First of all, let’s clarify what “sensitive skin” means. All skin types can experience irritation at one point – either from overusing a product, or a reaction to an ingredient. However, people with truly sensitive have impaired skin barriers. That means ingredients that are not generally considered irritants can cause a reaction.
One simple test: press your fingers across your face with light to medium pressure. Does it turn red? And do most products you try, from face washes to makeup, cause stinging or redness?
If yes, your skin is sensitive, then it is wise to avoid some strong ingredients. Don’t rely on a product label like “hypoallergenic” or “organic/natural”. Read the label!
People with sensitive skin usually have a compromised skin barrier and usually have dry skin. Sulphates are proven to strip the skin of its moisture. They act as surfactants or soap but are very drying for the skin.
Sulphates are usually found in foaming products like shampoos or cleansers. On labels, you’ll find them as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES).
Fragrance is one of the most common skin irritants. especially for people who have allergy-prone skin, acne, eczema or rosacea. The American Contact Dermatitis Society (ACDS) actually declared it the ‘Contact Allergen of the Year” in 2007.
The 8 most common triggers are actually synthetic fragrances that help recreate a particular scent. This includes cinnamic alcohol, cinnamic aldehyde, eugenol, geraniol, alpha amyl cinnamic alcohol, and hydroxycitronellal. These are often used to mimic the smell of rose, lily of the valley, violet, clove and musk.
A product that is “fragrance free” has no additional fragrances, but you may pick up the natural scents of the ingredients used (like plant extracts or shea and cocoa butters). It is has less risk of irritating the skin because it doesn’t add extra chemicals.
Oils that are derived from petroleum (sometimes called petrochemicals or synthetic emollients) are sometimes used in moisturizers or anti-ageing products because they plump the skin to hide the appearance of wrinkles.
However, petroleum and mineral oils are “occlusive” ingredients. This means these form a film that prevents any air, water or even the beneficial ingredients in your other skincare products from being absorbed. It can also block pores.
Gentler facial oils, such as jojoba and almond oil can give the moisturizing and plumping effect without the risk for irritation and breakouts.
This is the first ingredient that anyone with sensitive skin should avoid. These are typically used in toners or makeup remover pads, because they help create a “quick dry” finish, but these can dry the skin and cause redness and stinging.
Watch out for preservatives like Methylisothiazolinone. Tests conducted by London’s St John’s Institute of Dermatology showed that it triggered allergic reactions in 10% of their patients with sensitive skin. Some products use very small amounts (0.01%) and may be safer to use. Methylisothiazolinone is sometimes labeled MIT, MI, Neolone 950 preservative, Or MicroCare MIT.
The American Academy of Dermatology has also flagged imidazolidinyl urea and Diazolidinyl urea as a primary cause of contact dermatitis.
Synthetic colors may help make a skin product look pretty, but can irritate sensitive skin. Colors are usually labeled as FD&C or D&C, followed by a color and a number. For example you will see “FD&C Red No. 6” or “D&C Green No. 6.”
CHEMICAL SUNSCREEN INGREDIENTS
There are two kinds of sunscreens. Physical sunscreens contain ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide that deflect or scatter UV rays. Chemical sunscreens contain compounds that change UV rays into heat then release that from the skin.
If you have sensitive skin, stick to a physical sunscreen. Chemical sunscreens may contain ingredients that can irritation or stinging. Some of the most common irritants are benzphenones (oxybenzone, octocryele, and cinnamates).
Physical sunscreens can also deflects the heat, which is better for people who get redness and rosacea.
PROTECT AND STRENGTHEN SENSITIVE SKIN
Aside from looking for gentle, non-irritating ingredients, seek those that build the skin barrier function and fight inflammation. Sunscreen is also important: damaged skin will always be more prone to redness and dryness, and UV exposure will weaken your skin barrier even more.
