There has been a lot of hype about natural and organic beauty products, but what exactly are the benefits? Why go natural? Why spend the extra money and effort to sort through the cluttered world of cosmetics? How can you tell which product lines are actually natural and which are just capitalizing on the trend?
During my years in the beauty industry, I have seen the changes my clients have achieved with natural skin care compared to those who use chemical brands, and it is astounding. Some people assume that natural ingredients will be less potent, but my own battle with acne showed me firsthand that chemical-based skin care brands do not produce sustainable, long-term beauty solutions.
The goal of using skin care is simple: to enhance and support the attractiveness of your skin. If you don't get visible results, there is no point in using a product. While we will discuss the importance of avoiding toxic chemicals for overall health, it is essential to emphasize the benefits that natural products have for your complexion. When you use products without pore-clogging synthetic bases or drying chemical detergents, you let your skin maintain balance and reap the therapeutic benefits of wholesome, natural ingredients.
Let's start with discussing the beautifying properties of skin care that contains a completely natural base. Because the base makes up the bulk of a product, it's the most important aspect to assess. Natural products use pure vegetable and plant oils, waters, and waxes as their base, whereas conventional product lines use petroleum (mineral oil, petrolatum, propylene glycol, and so on). Skin loves (and easily absorbs) natural ingredients; conversely, it does not like petrochemicals. It acts as a gatekeeper to limit their harmful effects, which is why using natural skin care helps prevent pore congestion. Since petroleum molecules are too large to fully absorb, products that contain petrochemicals clog pores and suffocate the skin. This causes outbreaks of acne and blackheads, preventing the skin from accepting moisture from both skin care products and the humidity in the air.
This realization often provides a eureka moment for my clients who have tried countless moisturizers only to have them sit on the skin's surface without proper penetration. One client, a PhD biochemistry student, came to Pure + simple frustrated after exploring everything from the science of hormones to high-tech peels. She had spent a great deal of money and tried many approaches, none of which had cured her acne. Her dermatologist had given her medicated creams containing benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, which dried out her skin, making it flaky and irritated in addition to the blemishes. Her dry, sensitive skin was being further dehydrated by these acne-targeting products that unbalanced her oil production and clogged her pores.
During her first consultation, I explained how natural ingredients are absorbed, then prescribed a gentle, restorative regime consisting of multiple moisturizers and an anti-inflammatory face oil. Being the goal-oriented young woman she was, she purchased all of the recommended products, though I was unsure if she was truly convinced. To my surprise, she returned with flowers to thank me for changing her understanding of beauty care. Her skin had responded right away, and today she is completely acne-free. She attributes this improvement to daily use of an oil-rich, moisturizing cream mask that has helped repair her skin and therefore reduce irritation and sensitivity. The success she experienced was the combination of reduced pore congestion and nourishment from her natural skin care routine.
A truly natural product should be one that is packed full of replenishing, pure ingredients. Unfortunately, some companies combine a few natural ingredients with a lot of water and chemical-based thickeners instead of using completely natural formulations. This means the product has very few healing properties. A totally natural regimen must contain nutritious ingredients that fully penetrate the skin to nourish and restore it and protect it against further damage. It is crucial to understand that the skin is a delicate organ that needs to be pampered and handled with care in order to regenerate properly. Although many people consider this fact when treating sensitive or dehydrated skin, they may not know that it also applies to acne-prone skin.
Being gentle, through the use of natural ingredients and cleansers, is one of the best ways to maintain a clear complexion. Contrary to popular belief, stripping the skin is actually a contributor to breakouts and blackheads. This is why natural cleansers are so important. Harsh chemical detergents in conventional skin care products deplete the skin's acid mantle—the coating of sebum on its surface, which is made up of fatty acids, alcohol, waxes, salts, and lactic acid. This mantle creates a barrier against bacteria, so overcleansing and stripping decreases its resilience, leaving it damaged and prone to reactions like infection and oil imbalance. The more we deplete our skin of its natural oils, the more sebum (oil) it produces in an attempt to maintain proper protection. This additional oil, coupled with the dehydration caused by chemical detergents, fosters the perfect environment for clogged pores. Instead of sebum flowing over the skin as a dewy, lubricating barrier, it becomes trapped in dried-out oil deposits that inhibit the absorption of moisture and promote blemishes.
Whether your problem is pores clogged from petroleum buildup or an imbalance caused by harsh cleansers and nutrient-poor skin care products, avoiding chemicals and choosing skin care made with rejuvenating, natural ingredients is the fastest way to flawless, beautiful skin.
