As a dermatologist, a mom and a skincare lover, I am making a conscious effort to transition towards products that are not only safe for the skin, but also better for our bodies and to the environment.

I want to share my deep dive into clean beauty with you guys, as I educate myself on all things “clean.” One of the biggest issues I’ve been noticing in the clean space is that there is so much “greenwashing” and misinformation out there. I’m incredibly evidence-based and have always taken pride in making recommendations that are backed by sound science. My clean skincare journey is no exception, so I wanted to connect with the pioneers in this space and share their insight and knowledge with you!

My first Q & A on clean had to be with my friend and colleague, Mia Davis. Mia is not only one of the pioneers of “clean”, but her approach to her work is so innovative and thoughtful, it is just incredibly impressive. I know you guys will be as blown away by Mia as I am. I’m so thrilled to share this interview with you.

WB: Mia, your passion for clean began in 4th grade and you have been moving the needle ever since. You were the first hire at Beautycounter, you’ve consulted for goop, Honest Company, type A . . . and the list goes on. Now, at Credo Beauty, you’ve created the Credo Clean Standard and you lead the Credo “brand’s consortium,” which addresses key challenges in this industry, from fragrance disclosure to more sustainable packaging. I think it’s safe to say that you live and breathe all things clean beauty. How do you define the term clean?

Mia Davis: Clean is an evolution of natural, green, or eco—those are elements of clean, but it goes much further. To me, clean is nexus of these important elements: safety, sourcing, sustainability, ethics and transparency. A little more about these:

  • Safety is about the ingredient’s potential impact on health.
  • Sourcing is where it comes from—is it a synthetic chemical? A natural compound? Or naturally-derived?
  • Sustainability comes back to the ingredient’s impact on the environment.
  • For Ethics, questions include “were people paid a living wage to mine or harvest this ingredient?” or if the ingredient it comes from animals, “how were the animals treated?”
  • And transparency is really the web that holds these other terms together. If we don’t have transparency about the ingredients or the supply chain, how can we know it is “clean?” We cannot make an informed decision without information.

Check out this “Clean Beauty” infographic I made with Credo Beauty that illustrates all of this!

WB: I love the way that you share all of this information in a way that is accessible, clear, and beautifully stated. I absolutely agree that any brand that calls itself “clean” should consider those factors very carefully. When it comes to sourcing: can you elaborate on how you feel about ingredients that are natural vs naturally-derived vs synthetic?  I personally have seen numerous patients develop skin reactions when switching from synthetic to natural products.  Do you agree that when it comes to skin health, natural is not always better?

Mia Davis: Thanks—I know my definition of clean is complex—there is a lot to consider. But it is also the most honest approach! Your question about natural vs. synthetic really gets right to the point. If we only talk about an ingredient’s “natural-ness” but not about its safety or sustainability, then we’re missing the point of “clean.” Natural ingredients can be irritating, for sure. They can even be unsustainability, or unethical.  Some ingredients can be perfectly safe and natural for one person, and not for another person who might have sensitivities to it. So, I embrace the complexity—otherwise, it is just marketing.

WB: I have been searching and testing a variety of clean products over the last year, and trying to transition my own skincare to clean products.  Since “clean” is not an FDA regulated term (and in fact, the entire beauty industry is pretty under-regulated), different brands and different retailers are adopting different definitions.  For example, Sephora Clean is different from Target Clean is different from Credo Clean. I know you’ve been a trailblazer in this area, and many experts consider Credo’s standards to be among the most discerning — the “highest standards” of clean, if you will!  Can you elaborate a bit on the standards that Credo has adopted and how they differ from other brands and retailers that use the term clean?

Mia Davis: Credo, the largest clean beauty retailer, has a Clean Standard that operationalizes “clean,” so you know that the brands Credo carries have accountability. Outside of some system of accountabilty, “clean” can mean something or nothing. People have to look into the brand’s commitments. For example, are they formulating without ingredients of concern, like parabens, phthalates and more? Are they disclosing their “fragrance” ingredients? Do they talk about the source and safety of ingredients? Ask the brand what “clean” means to them. If the answer is wishy-washy, that is a red flag.

