have a chemistry degree, it can be nearly impossible to know which ones are which. With a little help from the experts at Vibrant Wellness Journal and Environmental Working Group here are the scary-sounding ingredients that are actually safe for our skin and the dangerous ingredients we should do our best to avoid at all costs.
Safe skincare ingredients:
It definitely sounds unnatural, but Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride is actually the combination of plant sugars and fatty acids derived from palm and coconut oils. The result is a much silkier, lighter feeling oil with a longer shelf life. This oil is also very mild and suitable for most skin types, another reason you may seem to run across it often.
2. Cetearyl Alcohol
We’ve been taught to avoid alcohol because of contaminants and its skin irritating properties. And yes, benzyl alcohol is irritating and should be avoided if you are highly susceptible to allergens. Cetearyl alcohol is a combination of fatty alcohols derived from vegetable sources, such as coconut or palm oils. It is used in cosmetics as a surfactant and emulsifier and is much milder than benzyl alcohol.
3. Xanthan Gum
You’ve seen this on food labels your whole life but never really knew what it was? Sounds anything but natural, right? Xanthan gum may have an unfortunate sounding name, but is simply a carbohydrate derived from plant bacteria. A little gross, maybe but this non-toxic thickening agent is harmless and works in cosmetics to keep the product from thickening.
Made from dried coconut pulp and fruit sugar, this mild surfactant is commonly used in cosmetics. Coco-Glucoside is gentle enough for all skin types and is biodegradable and nontoxic.
5. Sodium Hyaluronate
This one crops up a lot of anti-aging product ingredient listings. Sodium hyaluronate is the sodium salt of hyaluronic acid. The same great skin benefits, but a smaller molecular size allows this ingredient to more readily sink into the skin. Sodium hyaluronate retains water, giving the skin that plumped up hydrated appearance.
6. Glyceryl Stearate Citrate
Has to be toxic, right? Wrong. Glyceryl Stearate Citrate is a combination of vegetable oils and citric acid. It is used in cosmetics as an emollient and fragrance ingredient.
Source: Vibrant Wellness Journal
Skincare Ingredients to avoid:
Any Google search for dangerous ingredients to avoid in skincare products will return you with a long, terrifying list of supposedly toxic chemicals. But when determining which ingredients to watch out for, it’s important to understand that the term “chemical” often gets a bad rap. In fact, even so-called “natural” skincare ingredients are also chemicals themselves. But with that said, there are still some offending ingredients that many organizations and cosmetic safety experts agree you should try your best to stay away from. Take note of these ingredients below and check labels for them before you buy your next skincare product.
The American National Toxicology Program classifies butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” It can cause skin depigmentation. In animal studies, BHA produces liver damage and causes stomach cancers such as papillomas and carcinomas and interferes with normal reproductive system development and thyroid hormone levels. The European Union considers it unsafe in fragrance.
2. Boric acid and Sodium borate
These chemicals disrupt hormones and harm the male reproductive system. Men working in boric acid-producing factories have a greater risk of decreased sperm count and libido. In animals, high doses cause testicular damage to mice, rats, and dogs. Both the European Union and Canada restrict these ingredients in body care products made for children under three years of age and require that products containing these ingredients be labeled as not appropriate for broken or damaged skin.
3. Coal tar hair dyes and other coal tar ingredients (including Aminophenol, Diaminobenzene, Phenylenediamine)
Coal tar, a byproduct of coal processing, is a known human carcinogen, according to the American National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Hairstylists and other professionals are exposed to these chemicals in hair dye almost daily. Europe has banned many of these ingredients in hair dyes. While the FDA sanctions coal tar in specialty products such as dandruff and psoriasis shampoos, the long-term safety of these products has not been demonstrated.
A potent preservative considered a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Formaldehyde, also an asthma gene, neurotoxicant, and developmental toxicant was once mixed into too many personal care products as antiseptic. This use has declined. But some hair straighteners are based on formaldehyde’s hair-stiffening action and release substantial amounts of the chemical.
5. Formaldehyde releasers – Bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, Diazolidinyl urea, Imidzaolidinyl urea, and Quaternium-15
Cosmetics preservatives that slow form formaldehyde to kill bacteria growing in products. Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen. The preservatives and the formaldehyde they generate can trigger allergic skin reactions. Formaldehyde releasers are widely used in US products. Not surprisingly, more Americans develop contact allergies to these ingredients than Europeans.