I was never very interested in working in the beauty industry until I understood its link to wellness. Although I found grooming the perfect brow and shaping graceful nails to be fun, these esthetics on their own were not something to which I wanted to devote my life. The broader picture—teaching people how to love themselves and be more conscious of their bodies—was what I really wanted to endorse.
In my opinion, beauty is much more than skin deep. True beauty is the reflection of a healthy mind and body, because there is nothing more attractive than someone who radiates vitality. Unfortunately, the use of conventional chemical skin care can actually tax the body.
While this may sound radical, it is important to understand that all products applied to the skin are absorbed into the bloodstream and internal organs. Therefore, products containing toxic chemicals will affect overall health. Sunscreens, makeup, and skin care products are often made with dangerous ingredients that eventually damage your health in ways you would never suspect. For example, certain cosmetic preservatives are identified carcinogens; sunscreen agents mimic estrogen and unbalance the hormonal system; and chemicals used as bases for almost all products tax the kidneys and liver. Yet we apply products containing these additives to our skin on a regular basis.
It is not only the contents of the products we use with which we need to be concerned; we must also be aware of their packaging. Various plastics can leave residue or leach toxicity into products, making the use of glass and food-grade plastics extremely important. Remember, all of the principles we apply to skin care ingredients also apply to any materials that interact with them. This is why many companies need to become much more holistic in their product development and design. Ceramic and glass packaging is not only more resilient, but it also maintains the purity of the product. Because these materials do not degrade as easily and are less porous than weaker materials (like plastic), they may allow the use of less potent, more natural preservatives as well. Moreover, glass and ceramics are reusable and more sustainable, which is also better for the environment.
Personal beauty is only fulfilling when we also encourage beauty in our environment. Being beautiful inside and out means being conscious of how we consume and what ideas we promote. Our ideas on beauty greatly reflect who we are and what beliefs we hold. How we behave as individuals has a larger impact than simply giving lip service to our principles. Working for ethical companies and buying socially responsible products makes a powerful statement about how we view the environment, and this crosses over into our skin care decisions.
Biodegradable products have a synergy with the earth. What we wash from our body or eliminate, we put into the world's ecosystem. Antidepressants, hormones, and plasticides, passed through people as waste, have been found in public water supplies. This was noted in the 1980s when fish species in the Saint Lawrence River began to display gender changes. Certain fish were found to have both eggs and testes. A study in which they were fed to lab rats showed that, over time, the rats also displayed hormone imbalances. We must realize what an impact our consumption has on the ecosystem.
But respecting the planet does not have to mean letting go of our desire for beautiful skin; instead, it requires us to support companies that produce skin care products responsibly. Many vertically integrated natural skin care companies actually farm their ingredients respectfully by giving their land a cyclical rest so as not to deplete its fertility. Others go a step further and make use of biodynamic farming, which entails replenishing the soil and refraining from the use of pesticides that would disturb natural insect life. The traditional agricultural practices involved actually build carbon back into the soil.
As mentioned earlier, we need to consider packaging when making shopping decisions. The environmentalist Paul Hawken said, “Any time someone steals something from our future, it is injustice. . . . We steal from the future and sell it in the present and call it GDP [gross domestic product].” Packaging is not only wasteful; it can also affect the safety of a product. At Pure + simple, we limit the amount of packaging for each product and use renewable materials. For example, the compacts in our cosmetic line are refillable so the compact itself can be reused and the makeup replaced as needed. We also use glass containers for our skin care products, because glass maintains purity and is a more sustainable material. For items that cannot be stored in glass (such as those used in the shower), we use squeeze bottles made of 100 percent postconsumer materials. We also have a bottle-return service (as more and more companies do), through which we wash, sterilize, and reuse bottles, cutting costs as well as waste.
As consumers, we must realize that industrial pollution is no longer acceptable business practice, and we can communicate this by making more conscious buying decisions. Promoting positive ideas and business practices is the first step in changing counterproductive social habits. Buying natural skin care endorses businesses that put the health of their customers first.
I want to emphasize that I am not referring only to physical health. It is important that we promote a healthy, practical perception of beauty in our society, because the current definitions of beauty can be very dysfunctional. Many women and men engage in unhealthy and irresponsible behavior due to poor self-image and the pressure to conform to modern interpretations of beauty. We must stop wishing we were someone else; pining for the perfect cheekbones, lips, hips, and breasts; and believing that artificial enhancements are the answer. Loving and accepting our humanness instead of fixating on our supposed imperfections is integral to developing a healthy outlook. Cosmetic companies that help their clients enhance their natural beauty foster such acceptance and make the concept of beauty attainable for everyone. These values are worthy of support and patronage.
