Natural Skin Care Should be Effective, Not Just Safe

by Marie Veronique

Natural Skin Care Should Be Effective, Not Just Safe

Consumers have had and continue to have considerable impact on the food industry by demanding organic, natural, sustainable and local. And since consumers have turned their attention, especially in the last decade, to the cosmetics and skin care industry, demanding better accountability and more stringent safety standards, we have seen real progress when it comes to cleaning up our cosmetics and body care products. For example, blowing the whistle on such ingredients as parabens, hydroquinone, phthalates, and triclosan has resulted in their virtual disappearance from the green scene.

In other signs of progress, “To Avoid” lists target ingredients like PEG/ceteareth/polyethylene, “fragrance,” titanium dioxide and oxybenzone, which still appear in products marketed as clean. These lists published by green organizations, particularly those that cite the research they are using for their ratings, really do help consumers navigate through the maze of unfamiliar ingredients. Being based on published research reviews, they can, by definition, lag in timeliness though. After Sodium Laurel Sulfate (SLS) was first called out I watched companies switch out SLS for Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), which is…. even worse. At least until the research and lists caught up. Currrently, most lists still omit mention of phenethyl alcohol (and to a lesser extent phenoxyethanol) used as preservatives, even though ethoxylated compounds can be contaminated with dioxane 1,4. Why take the risk of possible dioxane 1, 4 contamination when there are effective natural preservative systems with (currently) no questions raised as to their safety?

Another problem associated with green lists can be their tendency, of necessity, to keep it simple. This can unfortunately steer consumers away from finding safe products that are also tremendously useful at addressing such very real concerns as acne and aging. A case in point is some watchdog lists’ dismissal of retinoids, when what would actually be helpful is a more nuanced approach. For example, to warn against using a sunscreen containing a Vitamin A derivative such as retinol and/or retinyl palmitate is certainly performing a service. But at the same time, the right retinoid in your night time product can make all the difference in terms of effective skin care, and the many products that deliver results without sacrificing safety should not be lumped together with products that may be problematic. (For more information about retinoids please see our blog post, Retinoids Explained).

Today green, organic, sustainable skin care has reached such a peak of popularity we often hear the expression, ‘natural has become the new normal.’ This success raises new and intriguing questions of the ‘where do we go from here?’ variety. One of our astute customers (we have so many) put it very well: “Should I be satisfied just knowing my product contains no toxic ingredients (that we know of anyway)? When I go to a restaurant I expect at the very least the food won’t poison me, but I generally want more than that. Using the same logic, shouldn’t I expect to get more out of a skin care product than just the promise of harmlessness?”

Our clever customer has voiced a concern that has been hovering at the back of my mind for quite awhile now. I agree, Susannah, most people aren’t going to recommend a restaurant just because they didn’t spend the night vomiting. By the same token, safe and non-toxic products are a great start, but the explosion of topnotch new research into skin and how it works makes a strong argument for setting the bar higher.

Toxic ingredient hunting is the first step towards meeting the exciting challenges that still lie ahead of us. But it marks the beginning of the journey, not the end. When we have nothing left in our products but simple things folks can make in their kitchens, then it’s time for serious skin care to move on. But before we do so let’s linger in the kitchen a minute longer.

Without disparaging natural companies who are doing their best to make clean products, it’s only fair to our budget-conscious consumers to mention that making masks and moisturizers containing all-natural ingredients that feel good and won’t hurt you isn’t really that difficult. In fact, I recommend as part of everyone’s skin care routine going into your kitchen and whipping up a yoghurt mask once in awhile, add a little honey and oatmeal and you have a safe concoction that will make your skin feel soft and smooth. You can also use yoghurt, full-fat with live bacteria, once a week as your nighttime moisturizer. Just a thin layer, let it dry, wash it off in the morning.

But DIY doesn’t fill every need, and there remains a pressing need for safe and effective skin care that relies on cutting edge research and knowledgeable formulation to produce results. Consumers can play their part in ushering in this new era of high performance skin care by demanding more than a mere “non-toxic” pass from products they are spending their hard-earned money on. Besides being safe, a given, skin care should also do something definitive, like improve skin quality. If you have skin concerns, and almost everyone does, the products you buy should change your skin for the better. The future of skin care lies in creating products that are both safe and effective, and it won’t be long before the new normal becomes safe skin care that makes a difference.

