WHY DO WE SCRUTINIZE
FOOD LABELS BUT
NOT COSMETICS LABELS?
This article examines the above reality - why Americans scrutinize nutrition labels so carefully, but not what we put on our skin.
Why is this? We count fat grams, sugar grams, fiber grams, and check cholesterol levels. Most people are trying to eat more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and less junk food. People are concerned about genetic engineering of food sources, and what impact this technology may have on public health and the viability of our ecosystems. Many of us are becoming vegan or semi-vegan. We also exercise more - whether it be walking, jogging, skiing, swimming, yoga, or mowing the lawn.
All this counting grams and education on what we eat, and what we should be eating, is not necessarily bad. As Martha Stewart would say, it's a very good thing. The FDA food labeling laws have helped people become more educated about what they put into their body, so that people can elect to make healthy choices, or to continue eating candy bars for lunch.
But why is America so interested in what we put inside our bodies but not what we put on our skin? My theory is most people don't realize that the skin is our body's largest organ, and a marvel of human engineering. It protects the major organs of the body from infection, regulates body temperature, excretes a quarter of our body's waste products, and keeps the body "together" - in the truest sense of the word. Most people just take the skin for granted - you, know it's just THERE - and until we start getting older, and start to get wrinkles, age spots, or worse, skin cancer - we usually don't give it a second thought.
I know I didn't. As a teenager in the '80's, I couldn't wait to slather on the Baby Oil and tan, tan, tan - at the city pool, at the Jersey Shore, on the apartment balcony. SPF? What was that? And who cares - I want my tan! A tan was the ultimate symbol of cool.
Like many women (and men) weaned on petroleum jelly and baby oil as moisturizers in their teens, I graduated to department store cosmetics by the time I had my first job as a Plant Engineer. In my twenties, I had more important things to do than worry about my skin! Every night I washed my face with soap, and went to sleep.
Then a funny thing happened on my way to the big 3-OH. Out of the blue, my skin became incredibly sensitive. I couldn't use the same department store moisturizers with out breaking out in a rash. And I started to get cuts on my fingers, at the knuckles, in between my fingers, on the sides, that would bleed all the time. My doctor said I had eczema, and gave me a prescription for a cortisone cream. Told me to also use one of those products you can buy in a drug store - "recommended by dermatologists". So I followed his instructions diligently - I even soaked my hands in moisturizers and wrapped them in socks every night. It worked - for about a week. The cuts always came back, and I would start again with a different brand, but soon red blotches had started to appear on my face. Now, this was war! My hands I could hide, but not my face. Plus I was following the "model's checklist", you know, the one you see repeated in different forms every month in women's magazines:
Drink 8 glasses of water a day
Eat fruits and vegetables
Avoid greasy, fatty foods
The above are important steps to follow, but in my case they were not enough. Perhaps many of you have had a similar experience, or perhaps, not - yet. It's a good bet though that you keep trying new products promoted by famous people, in the hopes you will find one that actually lives up to the hype, or at least makes your skin feel and look better.
Getting back to my eczema experience, as an engineer, I was forced to do what's called a "root-cause analysis", which is a fancy term for getting down to the nuts and bolts of a problem using various methods - including making and recording observations, performing trial and error, and experimentation.
I started at the source- by observing and recording the ingredient lists of lotions and moisturizers of products you can buy at the local drugstore or at department stores. I encourage you to do the same. Most, if not all, products contain petrolatum or mineral oil, as the primary moisturizing ingredient. Why? Because mineral oil is incredibly cheap. And mineral oil is completely synthetic, i.e., it's the purified version of the motor oil you put in your car. Just like motor oil lubricates engine pistons, mineral oil "lubricates" your skin by forming a protective film over it. Other than mineral oil, most of the other ingredients are emulsifiers, preservatives, waxes, antibacterials and such - what I call "filler" ingredients.
Another item on the ingredient list that deserves a closer look - "fragrance". According to FDA regulations, "fragrance" can be used to signify any (and many) compounds, if the use is such to impart a fragrance, or to mask an unpleasant odor. Therefore, the manufacturer does NOT have to list each fragrance chemical component by its chemical name - so there could be 1 or 100 compounds under the innocuous sounding word "fragrance." Many people, including myself, must avoid synthetic fragrances because they are a common cause of skin irritation.
