The Ultimate Guide to Clean Skincare

The way that we take care of our skin can have a lasting impact on one of our most important features—our face. And I’m here to tell you that it’s not vanity to want to take good care of your skin. Just like eating healthy or exercising to take care of our internal organs, it’s also important to make sure that our skin, our largest “organ,” gets nourished and cared for in the best possible way.

Unfortunately, many cosmetics and skincare products on the market today are actually filled with toxic chemicals, nasty ingredients, and fragrances that are hormone disrupting. These chemicals are known for causing chaos in endocrine organs and creating a toxic burden for the liver and other detox organs.

So how can you know what skincare and makeup is safe? This post will break down the nasty chemicals found in most makeup and skincare brands, and then what safer alternatives look like. The best news is that you don’t have to sacrifice quality when you switch to organic makeup or clean skincare. In fact, from personal experience, you will actually find significantly more quality in clean brands, and your skin will thank you for it.

Chemicals in Conventional Cosmetics

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So first, the bad news. The widespread belief that companies can’t sell products if they’re not safe is actually a myth. Cosmetic companies frequently include ingredients in their products that are not proven safe and, in some cases, are demonstrably unsafe.

Cosmetics, skincare products, and other toiletry items can certainly cause harm to men and women, but typically women are the primary consumers of these products. Women also happen to be significantly more endocrine sensitive, meaning that women experience more hormone disruption and imbalance than men typically do. When women slather on multiple products that all contain toxins, chemicals, and fragrances, the total body burden becomes exponentially higher.

So what’s in makeup or moisturizers that makes them so bad? All forms of drugstore makeup and even many elite brands contain some combination of chemicals, hormone disruptors, or plastics that actually get absorbed through the skin. Even some “natural” brands contain some or all of these. So how can you tell what’s what?

As with food, reading labels of your cosmetics and skincare products is essential. This, however, can often be like trying to decipher a foreign chemical language that is hard to pronounce and even harder to understand. Some common terms you will find are included here, but please know that this list is not exhaustive. If you don’t explicitly know what an ingredient is, look it up on EWG’s clean cosmetic database, SkinDeep.

Also, a final note before we dive into these nasty ingredients: companies aren’t always required to list every ingredient in a product. I know, it sounds shady, but in the same vein that companies aren’t required to test their product’s impact on hormone health, they are also allowed to retain some “proprietary information” for certain products, and that can mean that you don’t always know what you’re getting.

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Parabens

Parabens are used as preservatives in cosmetics and other skincare products. Their job is to inhibit bacterial growth. In humans, especially in women and children, parabens can disrupt hormone production and mimic estrogen within the body. (1)

BHT

Butylated hydroxytoluene, shortened to BHT, is another preservative used in some food and skincare or cosmetic products. Effects can range from organ system toxicity, reproductive toxicity, and a skin irritant, among other things. (2,3)

DMDM Hydantoin

An ingredient often used in cosmetics and hair care products, DMDM hydantoin is a preservative that releases formaldehyde to prevent buildup of mold, bacteria, and other microorganisms. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, as well as a skin and respiratory irritant. (4)

Phthalates

Phthalates are plasticizers used in a variety of cosmetic and personal care products, primarily associated with fragrances. They are not required to be included on all product labels and are associated with hormone disruption and reproductive toxicity. (5)

Fragrance

Fragrance can be very unspecifically identified on product labels, and is sometimes listed as “parfum.” Fragrance can be comprised of chemical scents and natural scents, but in many cases, phthalates are used to create signature blends. Fragrance is often associated with skin irritation, allergies, and reproductive toxicity. (6)

Lead

Lead is often found in products that contain color or pigment, especially lipstick, eyeliner, and nail polish. It is associated with cancer, developmental toxicity, reproductive toxicity, and overall accumulative toxicity. It absorbs easily through the skin, which is why it’s a major concern with cosmetics. (7,8)

This is not a comprehensive list, but it is a gathering of the most frequent offenders.

Doesn’t the FDA Regulate Cosmetics to Keep Us Safe?

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I wish that there were such a thing as a magical umbrella of protection that prevented any harmful substance from entering the market or our homes. Many people assume that the FDA is this umbrella, but in reality, they only very loosely regulate cosmetics and personal care products, and in most cases, products go to market without requiring FDA approval. The FDA only gets involved if a product has an issue or receives complaints. (9)

So does this mean that companies purposefully sell products that are known to be harmful? I like to think the best of people, and don’t want to believe that anyone knowingly wants to sell products that contain reproductive toxins, hormone disruptors, or carcinogens. However, I do believe that money is king, and in many cases, high quality non-toxic ingredients are significantly more expensive, and companies use cheaper ingredients to make their products more appealing to the market.

As with food, cosmetics and skincare products are also “you get what you pay for,” and by settling for the cheaper products on the market, you’re also getting a hefty dose of the toxic ingredients we’ve discussed here so far.

