Is "Green" Good for Skin?

Green CosmeticsToday’s buzzword in many industries is green, including the personal care and cosmetics business. Words like natural and organic figure prominently on labels and in advertisements. But I’ve discovered it’s hard to get a handle on such terms, even when we are dedicated label readers.

When we see natural on a skin care product label, we may expect the product is sourced from plants. When we see organic, we may expect that product ingredients were grown and harvested free of pesticides and other chemicals. But the fact is, those are huge assumptions. There is no regulating organization with the responsibility to define and monitor standards and claims for natural and organic products. There are no agreed-upon "green" definitions by either those who make personal care products or government agencies.

This is of particular interest in the field of dermatology. More and more of my patients are asking, ”Should I be concerned about possibly harmful ingredients I freely slather on myself and my kids every day? Should I switch to natural products for my skin?” This is a big conversation because many of us use dozens of common skin care and cosmetics brands every day that contain chemically derived ingredients and additives. There is a growing awareness about the issue, and many people are seeking alternatives.

Effects on the Skin
I think it’s very important, when considering a switch to green cosmetics, to determine what benefits you are looking for. Are you concerned only about what you put on your body? Or are you concerned from a broader perspective, focusing on the environment at large? Or both?

If your concern is about what goes on your skin and possible reactions, then using a chemical-free product may decrease the risk of you developing a sensitivity reaction. However, you should keep in mind that the skin absorbs only small amounts of a product’s ingredients, and popular brand manufacturers claim that they use chemicals in trace amounts that are not harmful to humans. Moreover, chemical use in cosmetic products is subject to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and product manufacturers must adhere to specific guidelines designed to protect consumers at large.

With regard to choosing chemical-free products, it is essential that consumers know that just because a product is natural doesn’t mean that it won’t cause a skin sensitivity reaction. For example, lanolin and latex are natural products, but they are also potential skin sensitizers that can trigger severe reactions, especially in patients who have underlying skin disorders. So it is wise to remember that, as individuals, our sensitivity to different ingredients is unique to us, and we should make product selections based on individual needs instead of on general product marketing and advertising claims.

If your chief concern is to minimize your exposure to potentially irritating and harmful ingredients, I recommend that you read ingredient labels (which legally must accompany all products sold in the US) and select cosmetic products that do not contain the following ingredients:

Parabens are the most widely used chemicals in the personal care product industry, and they can sometimes cause sensitivity, irritation, or a red, itchy rash. Parabens are preservatives, which provide the beneficial property of extending shelf life and protecting against microbial growth in the product. There have been many claims made about the harmful effects of parabens on our skin and other body organs. However, according to the FDA, “At the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.” If you choose to avoid parabens, though, they are clearly marked on labels – methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben.

Sulfates are industrial foaming agents. That is, they make the suds in our shampoo, skin cleansers, bubble bath, and detergents. These compounds are known to cause sensitivity, especially in the eyes. I advise my patients, either who generally have sensitive skin or concern for other reasons, to avoid products containing sodium lauryl sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, and sodium laureth sulfate – which means they avoid most major shampoo and cleanser brands. The easiest way to avoid these ingredients is to choose milk or creamy cleansers. They do not lather, but they do effectively cleanse the skin in a gentle fashion.

Dyes and Fragrances
Common skin sensitizers include many dyes and fragrances. I generally avoid products that contain dyes and recommend “fragrance-free” products to patients who have sensitive skin or fragrance-triggered migraine headaches.

Artificial Nails
Hair and nails are extensions of our skin. Applying and maintaining artificial nails can expose us to many harmful chemicals and potential allergens, through absorption and breathing toxic fumes. If you are concerned about your body’s chemical load, opt for the natural approach to nail care, avoiding gel and acrylic nail treatments and lacquers.

Effects on the Environment
Now that we have examined how “going green” may affect us and our skin on a personal level, how about our choices and the effect on “Mother Earth”? When we take the bigger picture into consideration – like reducing our personal “carbon thumbprint” – there are other environmental issues we should examine, like product packaging, for example. Many new so-called “green” products are only green on the inside, packaged in harmful plastic or nonbiodegradable containers that pollute the air when they are made as well as when they are thrown away. If that concerns you, buy products packaged in eco-friendly or recyclable material, like glass. There are some creative manufacturers offering biodegradable packaging that contains flower seeds, designed to be planted in the ground after use!

What are the effects on our water supplies when we wash millions of gallons of cleansers, detergents, lotions, etc, down the drain after use? When these chemicals end up in our groundwater sources, should we be concerned? Although I do not have the answers, I think questions like these deserve our attention. Because we are all consumers, we all have the power to influence manufacturers’ product development and market trends. However, we also have the responsibility to learn as much as we can about ingredients and manufacturing processes for the personal care products so that we can effectively separate fact from fiction.

As we increase our knowledge, we will undoubtedly discover that “going green” is actually a lifestyle reflected in the choices we make every day. Perhaps we can try to decrease our use of plastic containers or products that contain harsh detergents. Or maybe we can focus our efforts on making better food choices and minimize our consumption of foods that contain preservatives and pesticides. Maybe we can make a point of bringing reusable cloth bags to the market for our groceries. The point is that while choosing natural and/or organic skin care products may benefit some, we can all make small steps that collectively have huge results in terms of our personal health and the health of our planet.

Published on 09/10/2009 | Last updated on 10/18/2018