As we become more aware of the positive and negative effects skincare ingredients can have on our skin, we face many choices. It's difficult to navigate all the latest news and buzzwords from the media and cosmetics brands... so should we stick with the brands we know? Pick anything with the label "organic," the way we buy our produce? Buy everything that announces the absence of one "bad" ingredient? Here's a very simple solution: Choose non-toxic products.
Organic Ingredients Vs. Non-Toxic: What's The Difference?
In the broadest sense, the term "organic" could mean anything that's living. As it's currently understood, however, organic usually means a product's agricultural ingredients were grown without pesticides or man-made fertilizers, and products that want to carry an organic label in the U.S. have to be certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Within that system, a product can be "100% Organic," which means all of its ingredients have been certified and it contains no genetically modified organisms. It can be simply "Organic," with 95% certified ingredients. Then there's "Made with Organic," which won't carry a trusty USDA seal but guarantees that at least 70% of the ingredients have been certified. Finally, something that says it has "organic ingredients" and has no seal hasn't undergone any sort of certification or oversight at all.
However, just because the ingredients of a given product are certified organic and don't have pesticides in them does not mean that they're great for your skin. The same goes for the term "natural," which is even broader than organic and isn't attached to any kind of law or oversight. Some plants are poisonous, or even just very irritating to skin—we're thinking of hemlock and poison oak right now. Trees emit formaldehyde, and arsenic is a natural element that exists in plants, soil, water and air.
This is all to say that the term "non-toxic" covers more bases if you are looking for personal care products that won't do more harm than good.
Toxic Beauty Products
To get to a definition of non-toxic, it is probably helpful to review which ingredients are widely considered harmful. Not even the scientific community can agree completely on this list, but when erring on the side of safety, it's a good idea to avoid these ingredients:
- Parabens and phthalates (possible endocrine disruptors)
- Formaldehyde (carcinogenic allergen)
- Polyethylene glycol and PEG compounds (contaminated with carcinogen 1,4-dioxane)
- Fragrance (because this could include other toxic ingredients that companies aren't required to disclose)
- Sulfates (irritants that can strip skin of natural oils)
Accentuate the Positive: Vegan, Non-Toxic Skincare Products
Many beauty products use those potentially harmful ingredients for good reasons, of course, and so it's the job of non-toxic cosmetics companies to find better ingredients to take their place.
For instance, rather than using sodium lauryl sulfate, a chemical that allows soap to cut through grease, a cleanser can instead contain glycolic acid, which is derived from sugar cane, along with willow bark extract to gently exfoliate skin and break down dead skin cells.
Parabens have long been a favorite preservative in personal care products, keeping lotions, shampoos, and cleansers shelf-stable. However, they can also cause skin irritation, and may cause hormone disruption. To avoid them, a product might instead use ingredients that are stable on their own, such as neutral oils like meadowfoam seed oil, which can also prevent other ingredients from losing their potency or going bad.
Embracing Science... Not Toxins
Sometimes it feels like there are two choices: use ineffective organic products or go for toxin-laden products filled with endocrine disruptors. But the truth is, there's a third way of going about things. By choosing clean beauty, you can opt for ingredients that are science-backed, effective, and plant-derived. This is the sweet spot, the compromise between using exclusively botanicals and throwing every potentially cancer-causing chemical in the lab on your face.
For example, if you want to reduce the appearance of fine lines, bags, or dark circles under the eyes, you can opt for an eye cream that can moisturize, reduce inflammation, promote collagen production, and brighten the skin. If you want to go the clean beauty route, you'll want to consider ingredients such as reishi mushroom extract, bakuchiol, uva ursi leaf extract, and passionflower extract can achieve many of these results.
Avoiding Essential Oils
If you gravitate toward plant-based solutions for their health and beauty needs, you may often find yourself buying products that contain essential oils. These may be fine natural alternatives to certain chemicals, but they also might actually damage the skin. Some essential oils are irritants and/or allergens that can trigger reactions such as dermatitis in people who didn't know they were allergic. Like with artificial fragrances, if you can avoid these ingredients, you'll be better off.
From Doing No Harm to Doing Even Better
In order to make products seem more effective, some companies use alcohol to aid in absorption. This, unfortunately, might dry out the skin in the process. As an alternative, fatty alcohols can moisturize without irritating the skin.
Another additive some lotions might use to enhance their silky feel is silicone, which actually has no benefit to the skin. Opting for products that instead contain moisturizing oils and fatty acids that resemble the skin's own fat molecules can achieve a lasting, hydrating effect. Some ingredients might even do double duty, providing antioxidants to protect against the damaging effects of sun and pollution, while also repairing the skin barrier to keep moisture in.
Because some of these non-toxic ingredients can multitask, you don't need as many different products to solve different skin issues. That means low-maintenance, non-toxic skincare is in your reach not just in the future, but right now.