Will Travel :: The Skin You’re In (Part I)

usda Some people put a lot of effort into eating healthy, and then, on the largest organ of the body, where it only takes 26 seconds to absorb, put chemical-laden products without much thought.  When you eat something, it’s processed through the liver which detoxifies it.  Not so with skin absorption where whatever toxins are put onto to it go directly into the bloodstream, bypassing the liver’s protection.

How do you know what’s a toxin and what isn’t?  What’s “natural” as opposed to “organic.” Does “hypo-allergenic” mean it’s natural?  I know, it’s a lot.  So much skincare, so many labels.  Let’s start with a few common terms that are put on labels and discuss their real meanings.  It’s a good place to start and is where most consumers get confused.


By definition, anything can be toxic, even water.   Non-toxic or toxic-free, each term on its own really has no meaning.  Neither definition has an “official” designation, unlike organic vs. natural in the food industry where there are guidelines (for meat and poultry only!) defined by the USDA.  See the post on Happy Chickens.

Ingredients known for their toxicity can be buffered or altered in some way to make them less toxic and therefore “non” or “free” of toxicity.  Or they can be pure enough to stand on their own without adulteration, considered to be mostly harmless.  In point of fact, though, one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor here.  I, myself, have been known to break out from pure and natural ingredients and have no reaction whatsoever to the chemically laden ones.  Anyone allergic to strawberries, shellfish, nuts?  They would be considered non-toxic, right? Toxic to whom?  How? This is where the research gets murky, but we’ll get to that in future posts.

So anything can be toxic to someone, and as meaningless as these terms are, the point is to avoid those ingredients that don’t cause personal reactions and find ones that work for you that over the long term aren’t known or suspected toxins known to cause serious reactions or disease in the general population as well.  Read ingredient labels, go with the product with the fewest ingredients that you can pronounce and/or have heard of and start there.


hypoallergenicMy personal favorite.  Whatever does this mean?  Hypo-allergenic, meaning “below normal” or “slightly” allergenic, was a term first used in a cosmetics campaign in the early 50’s.  It is used to describe items (especially cosmetics and textiles) that cause or are claimed to cause fewer allergic reactions.

The term lacks a medical definition. In 1975 the USFDA (FDA) tried to regulate the term ‘hypoallergenic,” but the proposal was challenged by cosmetic companies Clinique and Almay in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which ruled that the regulation was invalid. Thus, cosmetic companies are not required to meet any regulations or do any testing to validate their claims.[1]

Here, a good starting point would be again, a label listing fewer ingredients that have some meaning to you, that doesn’t include anything that says “fragrance.” Added fragrance is a very common allergen for many people to start with (it is for me) and is usually a synthetic ingredient derived in large part from  petrochemicals.  Ick.  Fragrance is in everything, not just skincare.

Something can be labeled “fragrance-free” and still have “fragrance” listed on the label.  Fragrance-free can simply mean there isn’t a perceptible odor BUT that very fact is achieved by using artificial fragrances as masking agents.    OR, conversely, a perceptible scent could just be the result of the scents of the ingredients themselves in a great simple bodywash that only contains a bunch of essential oils.  You still could hate that scent and/or it could cause you to have runny eyes and sneeze, but at least you won’t be absorbing petrochemicals into your system.  Again, read the labels.  Become familiar with the basics of what works and doesn’t work for you in the simplest and most effective form possible.

NATURAL VS. ORGANIC vs. USDA Certified organic

I’ve saved the best for last.  This is confusing, but I’ve tried to make it really, really simple.  Let’s start with the term “natural.”

Anybody can say almost anything is natural.  By now, most of us realize this is more a marketing term than anything that has to do with chemistry.

Then “organic.”

Anybody can say almost anything is organic.  By now, most of us realize this is more a marketing term than anything that has to do with chemistry.

WTF???  Is there NOTHING sacred?

cert_organicFear not, dear consumer, a few, and I mean a very few companies have taken the time, trouble and spent the money to ensure that the ingredients they use in their products are truly organic, the process by which the products are made is organic, the factories are clean, the equipment’s maintained, and the ingredients of the ingredients are truly organic.  Then they get certified from the USDA and the products can bear the label.

Rather than bore you with the complexities involved in obtaining this certification, let me link you over to Kristin Gagliardi-Wilson’s (Poofy Organics) recent blogpost on the matter, as she makes it much more exciting:

Let me ask you some questions.  Are you confused as to what TRULY makes a product organic?  Do you question the integrity of some brands when they claim their products are organic?  Read more….


So, we’ve determined the uselessness of most of the basic terms used on the labels of skincare products vs. the one designation that does ensure a product’s purity and organic status.  We’ve distinguished between what may be irritating to your system doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the toxicity of the ingredients, and begun to see the importance of the ingredients list and how less is more and ingredients you’ve heard about or can pronounce and your own common sense can be your best guide at least to start with.

Next time, The Skin You’re In (Part II).  Specific ingredients.






[1] Source:  Wikipedia


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