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Natural Skin Care Should be Effective, Not Just Safe

Natural Skin Care Should Be Effective, Not Just Safe


Consumers have had a considerable impact on the food industry by demanding more organic, natural, sustainable and local options. And since consumers have turned their attention to the cosmetics and skin care industry, demanding better accountability and more stringent safety standards, we’ve seen real progress when it comes to cleaning up our cosmetics and body care products, especially in the last decade.

Navigating the nuances of “To Avoid” lists

Blowing the whistle on ingredients like parabens, hydroquinone, phthalates, and triclosan has resulted in their virtual disappearance from the green scene. To Avoid lists target ingredients like PEG/ceteareth/polyethylene, “fragrance,” titanium dioxide and oxybenzone—which, by the way, can still appear in products marketed as “clean.”

These lists, published by green organizations, help consumers navigate the maze of unfamiliar ingredients, particularly when they cite the research they are using. However, basing information on published research reviews presents a problem when it comes to timeliness. For example, when Sodium Laurel Sulfate (SLS) was first called out, I watched companies switch SLS for Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)—which is even worse. It took time for the research, and the lists, to catch up. Currently, most of these lists do not include mention of phenethyl alcohol and phenoxyethanol, which are used as preservatives, even though ethoxylated compounds can be contaminated with dioxane 1, 4. Why risk dioxane 1, 4 contamination when there are effective natural preservative systems with no questions raised (currently) to their safety?

Another problem associated with green lists can be their tendency to keep it simple, which can steer consumers away from discovering safe products that are also tremendously effective. Case in point: some watchdog lists dismiss of retinoids altogether, when a more nuanced approach would be much more helpful. To warn against using a sunscreen that contains a vitamin A derivative like retinol and/or retinyl palmitate is both accurate and important. But the right retinoid used as part of your nighttime regimen can make all the difference in terms of effective skin care. (For more information about retinoids, check out Retinoids Explained [TK]).

Safe AND effective

Green, organic, sustainable skin care has reached peak popularity, which raises the question: where do we go from here? 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?”

This concern has been on my mind for quite some time. Safe and non-toxic products are a great start, but the explosion of new research into skin and how it works makes a strong argument for setting the bar higher. Toxic ingredient hunting is the first step toward meeting the exciting challenges that lie ahead of us, but it marks the beginning of the journey, not the end. When “safe” products are so simple that we could effectively make them in our kitchens, it’s time for serious skin care to move on. But before we do, let’s linger in the kitchen a minute longer.

Does DIY do enough?

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 it isn’t really that difficult to make your own safe masks and moisturizers using all-natural ingredients. In fact, I recommend everyone whip up a DIY mask ever once in a while: a mix of yoghurt, honey and oatmeal gives you a safe concoction that makes your skin feel soft and smooth. You can also use yoghurt (full-fat with live bacteria) once a week as a nighttime moisturizer—apply a thin layer, let it dry and wash it off in the morning.

But DIY only goes so far, and there remains a pressing need for safe, high-performance 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 skin care by demanding more than a mere “non-toxic” pass from the products they spend their hard-earned money on. If you have skin concerns (and almost everyone does) your products should change your skin for the better. The future of skin care lies in creating products that are both safe and effective.

Concepts that are shifting the “green” paradigm

Keep your eyes peeled for the following, as they are the future of safe and effective skin care.


The skin microbiome is comprised of a trillion microorganisms of about a thousand different species. Most of these microbes keep our skin healthy—we now know that too many anti-microbials (from preservatives in moisturizers to germicidal cleansers) can affect skin in the same way that too many courses of antibiotics affect 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 and leads to every skin disorder under the sun, from acne to aging. Most researchers in the skin care field concede that MD 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 to preserve your healthy microbiome.

  1. Avoid surfactants in cleansers. Use oil-based cleansers or cleansers with low foaming action. The surfactants that make suds kill off ammonia-oxidizing bacteria like Nitrosomonas eutropha—the little guys that make nitric oxide, which is anti-inflammatory, so they’re good to have around. Wash your face with water or yoghurt once in a while. Good bacteria is the new squeaky clean.
  2. Check your leave-on topical products for their preservative systems. Topicals require preservation, but you want to avoid phenoxyethanol and other preservatives that engage in wholesale slaughter of microorganisms—they have a reputation for being skin irritants, probably because they create MD. 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 our 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), 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’re already break-down products of proteins, it stands to reason they may break down further in whatever medium they exist in. 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. (Please see our collagen blog post for a further explanation).

I am always surprised to see “green” companies load 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 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 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 nature’s real helpers, I suggest you try retinol or retinaldehyde topical products (encapsulated retinol for greater stabilization is best), and topical, stabilized L-ascorbic acid in anhydrous suspensions. Avoid serums containing L-ascorbic acid in water or oil—especially 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 approach to solving skin problems. 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 likely provide better outcomes in the long term. Welcome to functional—the new natural.