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Skin Care Ingredient Hype: It Does Matter!

So, you’ve probably noticed there’s a lot in the media about the beauty industry lately regarding the toxicity of ingredients and lack of regulation. There are certain skin care ingredients you should learn to avoid. Should you pay attention?  YES.  Here’s why:

Your skin is constantly regenerating from the basal layer. As the cell layers mover closer to the surface and away from their blood supply, they become keratinized, metabolically inactive, and eventually slough off.  The outermost 25-30 layers of skin cells, called the stratum corneum, are dead and provide barrier protection:  they keep water in and chemicals and microorganisms out.  By nature, human skin has low permeability. TO PROTECT US.  But what do we do?

We mess with nature.  Using SCIENCE.

Science has allowed us to enhance the skin’s permeability with additives and chemicals, both natural and man-made, to allow for penetration through these protective layers moving substances deep into the biologically active layers of the skin.  Penetration enhancers (also called sorption promoters or accelerants) work by disrupting the “glue” that holds skin cells tightly together, dissolving the keratin, or otherwise “punching holes” in the layers.  Some examples are polyethylene glycol (PEG), PEG-amine, carboxylic acid, urea, propylene glycol, DMSO, liposomes, nanoparticles…  This is good when the molecule that’s getting through is one we want.  But what happens when harmful molecules that exist in the same product get through with it?  And, why are the harmful ones in there, anyway?  Isn’t someone supposed to monitor that?

Good molecules, or “actives” nourish and promote the health and youthful appearance of your skin.  These are things like Vitamin C, Vitamin E, ferulic acid, niacinamide, copper peptides, and hyaluronic acid, just to name a few.  We want those to get in and do the job!

Then there are the bad guys – parabens, phthalates, bisphenol-A, ethanolamines...the list is looooong.  They are put in to improve the smell, texture, or performance of a product.  Some are proven to cause cancer, genetic mutation, reproductive harm or birth defects.  Others are simply irritating or cause eczema, acne or rosacea.  These molecules hitch a ride on the penetration enhancers along with the good guys and WRECK your good intentions.  Did anyone get the photo?  It’s Poison.

Why are these companies allowed to put potentially harmful or PROVEN harmful ingredients in our products?  Because it’s legal in the US.  The European Union bans over 1300 hazardous ingredients from use in cosmetics.  United States?  11.  Yes, I said eleven, y’all.  Until there is better oversight, we have to protect ourselves, and that means arming yourself with knowledge!

Download the EWG Skin Deep app on your phone and use it when shopping:

Our “stratum corneum” does an amazing job of protecting us. If we are going to mess with that, let’s make sure we are doing so carefully, critically, and thoughtfully.  Here’s some help with the data – and don’t forget to take your reading glasses to the store!!!

More reading:

List of acceptable ingredients generally deemed as safe:

The NEVER List:

Whole Foods’ Never List:


  • Adv Drug Deliv Rev. 2004 Mar 27;56(5):603-18.
  • Nanomaterial Case Studies: Nanoscale Titanium Dioxide in Water Treatment and in Topical Sunscreen (Final)
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