Negative Impacts of Endocrine Disruptors

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Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with hormone production within the body. They can have negative effects on developmental, reproductive, and neurological health, as well as on the immune system, liver, kidneys, and most other organs. (10) Hormone disruptors can have detrimental effects on both male and female reproductive health, prenatal and infant development, and are in many cases carcinogenic.

Organs of the endocrine system are also particularly susceptible to disruption, which can lead to a wide range of problematic symptoms. Endocrine organs include:

  • Ovaries
  • Testes
  • Thyroid
  • Pituitary gland
  • Adrenal glands
  • Thymus
  • Pineal gland
  • Parathyroid glands
  • Pancreas

For example, the average age at which girls experience menstruation is getting younger and younger, primarily due to the significant presence of endocrine disruptors in home environments, foods, and personal care routines.

Endocrine disruptors communicate with hormones in the body, sending signals that can either cause over or under production of reproductive hormones, thyroid hormones, and adrenal hormones. Preteen and teenage girls are at more risk than older women because of the long-term systemic burden than multiplies every year. However, women who have been using a significant volume of conventional cosmetic or skincare products should definitely realize that it’s never too late to “green” their beauty routine.

Boys and men are definitely at risk of endocrine disruption, too, especially boys who are infants and pre-pubescent. The presence of too many estrogenic substances can significantly alter testicular development, and can also reduce a man’s overall fertility. (11)

What Is Clean, Non-Toxic Beauty?

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While it may seem scary and disheartening that toxins are seemingly everywhere, and no one is really looking out for your best interest except yourself, the positive news is that in recent years a number of companies have emerged to fill the need for clean beauty and personal products that don’t contain chemicals or toxins, and that are actually akin to food for the skin. These products can meet the needs of the skin in the same way that eating organic, non-GMO foods can nourish our digestive system and all the cells of the body.

It is entirely possible to create a complete pampering beauty and self-care routine that is 100 percent clean, green, and toxin-free. You just have to know the right places to look.

The principles of clean, non-toxic beauty are simple: they avoid plastics, hormone disruptors, synthetic fragrances, and other chemical substances and opt for natural, organic oils, pigments, scents, and preservatives.

While some critics of the clean cosmetic industry might say that they create expensive products and simply charge more because they’re organic, the fact remains that you get what you pay for. Some pay hefty fees for designer brand names, while others are willing to invest more in a product if it’s crafted with ingredients that are natural, non-toxic, and safe for the skin.

How to Find Safe Cosmetics

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So if the FDA doesn’t regulate all of these products, how can you know which ones are safe for you and your family? Reading the labels is always the first place to start, but thanks to the EWG, checking product ratings based on toxicity level has never been easier. SkinDeep is an online database that contains more than 60,000 products, with toxicity information broken down into what areas of the body are most impacted.

Where To Buy Clean Skincare and Cosmetics

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Shopping for safer versions of cosmetics and skincare products can be especially hard for people who don’t live in greener cities. Shopping online for these products often feels risky because you can’t easily try it before you buy it, and so much of makeup, cosmetics, hair products, and skincare comes down to personal preference.

The good news is that most small companies who sell products online offer sample kits where you can sample a variety of what they have to offer before you purchase a full-sized product. Some larger clean brands can be found in retail stores like Target, Whole Foods, Earthfare, Fresh Thyme, Wegman’s, and more. Online retailers like Vitacost, iHerb, Thrive Market, and Lucky Vitamin all carry some non-toxic cosmetic brands and in most cases have great return or refund policies that allow you to try new products with confidence. You might also be able to discover clean, green brands through subscription boxes, where you could also receive discounts on purchasing fullsize items.

DIY Skincare and Personal Care

DIY

For lovers of DIY (do it yourself), homemade cosmetics, skincare products, hair products, and more have become increasingly popular.

Whether it’s eyeliner or toothpaste, you can DIY just about anything these days. I’ve tried a number of recipes, and they’ve all worked well for a lower cost than buying organic products. However, for me, sometimes it’s worth the convenience of buying a product versus making it myself.

Still, if you’re into DIY, you can create a great homemade cosmetic and personal care repertoire by trying some of these:

Top Clean Skincare and Makeup Brands

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If you’re new to the world of clean skincare, it can be overwhelming to investigate all of the brands and options. Here are two of my favorite clean, green companies with top notch products. They’re both Paleo friendly, clean, non-toxic, and small businesses that are focused on providing quality products.

Annmarie Gianni: Skincare and mineral foundation that is aromatically infused with essential oils.

Araza Beauty: Organic makeup that is certified Paleo, and comes in a wide variety of shades, with something for everyone.

About Aimee McNew

Aimee McNew, MNT is a certified nutritionist who practices functional and integrative nutrition therapy. She specializes in Paleo, autoimmunity, digestion, fertility, and women's health. View all posts by Aimee McNew →

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