How do I know if my skin care regimen is safe and effective?

Recently, I’ve become a little more conscious of what I’m putting on my face for two reasons, I want to know that I’m spending my money on effective products and I also want to ensure the products are safe.

I had no idea what I was looking for in a product, so it has taken a while for me to collect my thoughts on this topic and, admittedly, I still find it a bit daunting.  I’m happy to share my thoughts with you, though I’m sure there are differing opinions and far more research to be done.

Where to start?

That’s a great question.  You should be looking at what the product advertises it does and the ingredients in it.

I raise this point because I recently sank some money into an expensive face cream that was supposed to decrease redness and smooth out skin.  The active ingredient listed is dimethicone.  Lots of products contain silicone based chemicals like dimethicone or simethicone to smooth out skin.  The problem I have with this is that, as an ICU nurse, I was educated on the products we use on intensive care patients.  One of the bath products we use contains simethicone and our educator ensured us that it is safe and it temporarily smooths the skin, but has no lasting effects on skin texture or appearance.  This is where my concern for efficacy comes clear; I paid around $80 for a filler ingredient that will have no lasting effects.

Secondly, I’m concerned about safety.  Over the years, I’ve heard of various ingredients about which I should be concerned, but how do I know if I’ve covered them all.  I don’t know; I’m just doing the best I can, which is better than what I was doing before.

Sephora is where I usually purchase my skincare products.  Sephora lists right in the product’s info if the product is made without, Parabens, Sulfates and Phthalates.  Also, in the information section, you will also find any research Sephora has available, Q&A with others who use the products- you can ask anything you want about the product and consumers will answer based on their own experiences, and of course the product ratings/reviews are helpful, but Sephora allows you to narrow the reviews to look at reviews made by consumers with likewise skincare concerns.

Which ingredients in my skin product are harmful?

The ingredients feature prompted me to do a little research about Parabens, Sulfates and Phthalates.

Parabens

Parabens are preservatives used to prevent microbial growth in products.

FDA is aware that estrogenic activity in the body is associated with certain forms of breast cancer. Although parabens can act similarly to estrogen, they have been shown to have much less estrogenic activity than the body’s naturally occurring estrogen. For example, a 1998 study (Routledge et al., in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology) found that the most potent paraben tested in the study, butylparaben, showed from 10,000- to 100,000-fold less activity than naturally occurring estradiol (a form of estrogen). Further, parabens are used at very low levels in cosmetics. In a review of the estrogenic activity of parabens, (Golden et al., in Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 2005) the author concluded that based on maximum daily exposure estimates, it was implausible that parabens could increase the risk associated with exposure to estrogenic chemicals.  –FDA, March 24, 2006; Updated October 31, 2007.

I reviewed more of what the FDA has found and I am not convinced that parabens are harmful.  Nevertheless, it’s still important to know what you’re putting on your body and I’ll have my radar on in case new evidence on parabens surfaces.

Sulfates

I remember when Aveda went “Sulfate Free” and they made a big deal out of it, so I inferred that Sulfates must be really bad for you or your hair; I wasn’t sure.  I’ve done quite a bit of reading to understand this topic and the best answer I found was one by Justin Dragna, PhD in chemistry from UT Austin, which was featured in Forbes Magazine.  Click here for the whole answer.

Sodium laureth sulfate (not to be confused with sodium lauryl sulfate) is a workhorse surfactant of the personal care product market. It’s found in body wash, face wash, shampoo and even in toothpaste.

It’s not acutely toxic, but some people become sensitized to it over time, which means that some people develop an allergic reaction to it over time.

One other concern with sodium laureth sulfate is that it is sometimes contaminated with 1,4 dioxane. It goes through a process called ethoxylation (this is where the ‘eth’ suffix on ‘laureth’ comes from). A side reaction of ethoxylation is the production of small amount of 1,4 dioxane. If you’re not familiar with it, 1,4 dioxane is a known carcinogen. Thus, some people are concerned about using sodium laureth sulfate because of potential long term consequences from exposure to 1,4 dioxane. As a result, some personal care ingredient companies have started making 1,4 dioxane free sodium laureth sulfate by adding an extra purification step. It’s difficult to ascertain which companies are using the 1,4 dioxane free sodium laureth sulfate as it’s not required by the FDA to list whether there is trace contamination with 1,4 dioxane on the label.

If you want to avoid the issues associated with 1,4 dioxane and sensitization to sodium laureth sulfate, I recommend finding personal care products that contain surfactants from the alkyl polyglycosides. The most common is decyl glucoside. The head group is a sugar instead of a sulfate.They are much milder on the skin (and eyes) and the chemical process to make them doesn’t produce any 1,4 dioxane.

 Phthalates

 Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break. They are often called plasticizers. Some phthalates are used as solvents (dissolving agents) for other materials. They are used in hundreds of products, such as vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes (raincoats), and personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes). –CDC, November 2009.

Human health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are unknown. Some types of phthalates have affected the reproductive system of laboratory animals. More research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to phthalates.  –CDC November 2009.

Hopefully this information has provided some food for thought and encourages you to take a deeper look at what are using.  Do keep in mind that we understand chemicals much better now than we did 100 years ago and we will understand them better yet in another 100 years.  There is still much to be learned about how what is safe and at what levels.

There are also many articles on the internet with much to say, that offer no legitimate substantiated evidence; we must always evaluate studies for bias and statistical relevance.  Good luck!

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Kate Thakkar

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2 comments

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Great post

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Thank you so much!

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