A truly natural and holistic beauty company helps to increase self-awareness in its community, urging people to become more in tune with the changes in their bodies. I continually encourage my clients to notice what happens to their breathing and heart rate when they experience stress; I teach them to change their skin care when the weather changes; and I also offer dietary advice. When people learn to use diet, skin care, and stress relief to balance their bodies, they become more aware of how to monitor their health. They also become more aware of and empowered by the relationship between mind, body, emotions, and environment.
Now that you know how important using natural skin care can be, you're ready to skip out and buy new pure products, right? All you have to do is throw out all of your chemical-based cosmetics and restock your medicine cabinet with those that proudly tout the words natural or organic. If only it were that easy!
Unfortunately, many of us find that the search for truly natural skin care can be difficult, because defining what natural means can be confusing. The definition of natural skin care products has become clouded. A company can label its products natural if they contain as little as 2 percent natural ingredients, as this is the minimum required by US law. Unfortunately, consumers assume that this labeling ensures completely natural content.
For obvious reasons, real standards of natural products are needed, but because the beauty industry is unregulated, the definitions must come from us. Luckily, many natural skin care companies are beginning to put their own standards in place, most including three main parameters.
First, a truly natural product must contain at least 95 percent fully natural ingredients that remain in their natural state and have not been highly processed. To determine whether a product has a high chemical content, check the package for International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) labeling. Such labeling gives the scientific names for ingredients and help identify a cosmetic's true content. Some products use vague terms such as “vegetable-based cleansing agent,” but INCI names let you properly identify the specific origins of an ingredient and often how it is produced. INCI names are easily deciphered by online cosmetic ingredient databases such as the Skin Deep database (cosmeticsdatabase.com) run by The Environmental Working Group.
The second parameter is that manufacturing should not significantly or adversely alter the purity or effect of the natural ingredients. The natural ingredients need to be extracted and preserved naturally as well. Some certification organizations, such as Ecocert, assess manufacturers' production methods for any risk of contamination as well as those for a product's packaging. This helps consumers easily understand a product's standards. Ecocert requires items to not be packaged in PVC or polystyrene as they can leach into products. All certified items must be packaged in nonpolluting, recyclable containers. But keep in mind that seals and certifications can be extremely expensive and thus cost-prohibitive for smaller companies that may be high-quality producers. By checking INCI labels and researching a company's values and inquiring about the origins of its products' ingredients, we can make more informed decisions. Transparency is a good indication of authenticity.
Finally, natural products must contain no ingredients that have a potential or suspected health risk. Since the point of natural skin care products is the betterment of both our skin and well-being, health safety is important. While this may sound like simple logic, many ingredients commonly found in skin, body, and hair care products are carcinogenic, toxic, or identified endocrine (hormone) disrupters.
While there are many harmful chemical ingredients in our beauty products, the two I find myself discussing most often are petrolatum and sodium laurel sulfate (SLS), simply because they are the most ubiquitous.
Petrolatum (also known as petroleum jelly and many other names), a petroleum by-product, is used as a cosmetic base and can be found in almost all skin care, cosmetics, and hair products. All petrochemicals are extremely detrimental to our health, and because petrolatum is used as a base, it makes up a huge portion of any given product. Unlike harmful synthetic preservatives and additives, which usually account for a very low percentage of the formulation (but must also be avoided), petrolatum and other petrochemicals are present in large quantities.
When checking to see what is in those mysterious bottles of skin care goop, you will find it is mainly petrolatum, a few additives, and a lot of water. The main cosmetic-related problem with petrolatum or paraffinium (petroleum) is that its molecules are too large to fully penetrate the skin. Therefore, products made with it sit on the skin surface, clogging the pores. Early in my career, while working at an elite spa in Sydney, Australia, I ran out of the petroleum jelly we used to protect the delicate skin around the eyes while doing a lash tint. I was told to substitute a very expensive brand of neck cream. I realized that this high-end neck cream was simply dressed-up petroleum jelly! It would not absorb into the skin; it would just sit on the surface and act as a barrier.
Petroleum is also used as a barrier in antiperspirants. Containing both aluminum and petroleum, antiperspirant sticks keep the moisture from the suderiferous (sweat) glands from reaching the skin surface.