This holds true even for people who don’t have sensitive skin, but are experiencing irritation or skin sensitivity because of a bad reaction to a product, change in climate, hormonal fluctuations, or even stress. Sometimes our skin just needs a little more attention and care than usual.
Put acids on your face? Don’t worry, we’re not talking about bubbling laboratory vials and noxious gases, but powerful ingredients that are probably in skincare products you’re already using. You’ve heard of AHAs, BHAs, even Vitamin C – these are often used in anti-aging, brightening, and exfoliating products. Your dermatologist may even use higher concentrations in chemical peels and facials. But what exactly do they do?
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)
These include glycolic, lactic, citric, malic, and tartaric acids. They are gentle exfoliants that also stimulate collagen production and help control hyperpigmentation. Unfortunately, they can also make your skin more sensitive to the sun. If you use any product with AHAs, be sure to use a good sunscreen. If you are new to AHAs, start with low levels and work up to higher concentrations to avoid irritation.
Of all the AHAs, glycolic acid has the smallest molecules and can penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin. Lactic acid is derived from sour milk and is known to be moisturizing.
This beta hydroxy acid (BHA) is derived from willowbark. It is a keratolytic, which means it can exfoliate the surface layer of the skin and clear out clogged pores. That makes it a very effective ingredient for acne treatments, especially for those with oily skin. However, it can be drying and potentially irritating for those with sensitive skin. For this reason, it is often used in small concentrations, put into spot treatments (rather than those applied all over the face), or combined with calming or hydrating ingredients. You can also switch to a product with a gentler acid like glycolic or lactic acid.
If you are allergic to salycylates (found in aspirin) you may want to avoid any product that has salicylic acid, since this may trigger contact dermatitis.
This actually occurs naturally in our skin and acts like a lubricant. However, our body produces less as we grow older. Synthetic hyaluronic acid pulls in moisture from the air, holding over a thousand times its weight in water. It is a mega-moisturizing molecule, and a powerful ingredient for anyone with dry skin.
It’s important to understand what’s in your skincare. Follow this blog for regular posts on ingredients like retinol, antioxidants, and more. You may also want to check our article on parabens. Contact us if you’re curious about a particular ingredient – we’ll be happy to write about that, too!
In an earlier blog post I wrote about the importance of a balanced, complete diet in maintaining beautiful skin. No single nutrient or antioxidant can give everything your body needs to create, repair and replace skin cells or build the skin’s protective barrier. Today I’ll look at some popular diet programs and how they can affect your skin.
This is a low-carb, low-fat and high-protein diet developed by Dr. Robert Atkins in the 1970s. He was the one of the first to make the public aware of the dangers of too much carbohydrates, saying that it raised sugar levels, which were in turn stored in tissues as fat. Atkins encouraged his followers to eat unlimited protein (meat, eggs, cheese, fish and shellfish) and eliminating carbs to force the body to burn the fat.
Atkins was right about the dangers of carbs, but there are dangers in a diet that has too much protein especially over a long period of time. Excessive protein can cause calcium levels to drop, which can affect the bone density in the face. Acidity in meat-based diets can also affect our skin’s PH levels. Most importantly, the diet does not put enough emphasis on fruits and vegetables, which provide skin-boosting vitamins and minerals and help fight free radicals that cause early aging and skin cancer.
The South Beach Diet
This diet made a distinction between “healthy carbs” from whole grains and “bad carbs” from sugar and starch. I do agree that a low-glycemic diet can help the skin, since high sugar foods have been linked to acne breakouts and lower collagen and elastin levels.
However, the South Beach Diet is characterized by phases, with the first completely removing all sugar including all fruits and vegetables like carrots, beets and corn. These are excellent sources of Vitamin C, betacarotene, and antioxidants.
The Mediterranean Diet
This diet – rich in fresh fish, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean proteins – was first promoted to help with heart disease, but it does deliver many skin benefits as well. It’s rich in antioxidants and omega and fatty acids, and olive oil keeps the skin barrier healthy and hydrated.
