Natural beauty and skincare are areas I've always been interested in, but more so from a "As a beauty blogger I'll try anything once" perspective than out of necessity or health concerns. That shifted a couple months ago when I found out I had a large cyst on my left ovary, most likely due to endometriosis; this diagnosis kicked off a journey into green beauty. I started with the goal of reducing my exposure to endocrine disruptors and the toxic load on my body, with the hope that by lessening the number of chemicals and toxins my body's detoxifying systems have to process and filter it'd help my energy levels. Today I'm sharing what I've learned so far in my journey towards a greener beauty routine; hopefully it'll help you and give you some food for thought if you're considering doing the same.
The argument for green beauty
Honestly, when you visit green beauty sites, it's hard not to scare yourself half to death thinking that at every turn there are toxins in your fave products that are going to poison you slowly. One of the central arguments driving the natural beauty industry (and it is is an industry) is the skin is the largest organ in the body, absorbing everything we put on it and sending it straight into our bloodstream. That includes thousands of toxins—mainly chemicals and synthetics, some with industrial applications—that have not been tested for long-term effects on human health. Phew, that's terrifying enough to make anyone ditch their face cream and reach for coconut oil! However, these claims just don't hold up in the face of science and logic.
Skin doesn't actually absorb everything...
An organ is a collection of cells that perform multiple functions—so technically yes, the skin is the largest organ in the human body. It comprises three layers: the epidermis, the outermost layer, is the thinnest and made up of dead cells that overlap each other like tiles to keep things out; the second layer, the dermis, is thicker and holds capillaries, sweat glands, hair follicles, nerves, and so on; and underneath the dermis is subcutaneous fat. Your body is constantly shedding skin cells and replacing them so that dermis cells eventually become epidermis cells. Skin functions as an envelope that keeps your internal bones, tissues and organs together; a way to signal to your body when you've been hurt (through pain, nerves, bleeding, etc.); and a protective barrier that keeps harmful bacteria and pathogens out.
Given the latter function, skin that's healthy and intact is remarkably good at not absorbing stuff. In fact, skincare ingredients work by acting on the outermost layer, the epidermis, which comprises dead cells anyway, or by penetrating the epidermis and acting on the outermost cells of the dermis. (Side note: This is probably why so many skincare products advise users it takes 6-8 weeks to see results!) The body doesn't absorb things through the skin directly into the bloodstream; if skin worked that way, we'd be able to feed ourselves by rubbing food on our foreheads and forego drinking water by just bathing in it.
...but exposure still matters
So if not everything we put on skin is absorbed directly, why should we worry about exposure to toxic ingredients and endocrine disruptors through beauty products? Because what we put on ourselves eventually ends up in our environments, and I'm not just talking about the earth and our water supply. For example, research has shown ordinary household dust to be a significant source of endocrine disruption, comprising chemicals from household cleaners and stuff in the house breaking down and degrading over time, as well as shed skin cells—skin cells we've applied "toxic" ingredients to. This stuff circulates through the air we breathe and lands on things we might ingest. Cleaning more often helps, and so does switching to natural alternatives. Our bodies' systems—the digestive system, the lymphatic system, liver and kidneys, and so on—are so good at filtering and getting rid of small quantities of these things. However, it does take energy to do that and some bodies do it more easily than others, and if you're not well it might be even harder for your body to bear a toxic load.
"Natural" doesn't automatically mean "safe," and conversely, "chemical" isn't necessarily a bad word
The natural beauty industry uses the words "chemical" and "toxin" interchangeably, implying that anything synthetic must be bad and poisonous and anything natural is good and safe. But did you know the scientific definition of a "toxin" is a naturally occurring substance that's poisonous? Animal and insect venoms are toxins. Lead is a toxin. A man-made substance that's poisonous is actually a toxicant. Aside from being a fun little factoid, this was a potent reminder for me that not all natural substances are automatically good, which also means not all chemicals are bad.
The staunchest green beauty proponents espouse a "zero tolerance" policy—if a questionable ingredient is present, they'll reject a product immediately. However, this approach doesn't take into account concentration. In large enough concentrations, anything can be toxic, even water if you drink too much.
Let's take BHT in lipsticks as an example. BHT is used in cosmetics and food as a preservative and has a scary reputation as an endocrine disruptor, which would lead some to swear off conventional lipstick for good. However, according to cosmetics database/website Paula's Choice and Health Canada, BHT concentrations in cosmetics are typically less than 0.1%. So let's do the math: Suppose I have one lipstick that I use everyday for 6 months. If the bullet is 3 grams, I'm using 0.016 grams of lipstick per day. If 0.1% of that is BHT, that means I'm exposed to 0.000016 grams or 0.016 milligrams of BHT a day. That's almost zero, pretty much. And then when I think about the fact that I don't wear lipstick every day and it's only on a small portion of skin—oh, and by the way, when was the last time I used up an entire lipstick...well, I'm not going to worry about BHT in my lipstick.
There's no such thing as a simple answer to a complex question
I think it's great that there's so information out there empowering consumers to make informed choices, and I love how the push for more green beauty alternatives has led to a better selection than ever of effective natural products. That being said, I'm wary of attitudes along the lines of "If I can't pronounce it, I'm not using it" or "I'm not using anything that contains X or Y." I'm also skeptical of non-scientists proclaiming what's good or bad for the masses (I'm looking at you, Gwyneth) and blindly trusting brands that claim they're green without reading the ingredients lists. And then there are the scientific nuances of concentration, molecule size and shape and structure, how the body processes and reacts to a compound...
Let's face it: There's a lot of confusion and misinformation out there and we're all busy people, so we'll try to look for the simplest solution possible (i.e. natural is always best). Unfortunately though, natural products don't always work for everyone, and there's no shortcut for reading the ingredients list and educating yourself on what works for you and what you're comfortable with in your beauty products. If you just accept the simplest answer to an infinitely complex question with no due consideration for science or logic...well, that's the sort of attitude that allows #alternativefacts to flourish, isn't it?
My approach to green beauty now
As I did more research, I reached a place where I was comfortable with a "natural(-ish)" beauty routine and lifestyle. What does this mean? I'm going to give preference to natural products whenever I can, especially when it comes to skincare and everyday grooming essentials. Even so, it's okay if my routine isn't completely natural. I'm not going to stress out about what's in my conventional lipstick or nail polish, I can afford to play fast and loose with colour cosmetics now and again (especially since I'm not wearing makeup daily), and if I try a non-natural serum I'm not going to worry it's going to kill me. Oh, and I'm going to be dusting and vacuuming more thoroughly, more often from now on.
- Although it's meant for kids, the American Academy of Dermatology has a pretty good high-level overview of what skin is and how it works.
- Scientific-minded beauty blog The Beauty Brains explores whether cosmetic ingredients really penetrate the skin.
- I found the Paula's Choice cosmetics ingredients dictionary and EWG to be great resources for looking up specific ingredients.
- The Think Dirty app is another excellent starting point, although I'd take their product toxicity rankings with a grain of salt. It seems like they just take the most toxic ingredient in the list and assign the entire product that ingredient's toxicity ranking, regardless of how low it is on the ingredients list (indicating relatively low concentration) or how many other ingredients in the product are rated safe.
- This Racked article is an incisive, well-researched look at why your beauty products are probably not killing you.
- If you're looking for natural beauty products in Vancouver, I recommend BeautyMark, LYNNsteven, Kiss & Makeup, Rocky Mountain Soap Co. and India Rose Cosmeticary. (They also ship!)