In the 10 years I’ve been working to eliminate harmful ingredients from everyday consumer products, I’ve noticed a trend. Most people come to this issue – safe skin care – through food. Their awareness began when they started buying more organic produce, learned about synthetic dyes in food and behavioral problems, or, they finally understood that our processed food culture is wreaking havoc on our health. Once people start to think a bit more about what they are putting in their bodies, they start to wonder about what they are putting on their bodies.
There are many food rules that have worked their way into popular culture. (In fact, I have a copy of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules on the bookshelf right now.) And I’m here to explain why these simple and helpful rules for food cannot simply be applied to the products we use on our skin.
Here are food rules I follow:
• Avoid synthetic food dyes, colorants and flavors
• Avoid preservatives
• Avoid long chemical names that you can’t pronounce or long ingredient lists
• Look for the USDA organic label
• Choose natural rather than synthetic ingredients
How we’re exposed matters
There is science to back up all of these food rules. A large body of research warns against ingesting food dyes that have been linked to hyperactivity and behavioral problems in children. Synthetic flavors in food are a mask for hundreds of different unlisted and unknown chemicals. Organic food means the less pesticides and genetically modified organisms you ingest. Natural, whole foods are higher in nutrition than processed foods that sit on the shelf for two years.
But what happens is that these easy-to-remember and simple rules for food have been applied to all consumer products – specifically skin care and cosmetics. However, these rules don’t always apply when you look at the scientific literature on what constitutes “safe” skin care. Research clearly shows that how we consume a product – via dermal exposure (our skin) or ingestion (our mouths) – drastically impacts whether something can be considered safe.
Below I break down why these food rules don’t apply to skin care and cosmetic products.
Synthetic vs. natural colorants
If you see a synthetic colorant on a cosmetic that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. In fact many mineral cosmetics, which are naturally derived, are contaminated with heavy metals like lead and cadmium. These are some of the most toxic substances on earth. Synthetic colorants must be used carefully in cosmetics, so I’m not saying we should give them all a free pass. A company should always screen any ingredient, whether it be natural or synthetic, for harmful health end points like hormone disruption, cancer, infertility and more.
Preservatives can be good or bad, it depends
I avoid preservatives in my food but am grateful that they are in some of my skin care products. If a product contains water or aloe, a skin care product must be preserved. If it is not, it will grow mold, yeast and bacteria within weeks. Preservatives are meant to kill, and therefore have a higher “hazard profile.” This means that preservatives need to be used very carefully by companies – some have been linked to harm like certain parabens and methylisothiazolinone. If you want to use products that don’t need preservatives (oils and balms) there are options. If you’re like me and still want to use lotions and creams, the skin care company I work for – Beautycounter – is using the some of the safest preservatives on the market at low levels and is working to create even safer ones. Cool, eh?
Long chemical names can still be safe
I like to avoid long chemical names too, but even naturally derived ingredients can have them after they have been minimally processed. An ingredient’s long name doesn’t mean it’s safe or unsafe. Again, we are talking about skin care products, not food where you want to look for actual plant names like “peanut,” “squash,” “pineapple,” etc.
“Organic” means nothing in the beauty industry
If a company uses some organic certified ingredients (like how Beautycounter uses organic coconut oil) that is great, but be wary of the term being used on labels and marketing materials. The plant ingredients may not be grown with pesticides, but that doesn’t mean that the other ingredients in the product are safe. Also, it is completely legal for companies to use the word “organic” on the label, even if nothing in the product is organic. In recent years the FDA has cracked down on this in a few cases, but in general it doesn’t have the authority it should to enforce and patrol the cosmetics industry.
As with most things in life, this issue isn’t black and white. And I wish there were more simple rules to help navigate the skin care and cosmetics market. Instead of Food Rules, I have created five questions you should ask your cosmetics company to help navigate this complex consumer market.