The Mediterranean diet allows whole grains, which is good news for people who do love their rice and noodles! I see this as an example of how we can enjoy what we love but balance it with healthier, more nutrient-rich ways of cooking. One thick, crunchy slice of bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar is a much better way to fix a carb craving than a bag of potato chips.
The Vegan Diet
I do love a diet that’s full of fruits and vegetables, and I know many vegetarians who have beautiful skin. The most important thing to consider is to get good protein sources. Our body needs protein to produce, repair and rejuvenate our skin and our hair. Otherwise, our skin will lose elasticity and look very dry and dull.
If you do choose a vegetarian lifestyle – either for diet or personal or religious beliefs – be sure to include protein-rich food such as tofu, beans, nuts like chickpeas, and peanut butter. Nuts and healthy oils (such as flaxseed oil and olive oil) can also provide essential fatty acids to keep your skin properly hydrated.
Since meat is often the go-to source of Vitamin B, be conscious of getting this from other sources or taking a supplement with Vitamin B, selenium and zinc.
The Paleo Diet
This diet program advocates removing processed foods and getting nutrients from natural sources, claiming these are the foods we are genetically predisposed to. In many ways, it is one of the most nutritionally balanced. It advocates lean proteins, fresh fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats from seeds, nuts, olive oil and fish oils, and avocados.
The Paleo diet’s holistic approach to eating can’t really hurt your skin. We’re still getting vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates and fats, but simply choosing where to get them. For example, vegetables are organic, and meat is taken from grass-fed cows that are leaner and have not eaten any feeds.
Supporters have reported smooth and clearer skin just by eliminating processed sugars from their diet. Some people who have eczema and rosacea also say that they’ve suffered less (or less severe) episodes. The Paleo diet is relatively new so no long-term studies have been made, so I can’t verify if this diet is “good for the skin”, but I don’t see any harm in selecting good ingredients for our meals!
Eat well, look good … and enjoy life!
I believe that our diet not only affects our skin, but our energy levels and our mood. There is no need to cut out food groups or even the food that makes us happy! This list shows there are many approaches to nutrition, and the most successful ones are those that are based on balance, moderation, and finding healthy sources.
Furthermore, never go on a diet just because the celebrities are talking about it, or stay on it because you are losing massive amounts of pounds at the cost of your energy or mood. The best diets make you look good and feel good, and your skin (and smile!) will show it.
Collagen drinks and collagen-infused coffees and cereal bars are very popular. Experts believe the global market will hit US$7.4 billion by 2020, driven by a “beauty from within” trend and aggressive ads that claim that these nutrients are absorbed faster in the bloodstream than when applied on the face.
But is it all just marketing hype?
Collagen: Before you drink it – understand it
I believe that everything you drink, eat, or put on your face is a personal choice, but please make it an informed choice. The word “collagen” is in every anti-aging campaign, but knowing what it is, how it works, and how collagen products can help your skin can help you see the truth behind any product’s claims.
Collagen is a protein in your skin that maintains its structure and elasticity. It comprises about 75% of your skin, but by the time we reach our twenties, we start losing 1.5% of our collagen every year! Sun exposure and environmental hazards can also break down collagen. Our bodies will replace collagen, but fibroblasts – our body’s “collagen factories” – become less efficient as we grow older. That’s when we start seeing fine lines and loss of radiance (when our skin is less firm, the light doesn’t bounce off as beautifully), and finally, sagging and deep wrinkles.
How collagen drinks work
Anti-aging creams work either by temporarily hydrating and plumping the outer skin layer, and/or penetrating deeper into the skin to activate collagen production. Collagen drinks claim to be effective because they deliver collagen fragments directly into the bloodstream. Some of them also provide other skin-boosting ingredients – hyaluronic acid, resveratrol, and other antioxidants – for the skin-equivalent of pizza delivery: “All this goodness, delivered to your doorstep!”
