Chemicals and Skin Care Products

By: Dr. Christine Cho ND

Did you know that skin is your largest organ? It’s also a very porous organ that acts as a protective barrier to the outside world in addition to being one of the first points of communication between the external environment and our internal physiology.  For example, when we are hot we produce sweat that helps cool down our internal body temperature, and when we are cold our skin contracts producing the familiar goose-bumps to help keep heat within the body.  Another example would be when certain medicines are applied topically (on the skin) as a method of entry into the body.

Now that we have established that our skin, like a sponge, is able to absorb and internalize substances that are placed on it, we can see why facial and skincare products should be chosen with care.

It is pretty well known that there are ingredients in many common skincare products that are less than desirable and may actually have harmful effects when used long term.   There are way too many to list here, but the following are commonly used chemicals to look out for that may have adverse effects on our health:

Phthalates: associated with adversely affecting reproduction and development while also contributing to kidney and liver toxicity. Health Canada has put out a warning for them.  When reading labels, look for:

  • BzBP or benzylbutyl phthalate
  • DBP or di-n-butyl phthalate
  • DEP or diethyl phthalate

Parabens:  in the news recently as more research shows an estrogenic effect that may increase breast cancer risk.  When reading labels, look for:

  • Methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben
  • Anything else that ends in “-paraben”

BHA and BHT:  possible carcinogenic effects, impairment of blood clotting, and lung damage reported with very high amounts.  Look for: 

  • Butylhydroxyanisole and butylhydroxytoluene

Dyes/Colouring:  chemical dyes have been linked to ADHD in children as well as potentially having tumorigenic and carcinogenic properties.  Keep an eye out for:

  • FD&C Blue 1
  • FD&C Green 3
  • FD&C Red 33
  • FD&C Yellow 5
  • FC&C Yellow 6

It’s always good to look out for products that don’t do animal testing as well.  This may not necessarily be good for your health in a direct manner, but it is generally more environmentally conscious.

For more information and help with ingredients, check out some of these resources:

  • Health Canada’s Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist
  • Skin Deep:  smart phone app; database of thousands of skincare products that can help you make better choices while you are in store
  • Think Dirty:  smart phone app; database of skincare products similar to Skin Deep
  • Ecochic Movement:  a skincare company founded by a naturopathic doctor; see her blog for more information on skin health!

Happy summer!


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