So you became a thorough investigator at the grocery store, putting away anything with soy, sugar, added salt and high fructose corn syrup. You’ve been careful with what you consume, why shouldn’t you be just as cautious with what you put on your skin? As the largest organ in your body, what your skin absorbs topically is important to consider, with each and every scrub, wash, dab and dip.
“Before applying any product to your skin, especially the face, you should be aware of all the ingredients that the product contains. Many skin care ingredients can potentially cause more damage than good,” dermatologist Kristina Goldenberg says. “Depending on your skin type some ingredients may be right for you that would not work well for someone else and vice versa.”
Not sure how to check your beauty sources? No problem. Here, dermatologists share some of the ingredients you need to be more careful about.
Before you choose your signature scent, make sure to see what’s lurking inside the bottle. “Formaldehyde-releasing agents are a common cause of contact dermatitis and irritation of the skin. It is also a known carcinogen and should be avoided at all times,” Dr. Goldenberg says. “Remember that the ingredient may not be listed as formaldehyde but rather as quaternium-15, DMDM-hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea and diazolidinyl urea.”
Though you might enjoy the fresh scent, Sharyn Laughlin, board-certified dermatologist and medical director at Laserderm Ottawa says to think again before using a product that has citrus-based oils.
“The low concentrations in the skin care product are likely to be ineffective anyway, but the implied claim is that they are there for antioxidant or repair properties. These agents may result in a phytophotodermatitis—the sudden appearance of brown streaks or spots without any warning—in the area of contact with no preceding redness or blisters, just like when lemon or lime juice touches your skin and is then exposed to sunlight,” she explains. “Any citrus oil can elicit a similar phytophotodermatitis after exposure to sunlight. They should be avoided, particularly in products intended for daytime use, since you could have this unfortunate experience and develop unsightly brown pigment in the pattern of the contact. The reactions may not be as dramatic as seen with lime, but they are best avoided, as they offer little tangible benefit even in a night cream.”
If you want to get the antioxidant properties, Dr. Laughlin says there are plenty of other options. “I prefer to stay with agents like curcumin, resveratrol, green tea extracts and other tea polyphenols, pomegranate extracts and genestein from soya beans. These are all-natural antioxidants with proven benefits that may be used in topical products and little in the way of any known adverse effects,” she says.
The purpose of sunscreen is to protect your skin from dangerous rays, so if you’re using a barrier that does more harm than good, you might want to reconsider what you’re lathering and re-applying. As Goldenberg notes, “Chemical sunblocks that include ingredients such as oxybenzone or avobenzone can cause irritation and dryness. For gentler options, reach for physical sunblocks with zinc and titanium dioxide instead.”
Some compounds found in rose and lavender essential oils—like monoterpene alcohols—have potential antiseptic and antimicrobial benefits. However, both also contain geraniol and are used in fragrance mixes due to their sweet floral odor. “Dermatologists do not like fragrance or perfumed products, they are often complex chemicals with irritant or allergic effects,” Dr. Laughlin says. “Geraniol is a contact allergen and it is estimated that 1 to 2% of the population will be sensitized to it.”
However, if you still want to incorporate face oils into your routine, Dr. Laughlin says the key is to consider carrier oils that are from the fatty component of a plant, like the seeds or the kernels. “Carrier oils and essential oil-infused carrier oils do not contain volatile aromatic compounds like pure essential oils, which is typically why they have minimal odors. They can contain a rich mix of antioxidants and vitamins that can be beneficial for the skin. Carrier oils like sunflower or safflower oil are generally nourishing for the skin but as a polyunsaturated oil they have limited stability. This can affect the shelf life of skin care products containing them. Hibiscus oil is rich in flavonoids called anthocyanins, which are the colorful compounds that give things like berries their nutritional benefits,” Dr. Laughlin says. “Whether a carrier oil or a natural antioxidant is used in a product, I have a simple philosophy I recommend to patients: Simple is better.”
“The concern with hydroquinone is that it can overcorrect the skin and whiten the skin more than was desired. If used for too long, it can also cause a blue-brown discoloration,” Dr. Goldenberg explains.
Though it was once trendy to use, Dr. Laughlin adds that now, it appears on the Health Canada Hot List of prohibited ingredients, due to worries of it being a carcinogen. Even so, it’s still in products. “It is a big seller in developing countries and many tourists from North America bring it home after vacation. It is very irritating and can cause sensitive or reactive skin to create excess pigment as a protective mechanism, in other words it can exacerbate the very condition it was intended to treat. It can also cause a disorder called ochronosis, where the excessive buildup of hydroquinone by-products in the skin can lead to bluish/grey pigments that can be very disfiguring and hard to treat,” she says.
But if you do want to fade dark spots and brighten your complexion, there are other ways to make it possible, with equally potent skin-brightening ingredients like glycolic and kojic acids, licorice extract or retinol.
Though it varies on hair type and how reasonable and responsive your hair is to treatments and formulas, generally speaking, sodium sulfate is going to leave it flat and dry. “It is a surfactant that does a great job with removing oil and products from hair shafts. However, it can be too strong and can strip away moisture from hair as well. This leaves the hair feeling dry and less silky,” Dr. Goldenberg says.
To be safe, opt for a sulfate-free shampoo, or look for sodium lauryl sulfoacetate, a milder alternative that has similar effects.