Here are some things to look for in the next generation of skin care products.  In addition we offer some tips to get you started in the direction of safe skin care that also, tada!... works:

Microbiome-friendly—the skin microbiome is made up of a trillion microorganisms of about a thousand different species. Most of these microbes are keeping our skins healthy, and we now know that too many anti-microbials from preservatives in moisturizers to germicidal cleansers can have the same effect on skin that too many courses of antibiotics can have on the gut—it’s a condition called microbial dysbiosis (MD). In the gut microbial dysbiosis leads to inflammation which leads to gastro-intestinal disorders, in the skin the MD pathway starts with inflammation leading to every skin disorder under the sun, from acne to aging. Currently most researchers in the skin care field concede that microbial dysbiosis may, to some extent, account for the increased prevalence of skin disorders like childhood eczema and adult acne, which were very rare 75 years ago. While we’re waiting for more research here are a few things you can do now:

  1. Avoid surfactants in cleansers. Use oil based cleansers or cleansers with low foaming action. The surfactants that make suds also kill off ammonia-oxidizing bacteria like Nitrosomonas eutropha. These little guys make nitric oxide, which is anti-inflammatory, so they are good to have around. Wash with water or yoghurt once in awhile. Get over wanting to be squeaky clean.
  2. Check your leave-on topical products, moisturizers, serums and the like, for their preservative systems. Topicals need to be preserved, but you want to avoid phenoxyethanol and other preservatives that engage in wholesale slaughter of microorgansisms. They have a reputation for being skin irritants, probably because they create microbial dysbiosis. Look instead for preservatives like leuconostoc radish root ferment filtrate or lactobacilli ferment.
  3. Rather than agent-orangeing our skin’s landscape with topical antibiotics and antimicrobials, or vigorously washing away its first line of defense against pathogenic invasion, add microbes that reduce inflammation, like Nitrosomonas eutropha, or add other common microbial residents that keep pathogens in check by maintaining microbial diversity. Look for products that contain live microbes, like AOBiome’s mist or our own Pre+Probiotic Daily Mist, as mentioned in French Vogue.

Biomimetics vs Bioactive—using the principle of biomimicry scientists have been developing peptides that bind to specific receptors at the surface of the cells to transmit intracellular signals. Palmitoyl pentapeptide of Strivectin fame, still the most popular peptide on the market, is a five amino acid chain that signals cells that they need to make more collagen. The major problems with synthesized peptides are stabilization and delivery. Since they are already break-down products of proteins it stands to reason they may break down further in whatever medium they exist in. If that isn’t enough of a problem, they also have to penetrate to the cellular level in order to initiate the signaling process, a feat not likely to happen with most topically applied creams or serums.

I am always surprised to see “green” companies load up their products with synthesized peptides when biological alternatives like Vitamin A and C work so well—and really do come from nature! Vitamin A derivatives such as retinol or retinaldehyde work in the same manner and indeed serve as models for synthetic signal peptides. Retinol/retinaldehyde converts to retinoic acid, which attaches to retinoic acid receptors on skin cells and sends messages to the cells to perform a multitude of duties, from building collagen to regulating sebum. Retinoic acid is a magnificent skin cell multi-tasker. Vitamin C, aka l-ascorbic acid, is essential to the production of collagen; no Vitamin C, no collagen, it’s that simple.

The same problems of delivery and stabilization that formulators struggle with when developing peptides are of course very much present with these vitamins. However, I prefer vitamins to synthesized peptides because their spectacular effects have been proven in study after study over many decades. Biomimicry is great but appropriate use of straight-up biological tools can sometimes be even better.

If you are looking for the real nature’s helpers I suggest you try:

  • Retinol or retinaldehyde topical products—encapsulated retinol for greater stabilization is best.
  • Topical, stabilized l-ascorbic acid in anhydrous suspensions.
  • To avoid: Serums containing L-ascorbic acid in water aren’t stable, while oil-soluble Vitamin C esters are stable but not terribly effective. Especially avoid products offering powdered Vitamin C. Ascorbic acid is very acidic, and when mixed with liquids the subsequent low pH can irritate, cause breakouts or even seriously damage the skin.

Functional skin care— Like functional medicine, functional skin care considers underlying causes, and takes an integrated-systems approach to skin problem solving. Its systemic and holistic perspective makes it very unlike conventional skin care.

A good example can be found in the use of topical steroids to treat atopic dermatitis and related inflammatory skin conditions. Topical corticosteroids can suppress inflammation temporarily, but they also effect subtle changes to the epidermal barrier, including decreased formation of lipid lamellar bodies and impaired barrier function. The result is often steroid “blow back,” in which the patient experiences increased erythema and even acneiform lesions which may be very difficult to treat.

The functional skin care approach to atopic dermatitis would more likely be along the lines of positing impaired barrier function as the underlying cause of inflammation. Then, rather than suppressing inflammation with drugs, efforts would be made to improve barrier function by supplying missing natural moisturizing factor and lamellar lipids. Such treatments would more than likely provide better outcomes in the long term.


These are just some of the ways cutting edge companies are shifting the ‘green’ paradigm. If none of it sounds familiar yet don’t despair—you’ll be hearing more about all of these things as time goes on. In the meantime you can help move natural skin care companies off the dime by asking them how they are incorporating important new research into their product offerings. And incorporating more functionals into your skin care will be a good personal step forward. Welcome to functional—the new natural.


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