During my experimentation phase, I discovered that products which contained natural oils, and pure aromatherapy essential oils, such as lavender and geranium, worked wonders on my skin. Years of research into aromatherapy and herbalism opened up marvelous doors of insight to me; somehow after the Industrial Revolution this knowledge was forgotten. History (and current scientific research) supports how certain essential oils can balance skin's oil production, improve circulation, and fight bacteria. The chemical structure of essential oils is wonderfully complex, as only a natural material can be. And because it is so close to our natural chemistry, an essential oil can penetrate the skin to achieve a healthy effect. After performing trial and error with different formulas, I was able to develop products that finally got rid of my eczema, once and for all. I have been "eczema-free" for over two years.
My experience thus far has taught me that the best skin care incorporates specific natural ingredient combinations or "synergies". Great skin care incorporates nature and technology, with the scales tilting towards as natural as possible. Ingredients such as aloe vera, evening primrose oil, calendula oil, vitamins A & E, olive oil, chamomile extract, pure essential oils - these are what I call "value added" ingredients. Always look for "value added" ingredients in your skin care, and the closer to the beginning of the ingredient list, the higher the quantity is in that package. You don't need a degree in chemistry to look for familiar natural "value added" ingredients.
Technology is important to provide a pleasant product - no one likes a "waxy" or "greasy" feel. From an engineering viewpoint, you do need some "filler" ingredients - for example, propylparaben & methylparaben are used in very tiny quantities to protect against bacteria build up in the product bottle. OK, that's pretty necessary, because every time you open a bottle, or put your finger in a jar of crème, bacteria are being introduced. Add water (found in many products) and you've just created a potent Bacteria Cocktail. Some "natural" skin care companies say their products are "chemical -free" or "100% natural", but don't be misled by these claims. Remember that water breeds bacteria, so that the only skin care that can be 100% natural cannot contain water as an ingredient (i.e., massage oil, soap bars). There is no scientific proof that 100% natural is any better than say 95% natural. In any event, all ingredients in cosmetics from respectable companies, even the mineral oil I loathe, are safe and non-toxic to use. Whether they do anything to help you skin is another story.
So what to do? Should the FDA put "skin nutrition" labels on skin care products? No, I think FDA has bigger fish to fry. My suggestion: start scrutinizing the labels of your favorite cosmetics like you scrutinize the labels on the food you eat. Look for "value added" ingredients such as vitamins (A & E), botanicals (aloe vera, sweet almond oil, squalane, sesame seed oil, jojoba oil, cucumber extract) and pure essential oils (usually reputable companies will put these names in Latin so the very particular, like me, can determine the quality of the botanical). The more "value added" ingredients the better the product usually is. Something with chemical names you can't pronounce or recognize probably contains only "filler" ingredients.
Note also that if a product labels claims it contains "chamomile" and chamomile is the last ingredient on the list, you are not receiving any beneficial effects. There could be as little as one drop of chamomile in an entire bottle. Also, note that an "essential oil" is many times concentrated and more effective than an "extract". Therefore, if you want to experience the calming, anti-irritating and skin oil balancing effects of lavender, you should look for lavender oil, and not lavender extract, or worse lavender fragrance, in the ingredient list. Price is another quality indicator - a product containing aromatherapy grade essential oils will be more expensive than drugstore brands. However, that doesn't mean you should pay $100 for an ounce of cream. Learn to separate the hype from the real deal.
Avoid cosmetics with synthetic fragrances, colors, or mineral oil (or petrolatum). As you start reading the labels you'll be struck by how many different products contain almost the same ingredients. With this education comes the ability to make choices, choices you are already making for food you purchase and eat. Reading the labels and understanding them will help you to find skin care that is 'food' for your skin with "value added" ingredients. Achieve a state of balance with the food you feed your skin and food you feed your body, and you'll soon see and feel a healthy, new you!
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