WB: Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge on this topic! I know we’ll go deeper into all of the clean elements—safety, sustainability and more—in the near future. I always value our discussions so much.

Mia Davis: Thank you so much for having me, and for sharing your clean skincare journey with your patients and community. What we put on our bodies and rinse down the drain matters, and how we make these ingredients in the first place really matters too.

 

 

 

 

What are Sulfates? 

Sulfates are a type of surfactant, which are like detergents for skincare products.  In other words, they help cleanse the skin of dirt and oil, and help many liquid soaps, body washes and shampoos to create a rich, foamy lather. Although “sulfates” aren’t technically a class of chemicals, the term is often used as a stand in to talk about harsh surfactants since many of those chemicals have “sulfate” in the ingredient name (e.g. sodium lauryl sulfate).

Surfactants and “sulfates” are also found in many moisturizers and sunscreens, because they help ingredients mix well together, instead of clumping or separating in the bottle.

Some sulfates are synthetic, meaning they are man-made and come from petroleum, while others come from natural sources like palm oil or coconut oil.  Regardless of where they come from, some of them can do major harm to your skin, hair and scalp. Not all sulfates are evil, but I do avoid all harsh sulfates and here’s why.

How do Harsh Sulfates Impact your Skin?

Some sulfates can be very irritating.  If used in high enough concentrations, they can damage the outer layers of your skin, resulting in itchy, cracked, dry or inflamed skin.  They very rarely create true allergies, but they can be a major cause of irritation.

In shampoos, harsh sulfates can irritate the scalp and result in frizzy, dull hair.  They can even make your hair dye disappear quickly, making your trips to the salon more frequent.

What about your Microbiome? 

If you continue to cleanse with harsh sulfate-containing products, this is also likely to damage your skin’s microbiome.  The healthy bacteria on your skin need a certain environment, or “terrain” to survive and thrive.  When you wash away and damage their terrain, these delicate bacteria die and unhealthy, hearty ones remain and take over – we do not want this to happen!

How do I know what to look for on the label?

Sodium lauryl sulfate is a particularly harsh sulfate, so I recommend avoiding that one whenever possible. Other sulfates contain an “-eth” at the end of them, like sodium laureth sulfate and aluminum laureth sulfate. When chemicals end in “-eth”, that means they’ve been put through a process called “ethoxylation” to make them less harsh, and make the ingredient more gentle on your skin.  Now the catch is, during the process of ethoxylation, you sometimes end up with low levels of a contaminant, specifically, 1, 4 dioxane, that is a carcinogen. 1,4 doixane doesn’t appear on ingredient labels.

So, even though some of these sulfates that end with an -eth are more gentle for the skin, there is a risk that they mght contain tiny levels of carcinogens, which is something I’m not comfortable with. So, not only do I avoid harsh sulfates, but I also avoid ingredients that end with “-eth.”

My Bottom Line

Avoid Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

Avoid Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate (SLES)

Avoid any chemical names that end with “-eth.”

 

Dr. Whitney

 

More and more companies are marketing their products as “paraben-free.”  What’s the fuss and should you be concerned about parabens when choosing your favorite skincare options?

What are parabens?

Parabens are a group of preservatives used in cosmetics to help keep those products from becoming contaminated with microbial growth (like harmful bacteria or yeast).  They extend the shelf life of a product.  If you make a DIY recipe and don’t use it right away, it could easily become contaminated with “bad bugs,” the kind that can cause infections.  That’s because you’re not adding preservatives to those concoctions.  Almost all of the water-based products you see on the shelf in a store, or order online, contain preservatives to keep them free of growth that would be very unpleasant to discover in your skincare products, and could even harm you.  Parabens are actually one of the least irritating preservatives found in skin care today.  They were named the “non-allergen” of the year in 2019 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society (ACDS)!  This is because parabens are unlikely to cause a skin allergy or irritation, compared to all the preservatives on the market today.

So, why are so many products claiming to be “paraben-free?”  And why do I recommend avoiding parabens in skincare? 