Petroleum dehydrates the skin, which is ironic, since it is used as the base for most moisturizers. Though many of these moisturizers feature wonderful ingredients (antioxidants, vitamins, and so on), they cannot be fully absorbed into the skin. Using petroleum on your skin is like masking your face with plastic wrap. While it makes an excellent barrier for acute situations (against windburn while skiing, for example), it is unhealthy when used on a daily basis. Many people, myself included, have self-induced acne by applying petroleum-based products; the pore congestion contributes to blackheads and blemishes. These products can also irritate sensitive skin and trigger allergies.
Petroleum also presents internal dangers. What little does absorb into the skin has been found to cause kidney damage and liver abnormalities. It is the same basic material as gasoline, and people apply it to their faces, bodies, and scalps. Besides the direct harm to the human body, petrochemicals take vast amounts of energy to produce and are nonrenewable, so they also hurt the environment.
Sodium laurel sulfate is a harsh detergent mostly found in products such as facial cleanser, shampoo, soap, toothpaste, astringent, and toner. It has a foaming property and gives the skin that tight feeling many equate with being “deeply cleansed.” In fact, SLS disturbs the skin's acid mantle and strips it of its natural oils. This is especially detrimental for sensitive skin and leads to rosacea, eczema, and dermatitis.
The body is always working to attain balance and heal. When we use products with SLS, the body attempts to balance out the dryness the chemical creates by producing more oil; therefore, SLS dehydrates aging skin and stimulates oil production in the sebaceous glands of oily skin. The now-overactive glands pour out sebum (oil) to compensate for the skin's dehydration.
Sodium laurel sulfate may also cause internal damage. It is absorbed by delicate mouth tissues from toothpaste and through the scalp via shampoos and conditioners. Once absorbed, it is retained in the internal organs. Because it strips skin of its natural defenses, it increases the absorption of other toxic materials, making the body more vulnerable to disease. Studies have also shown that SLS combines with various cosmetic ingredients to create carcinogenic nitrates and dioxin. It is thought to retard healing and promote tissue malformation.
Petrolatum and SLS are not the only harmful chemicals to avoid. Others include the following:
Propylene and butylene glycol: These petroleum-derived ingredients are used in skin and hair products to temporarily boost skin hydration. Long term, they can dehydrate and damage skin and hair structure. Like similar chemicals, they can cause kidney damage and liver abnormalities.
Carbomer: A petroleum-derived thickener, carbomer helps mask the fact that a product may be composed mostly of water instead of skin-nourishing ingredients. It is commonly used in creams, bath products, and eye makeup.
Sunscreen agents: Some chemical sunscreen agents—such as benzophenone-3 and octyl methoxycinnamate—mimic estrogen, confusing the endocrine system. In contrast, mineral sunblocks, like zinc oxide and titanium, are natural materials that reduce photoactivity.
Parabens (including butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben): Parabens are a formaldehyde-derived group of preservatives used in cosmetics and food. They mimic estrogen and have been cited as carcinogens.
Cortisone: Cortisone is a steroid used for its anti-inflammatory effects. Over time, it thins the skin and weakens its immune response. It also suppresses the body's normal immune response. Dermatologists often prescribe cortisone creams to soothe eczema, acne, and general inflammation.
Phthalates: A group of liquid chemicals resembling oil, phthalates are used as fixatives to slow evaporation—making the scent in perfumes and other products linger—and as plasticizers in nail polish. Phthalates are endocrine disrupters and carcinogens. They have been shown to cause blood clots, along with damage to the heart and lungs.
Coal tar: Used to manufacture commercial dyes and industrial paints, coal tar is also an ingredient in color cosmetics, hair dyes, and makeup. It is a known carcinogen and may make skin more sensitive to sunlight.
Diethanolamine (DEA): Diethanolamine is used as a wetting and foaming agent in shampoos and body washes and to preserve the texture of lotions and creams. It becomes unsafe when it reacts with nitrites in other products, forming nitrosamines and possibly becoming a carcinogen. DEA is also an endocrine disruptor.
Diazolidinyl urea and imidazolidinyl urea: These common preservatives in cosmetics release formaldehyde. They are known carcinogens, and they can trigger allergies. They can also cause contact dermatitis and headaches.
Knowing what ingredients are used in grooming products and cosmetics is extremely important if you want to care properly for your skin, body, and overall health. Natural skin care respects the delicacy of your skin and means that only wholesome, pure ingredients will be absorbed into your body.
We cannot discount the interconnectedness of our well-being. Our skin is so much more than what we see on the surface. It is part of our overall body system, and its beauty is reflected in a balance which is found much deeper within us. Real, effective skin care is the pairing of a healthy, toxin-free regimen with close attention to the well-being of body, mind, and spirit.