It may help sell products from face cream to laundry detergent, but do you know what’s in it? Fragrances are in everything from shampoo to deodorant to lotion. In America, federal law doesn’t require companies to list on product labels any of the chemicals in their fragrance mixture. Recent research from EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found an average of 14 chemicals in 17 name brand fragrance products, none of them listed on the label. Fragrances can contain hormone disruptors and are among the top 5 allergens in the world. Our advice? Buy fragrance-free wherever possible.
A skin bleaching chemical that can cause a skin disease called ochronosis, with blue-black lesions that in the worst cases become permanent black caviar-size bumps. In animal studies, hydroquinone has caused tumor development.
A neurotoxin in popular hair dye Grecian Formula 16 and other black hair dyes for men. Lead from hair dyes travels from hair to doorknobs, cabinets and other household items, where children can ingest it.
9. Methylisothiazolinone, methylchloroisothiazolinone, and benzisothiazolinone
Preservatives, commonly used together in personal care products, among the most common irritants, sensitizers and causes of contact allergy. Lab studies on mammalian brain cells suggest that methylisothiazolinone may be neurotoxic.
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles appear to be among the safer and more effective active ingredients in U.S.-marketed sunscreen creams because they do not penetrate the skin. But avoid sprays and powders containing these nanoparticles, which could penetrate your lungs and enter your bloodstream. Many other nanoparticles have received very little testing, yet they readily penetrate the skin and contaminate the body. Cosmetics manufacturers are not required to disclose the presence of nanoparticles in products.
Sunscreen agent and ultraviolet light absorber. In human epidemiological studies, oxybenzone has been linked to irritation, sensitization, and allergies. A study of 404 New York City women in the third trimester of pregnancy-associated higher maternal concentration of oxybenzone with a decreased birth weight among newborn baby girls but with greater birth weight in newborn boys. Studies on cells and laboratory animals indicate that oxybenzone and its metabolites may disrupt the hormone system.
12. Parabens (specifically Propyl-, Isopropyl-, Butyl-, and Isobutyl- parabens)
Parabens are estrogen-mimicking preservatives used widely in cosmetics. According to the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, longer chain parabens like propyl and butylparaben and their branched counterparts, isopropyl, and isobutyl parabens, may disrupt the endocrine system and cause reproductive and developmental disorders.
13. PEGs/Ceteareth/Polyethylene compounds
A family of conditioning and cleaning agents that go by many names. These synthetic chemicals are frequently contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which the U.S. government considers a probable human carcinogen and which readily penetrates the skin. Cosmetics makers could easily remove 1,4-dioxane from ingredients, but tests documenting its common presence in products show that they often don’t.
14. Petroleum distillates
Petroleum-extracted cosmetics ingredients, commonly found in mascara. They may cause contact dermatitis and are often contaminated with cancer-causing impurities. They are produced in oil refineries at the same time as automobile fuel, heating oil, and chemical feedstocks.
A growing number of studies indicate that chemical family damages the male reproductive system. Pregnant women should avoid nail polish containing dibutyl phthalate. Everyone should avoid products with “fragrance” indicating a chemical mixture that may contain phthalates.
A common ingredient in hair color and bleaching products; skin irritant, toxic to the immune system and frequent cause of hair dye allergy. In animal studies, resorcinol can disrupt normal thyroid function.
Volatile petrochemical solvent and paint thinner and potent neurotoxicant that acts as an irritant impairs breathing and causes nausea. A pregnant woman’s exposure to toluene vapors during pregnancy may impair fetal development. In human epidemiological and animal studies, toluene has been associated with toxicity to the immune system. Some evidence suggests a link to malignant lymphoma.
18. Triclosan & Triclocarban
Antimicrobial pesticides in liquid soap (triclosan) or soap bars (triclocarban), very toxic to the aquatic environment. Often found as contaminants in people due to the widespread use of antimicrobial cleaning products. Triclosan disrupts thyroid function and reproductive hormones. American Medical Association and the American Academy of Microbiology say that soap and water serve just as well to prevent the spread of infections and reduce bacteria on the skin. Overuse may promote the development of bacterial resistance.
19. Vitamin A compounds (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinol)
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient but not necessarily safe for use on skin. Studies show that when applied to sun-exposed skin these compounds can increase skin sensitivity. Furthermore, sunlight breaks down vitamin A to produce toxic free radicals that can damage DNA and hasten skin lesions and tumors in lab animals. These ingredients are widely used in sunscreens, skin lotions, lip products, and makeup. EWG urges consumers to avoid leave on skin and lip products with vitamin A.
Source: Environmental Working Group
If we take the steps within our control to adopt a healthy lifestyle and educate ourselves about harmful skincare ingredients to watch out for, clear skin can be within our grasp— sans miracle pills or wonder creams.