The natural question is how the body will process ingredients once it’s ingested. Critics say that will simply break them down like it does any other protein, such as meat, cheese, or eggs. Others say that any collagen fragments will be subjected to digestive enzymes, which will significantly affect their form and ability to significantly restore or repair skin.
Clinical trials of these drinks are not extensive or conclusive, and many testimonials are from customers who may have made other lifestyle changes – good diet, exercise, use of other skin creams – that could affect the quality of their skin. Also note that supplements and homeopathic remedies are not scrutinized by the FDA, and companies are not mandated to submit their products to dermatologists for review.
Bottom line: is it worth it?
Collagen drinks may hold promise, but as a consumer, we need to weigh the possible benefits with the cost and the effect we are looking for right now. Does that “beauty concoction” of collagen or nutrients fight aging better than drinking regular water and snacking on a regular apple or slice of cheese? Are you better off saving your dollars on a good skincare regimen? That is all up to you. But here are the facts: there is no clinical, independent, long-term evidence that collagen drinks can fight aging, and yet there are decades of evidence of doctor saying that a balanced diet, consistent skincare, and liberal doses of sunscreen work.
Your natural alternative
There is truth that your body needs nutrients to make healthy cells, but collagen drinks are not the only way to get them. You can get antioxidants from fruits and vegetables that can help your body produce collagen. These include tomatoes, grapefruit and watermelon (which are rich in lycopene, that helps prevent collagen degeneration), and broccoli, leafy greens and cauliflower (which contain glucosinolates, that attack free radicals that affect our collagen). Any food that is rich in omega-3 fatty acid (such as oily fish) has anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects that improve your skin barrier and protect against environmental damage. In other words, you can eat or drink your way to better skin – but you can get it from ingredients that are already in your pantry.
Again, I have always said that the choice is yours. Fill your mind with information, and fill your grocery basket with what you feel works best for you. If a collagen drink seems effective and interesting enough for you try, by all means, go ahead. But remember that skincare is never as easy as drinking as just one thing. There is no miracle drink, anti-aging potion, or superfood – just diet and lifestyle choices that add up and give you a well-earned glow.
There are many Youtube videos of people gushing over the benefits of a facial massage. Some of them demonstrate how to do it with a Chinese soup spoon; others prefer to work with their fingers. But does the facial massage really give any real benefits, especially when the process – pressing, smoothing, stroking the skin – requires time, energy and attention many of us don’t have at the end of the day?
Any massage stimulates the blood vessels and improves circulation, and your skin needs good circulation to perform well. The blood carries oxygen and nutrients to the skin, and carries away waste products like free radicals. That’s why regular exercise works wonders on your skin. While a 3 minute facial massage won’t give the full benefits of 20 minutes on a treadmill, it works on the same principle.
There’s also a good bulk of scientific studies on the connection between oxygen and skin’s overall health and strength. Oxygen helps in producing new skin cells, defend against bacteria, and synthesizing collagen. If a facial massage can encourage a flood of oxygen to your face, and keep the blood cells there working well, then that is good!
A facial massage can also help reduce puffiness around the eye, cheek and jawline. However, be careful about claims that it can actually neutralize or expel toxins – only the liver can do that! – and if you’re taking a very unhealthy diet of processed foods, smoking and drinking, a facial massage will not be able to magically sweep your blood (and your skin) clean.
That being said, facial massage does deliver some benefits, and if you find it personally relaxing and enjoy doing it either yourself or when you treat yourself at the spa, then by all means go ahead. However, if you would rather skip it, then you can find many other ways to get its benefits. You can improve circulation by dancing in your bedroom to your favourite song for 15 minutes, or control puffiness around the eyes with products that contain caffeine. There are also many facial masks and creams that can tone and tighten the skin. If you are concerned about removing toxins, the best solution is to avoid ingesting toxins through a proper diet.
As I have often said in this blog, the choice is up to you. There is more than one path to beautiful skin, and you can always pick what regimen and rituals work best not just with your skin concerns, but your personal preferences.
