When it comes to skincare, it can be tricky to know what’s actually beneficial versus what’s just BS. Whipped cleansers, clay masks and coffee serums are all fun and trendy picks, but are their ingredients doing more harm than good?
We are what we eat and what we put on our skin. While the beautiful packaging of skincare products spilling off the shelves at Sephora may tempt us, it’s really the back of the bottle customers need to be looking at. Some products are packed with harmful ingredients, meaning it might be time to sift through your skincare cabinet.
“Clean beauty” is a vague term and means something different to everyone. And since there aren’t official regulations for the use of this phrase, it is also one that companies love to slap on labels to make their products appear healthy, vegan, organic and what have you.
“Clean beauty includes products rigorously tested, products that weed out ingredients linked to health harm,” said University of Miami alumna Vanessa Gonzalez, who is a consultant for the skincare and makeup website beautycounter.com.
“To me, clean beauty includes products that are ethically sourced and not tested on animals,” she added. While the European Union has deemed nearly 1,400 ingredients harmful to the skin, she said, the United States has only banned 30 of them.
There’s no regulatory agency censoring what skincare ads can and can’t tell their consumers. “Companies know they are using harmful ingredients,” Gonzalez said, “but choose to not disclose their findings because they don’t have to, and it would obviously hurt their bottom line.”
How can a consumer know? Let’s start with the science.
Product penetration, as Jessica DeFino said in an article for The Cut, is slimmer than the average skincare connoisseur might perceive due to the composition of particles on the surface of our skin. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be wary of harmful products, but it does mean some of the serums on our shelves may not be doing much.
The microbiome, acid mantle, lipid barrier and a layer of dead skin cells “come together to form a waxy, water- repellent shield of fatty acids, sebum and ceramides, which seals the skin’s natural moisture in and keeps external moisture out,” she wrote in the article.
What’s the first and most prevalent ingredient in almost every item in your skincare drawer, though? Water. That’s good and bad.
Although it’s preferable over synthetic chemicals any day, human skin is biologically built to be “water-repellent.” So, toxic or not, only a minor percentage of what we’re applying is actually passing through the skin barrier.
Among other skincare myths are the industry’s three favorite phrases: firming, wrinkles and fine lines. After much experimentation, aesthetician Sylvia Perez said many promises playing on these words are nothing but fiction.
“Facts are that you don’t need to spend a fortune on creams,” she said. “As long as you keep your skin hydrated, it will maintain its firmness.” Further, she said, “keeping it protected with SPF will keep your skin younger for a longer period of time.” Stocking up on sunscreen with zinc, Perez said, is one of the best ways to ward off early signs of aging.
With hundreds of products to pick from, choosing the best ones for your skin is easier said than done—and it all comes down to ingredients.
The worst offender, Gonzalez said, is fragrance. “Did you know that a company can literally put anything in their products and not have to disclose it?” she said. “Over 3,000 chemicals can be disguised as fragrance!” According to her, fragrance has been linked to allergies, asthma, hormone disruption and more.
Parabens, resorcinol, BHA, BHT and butoxyethanol are just a few more ingredients on Gonzales’ naughty list.
Since deciphering ingredient labels can get tricky, Perez gives her patients insight and easy home remedies to try instead so they can be fully in control of the quality of ingredients.
One easy remedy she recommends is creating a face scrub made of equal parts white sugar and Manuka honey.“It’s very important to do a scrub two to three times a week to keep [the skin] polished and glowing,” Perez said.
“The granules should be spherical so they glide on the skin instead of producing micro-tears on the surface of the skin.”
For freshman Ysabella Muniz and senior Ivy Carpenter, finding the antidotes to maintain a healthy and consistent skin care routine was a process of trial and error.
“I used to not check and and look up ingredients,” Muniz said. “But I think over the past year, I started seeing way more things about how a lot of skin care products can actually be really bad for your skin.”
“There are definitely ingredients I stay away
from, like parabens, aluminum, oxybenzone, phthalates, sulfates and some fragrances,” said Carpenter. “I also try to stay away from products that have filler ingredients that derive from wheat, gluten, other grains or animal bi- products, such as milk.”
As for Muniz, her simplified routine leaves no room for toxic ingredients. After cleansing with an organic soap bar from Trader Joe’s, she moisturizes with CeraVe’s Daily Moisturizing Lotion, applies tetracycline cream to her acne scars and blends non-tinted eltaMD sunscreen into her face.
If you’re wondering whether your own faves fall into the “pass” or “keep purchasing” pile, a handful of resources are at your fingertips to help you find out.
Websites like CosDNA.com and Skin- carisma.com are a few places to start, with easy- to-use interfaces that help you find and analyze a wide database of potential products. Both of these sites allow you to look up products and view their ingredient lists, as well as information on what each ingredient does and whether it could potentially be harmful.
At the end of the day, most companies are only after the almighty dollar. So it’s your job to take care of the skin you’re in.
words_andrea valdes-sueiras. photo_sydney burnett. models_gracie palmer & emily muir.