Can stress really cause pimples, or is it (no pun intended) “all in the mind”? There may actually be a strong connection between stress and your skin, and there’s a new field of science that’s dedicated to studying it: psychodermatology.
Psychodermatology looks at how emotions can impact the skin. Several research has already seen a link between stress and skin disorders.
For example, doctors have observed that a stressful event can trigger autoimmune diseases such alopecia (hair loss) and vitiligo. There is also a new study done on mice that found a stress-triggered hormone (glucocorticoid) can worsen conditions like psoriasis and eczema. Lead researcher Kenneth Feingold of the University of California said that once they learn how glucocorticoids work – and possibly block it – they could understand and manage how stress affects overall skin health.
Both psychodermatology and Dr. Feingold’s research are looking at a skin-stress connection that scientists see but, for now, cannot completely explain. There are a lot of theories, however.
“The mind and skin are connected on many different levels,” says Dr. Karen Mallin, a professor of dermatology and cutaneous surgery who took a postdoctoral course on psychodermatology. “A lot of nerve endings are connected to the skin, which wraps around the organs, so as emotions are played out neurologically, they can be expressed through the skin just as stress can be expressed through gastrointestinal symptoms, increased anxiety, or hypertension.”
Stress hormones like cortisol can also cause the body to produce more oil, which may contribute to an acne breakout. There are also indications that high levels of stress hormones can lower cell growth and inhibits cell differentiation – or, in layman’s terms, the body’s ability to produce healthy cells.
In one study, scientists subjected mice to stress by locking them in small cages with constant light and noise. (Sounds like the life of most human city dwellers.) Another group of mice were left to roam freely. Results showed that the unstressed mice had better skin function.
Aside from stress’s effect of hormones, nerve endings, and immune system responses, we also can’t deny that stress will also lead to habits that affect our skin. Tough week at work? We have a drinking binge with friends, and the dehydrating and inflammatory effects of alcohol show up as dryness, dullness, and dark circles. Too busy to eat on time, much less cook a healthy meal? A lifestyle of skipped breakfasts and takeout lunches deprive our skin of much needed vitamins and minerals.
Scientists are hopeful that by understanding the exact hormones and body responses to stress they can then create the medicines that can minimize its effects. Others believe that a new field like psychodermatology allows doctors to explore more integrated treatments – for example, recommending relaxation therapy, antidepressants, or counseling aside from prescription skin medication.
However, we don’t need science’s go ahead to manage stress. Knowing that there is a possible connection between our emotions and our skin – plus all the other research that links stress to heart disease, poor immune system, and other serious health problems – should already tell us that stress is something we need to address. Not just for better skin, but for a better quality of life.
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I have seen many articles circulating on the Internet that suggest that “super foods” can give you beautiful skin. While I agree that everyone can benefit from extra servings of fruits and vegetables, there is no such thing as a “super food”.
Our body needs a complete, balanced diet to produce healthy skin tissue. This diet should include vitamins, fats, minerals, proteins and even carbohydrates in the proper amount. Cutting out a major nutrient, and then mega-dosing on another, simply will not work.
What nutrients does your skin need?
Vitamin B, especially biotin, is crucial for producing healthy skin, nail and hair cells. In fact, Vitamin B deficiencies have been linked to dermatitis and even hair loss. Vitamin C is used to make collagen (the body doesn’t store Vitamin C, so it’s important to get a daily dose!)
Vitamin D helps cell development, Vitamin A helps maintain and repair skin tissue, and Vitamin E is an anti-oxidant that can protect your skin from sun damage. Minerals like zinc and selenium play an important role in cell growth and turnover. Zinc deficiencies can lead to a higher risk of skin pigmentation and dermatitis.
This chart can help you find delicious and versatile sources for vitamins and minerals.
Aside from vitamins and minerals, your skin needs healthy fats and carbohydrates. Fat– specifically omega fatty acids – are used by our bodies to produce healthy cells and form the protective skin barrier.
Carbohydrates are needed too, however I feel we often get this nutrient from the wrong sources. Very high sugar foods causes inflammation and glycation, which affects collagen and elastin levels. However, diets that cut out carbohydrates completely (such as the Atkins and South Beach diet) usually overload on protein.
The Beauty is in the Balance
The body orchestrates all these nutrients in a complex, interrelated process. One fruit or vegetable alone cannot complete your skin’s nutritional needs. However, look at these so-called superfoods as an excellent source of one or more important nutrients. For example, fatty fish like salmon or tuna are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Nuts give you zinc, selenium and good fats. These are “super’ in the sense that they deliver many benefits in one serving, but they can’t compensate for deficiencies in other areas.
Furthermore, no super food can deliver a magical glow in one serving. Skin health, like physical fitness. is something we all achieve through consistency and moderation. The “super” solution is actually very simple: eat right every day, and you will see the results.
Facial acne is so common that we don’t think twice about the occasional pimple or blackhead. However, we’re often surprised when we get a breakout on our back and shoulders. Where did that come from?
What causes back and body acne?
Acne can form anywhere on the body. While back and shoulder acne are the most common, some people get acne on their chest, buttocks, inner thighs, or even scalp.
Back and body acne are often triggered by the same factors that cause the acne on our face. The most common culprit is hormones that lead to the overproduction of oil (read our article on Adult Acne). It can also be hereditary.
Like facial acne, back acne can come in the form of black heads or white heads, or the more painful pustules (pimples) and papules (small pink bumps that feel tender when touched). When back acne is infected, it turns into pus-filled cysts that can often look like a boil.
You may also develop what’s called “acne mechanica” or bumps that resemble a prickly heat rash. This is actually caused or worsened by irritation from trapped moisture, or continuous friction or pressure on an area. This can be triggered by anything from your back pack to the mats to wearing ‘non-breathable” fabrics when you’re working out at the gym. This is very common among athletes.
Can I use facial acne products to treat back acne?
Theoretically, yes. The ingredients in facial care can clear the pores, fight inflammation, and kill bacteria regardless of what part of the body on which they are applied.
However, the skin on the back is thicker than that of the face. You may need a stronger or more textured exfoliating ingredient that can help slough off the dead skin cells that clog pores.
If you frequently get back acne, get an anti-bacterial body soap or body wash. You may also want to switch your body moisturizers for a lighter, non-comedogenic formula.
Just like facial acne, body and back acne can’t always be avoided, but it can be treated. This is just a “bump” in the road.
I never had acne when I was a teenager. Why am I getting it now?
A: You are not alone. In my years as a pharmacist, I have personally met women in their 30s, 40s and even their 50s who struggle with adult acne. Some of them are like you — suddenly plagued by a mid-life skin crisis. Others had acne in their teens, but are wondering why a product that used to work for them now seems useless.
Every one’s skin is unique and there is no universal cause for adult acne. However, there are common factors that could lead to a breakout.
Behind the scenes of a zit
It might help to understand how a pimple develops. Your skin releases oils from your pores to protect your skin and keep it lubricated. However, the pores can be blocked with dirt and dead skin cells, and bacteria can infect the plugged follicles causing the skin around it to become red and swell.
So, if you have adult acne, ask yourself: why is my skin producing more oil, and what is clogging my pores?
Teens are more prone to pimples because of a sudden surge of androgen, a hormone that affects your skin’s oil production. However, you may be experiencing hormonal fluctuations even today: when you get your monthly period, during pregnancy, peri-menopause and menopause, or when you start or discontinue birth control pills.
A high-glycemic diet
Studies published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition link acne to a diet that’s high in refined sugars and carbohydrates (so that’s not just chocolate, but white breads, noodles, and rice).
However, the diet-acne connection is hotly debated even among dermatologists and skin scientists. Those who say there’s a link explain that the spike of the hormone insulin also triggers androgen; others say the evidence of dietary changes aren’t strong enough to actually cause a breakout.
When it comes to skin health and diet, it’s best to take everything in moderation!
Your makeup products
I personally believe that we should keep makeup to a minimum. However, I do understand how some people would feel self-conscious about adult acne and try to cover it with concealer and foundation. My advice is to see makeup as a temporary solution that shouldn’t worsen the problem. Look for and invest in a good anti-acne skin routine. Use makeup only when you need to, and look for formulas that are non-comedogenic (won’t clog pores) and thoroughly remove it at the end of the day with a good makeup remover.
If you are having a flare up or a worsening of your acne condition, it is best to stop all cosmetic products until the situation improves.
It can be tempting to squeeze a pimple to make it quickly go away, but you may be worsening and prolonging your acne problem. The bacteria in the pus can enter and infect surrounding pores, or you force the plug deeper into the skin and worsen the infection and inflammation. You also risk acne scars. Keep your hands off and let your acne products do the work.
Adult acne can be frustrating, especially when it feels so unexpected. Many of my older customers have expressed your sentiments: “Why am I only getting this now? This is so unfair — I have to worry about wrinkles and acne?” The good news is that even though it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact cause behind your breakout, you will be able to find a good treatment. Skin science has made wonderful advancements since our college years, and your midlife skin crisis – like all the problems we’ve faced – shall pass
Parabens are preservatives that prevent bacteria from growing in skincare, makeup, and personal care products. The most common kinds are butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben. As a pharmacist, I have avoided using parabens in the products I develop because of the potential cancer risk.
The estrogen-cancer connection
Estrogen is a naturally occurring hormone that helps our sexual development and functioning of our organs. It helps cell division and growth of breast cells – and unfortunately, does the same for cancerous cells and tumors. While high estrogen levels can’t singularly cause cancer, it can increase risk or speed up the disease’s progression.
Parabens and estrogens
Researchers discovered that parabens are xenoestrogens: they have a similar chemical structure that fits into our body’s estrogen receptor the way a key fits into a lock. While parabens are considered “weak” xenoestrogens, like all synthetic compounds the body has trouble breaking them down, so they can accumulate in our tissues over years of exposure. In 2004, Philippa Darbre – a noted oncologist and scientist – released a landmark study that detected parabens in 18 out of 20 breast tumour biopsies. Critics said that was not enough to establish a paraben-cancer connection, but Darbre has argued that studies on estrogen, and well-documented research on paraben’s ability to mimic estrogen, are enough for consumers to be cautious.
Darbre’s study sparked a decade-long debate, with many countries recommending limits on paraben levels in cosmetics, and further research on the cumulative effect of parabens over years of use. However, many companies are voluntarily removing parabens from their products in response to consumer concern. Parabens may not be conclusively dangerous, but many are not willing to wait until science provides irrefutable proof.
Weighing the risk
The quantity of parabens in a single bottle of lipstick or lotion cannot, in and of itself, be considered a cancer risk. Cancer is a complex disease that can be triggered by many factors – genetics, diet, lifestyle, and exposure to many other environmental hazards. It would be irresponsible to say, “This product causes cancer!”
However, I do believe that every little bit helps. We use skincare products every day, and in the case of lotions, liberally apply them all over our body. I have personally decided to avoid parabens and look for natural, safer ingredients such as grapefruit extract and a form of benzoic acid that has been extracted from plants.
There is no harm in playing on the safe side, especially when we are exposed to many other environmental and chemical hazards: sun exposure, pollution, and chemicals in our food.
The choice, however, is up to you. If cancer runs in your family, or if you are particularly concerned by the possible side effects of parabens, then read the label of your skincare products. If you feel that the risk is minimal, then at least you know how parabens work and what the “beauty buzz” was all about.
It is always important to understand what you put in your skin. If you have any questions about skincare ingredients, feel free to leave a question in your comments below and I will be happy to do my best to answer them!