Here’s the scoop:

A study done back in 2004 detected parabens in samples of breast tissue from breast cancer patients.  Parabens were actually found within the cancerous tissue samples collected.  Some types of parabens are known to mimic estrogen, so the concern is that they may be disrupting hormones and possibly increasing the risk of cancer.  There are also some studies that raise concerns about exposure to parabens and male reproductive health. Basically, parabens bind to certain estrogen receptors, and turning on estrogen signals can theoretically contribute to a whole host of issues for men, women and children.  Butylparabens and propylparabens are the most likely to bind to estrogen receptors.  In fact, the EU has banned the use of these 2 preservatives in diaper creams, and reduced their allowed concentrations in a myriad of other cosmetic and personal care products.

We know that parabens are indeed absorbed by the body, mostly through our use of cosmetic or personal care products such as makeup, lotions, hair products and perfumes.  However, we  don’t fully know whether they pose any long-term health risks.  Concerns exist, but no clear link has been demonstrated.  The FDA believes that, so long as they are used in low concentrations, they are probably not doing any harm.  Even well known and respected skincare brands, like Cerave, continue to formulate using parabens in many of their most popular products.

Where I stand:

In the case of parabens, I don’t believe in innocent until proven guilty.  In my opinion, parabens are guilty until proven safe.  I want to see evidence proving that parabens are not causing any significant hormonal disruption before I feel confident recommending paraben-containing products to my patients!  Also, parabens aren’t the only chemicals linked to hormone disruption – there are others used in skincare, household products and in food, so these exposures can add up. I have too many patients struggling with fertility issues, and battling breast cancer.  Given that there are other preservative options available with safety data, I am not ready to take that risk.

Dr. Whitney

You guys asked so many great questions about clean beauty! Check out my responses:

  1. How does Retinol/Retin-A fit into the clean beauty picture?

ANSWER: Retinol is a Vitamin A derivative which is often added to topical skincare products to promote skin renewal, brighten skin tone, reduce acne, and boost your skin’s collagen production. It also functions like an antioxidant to help address free radical damage which leads to visible signs of aging. The term retinoids is most commonly used to cover the class of Vitamin A derivatives which includes over-the-counter retinol and prescription strength Retin-A.  Retinol is probably the most powerful over-the-counter anti-aging ingredient on the market today and has the most impressive data when it comes to truly transforming our skin, provided that we use it consistently over time. I often recommend that my patients who are starting to notice fine lines and wrinkles (typically ages 30+) incorporate an OTC retinol into their nightly skincare routine. Retinol helps to diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, improves your overall skin tone and appearance and can even help to reverse some of the side effects of sun damage. When applying it, don’t neglect your neck, chest, and eye area. If you are using a retinol to address fine lines and wrinkles, I often tell my patients that they will see the clearest visible results in about 6 months with even more impact after one year. In the case of retinol, in my opinion, natural alternatives just haven’t caught up to the efficacy of safe, consistently effective, synthetic ingredients formulated in a lab. You might see some products containing rosehip seed oil, or beta carotene, with claims that the product has “natural retinol alternatives.” While these ingredients do have some nice benefits for the skin, they aren’t going to deliver comparable results to a synthetic retinol made in a laboratory. I regularly test new products, so if I find a product that changes my mind, I will share that information!

2. What clean beauty ingredients or products do you recommend for dry, acne prone , sensitive skin?

ANSWER: As I share in Dirty Looks, I would consider addressing these symptoms using a 360 degree approach, including dietary changes, in addition to topical products. We now know that certain foods can trigger acne, including whey protein and skim milk. Many times, internal inflammation, which begins in our gut, manifests externally as sensitive skin, acne, dryness, etc. So, that is where I would begin. In terms of clean beauty products, I would avoid any harsh cleansers or scrubs that will disturb your skin’s gentle natural barrier and healthy microbiome. A gentle cleanser would be a great option. Look for the words “gentle,” “hydrating” or “pH balanced” on the label.  When it comes to exfoliating your skin, make sure to limit any form of exfoliation to twice a week and for sensitive skin, I prefer chemical over physical or manual exfoliants.  Here’s a facebook live I did on exfoliating that you might find helpful. Since your skin is acne prone, you want to look for words like “non-comedogenic”, which means that the product will not clog your pores.

  1. Clean beauty in sunscreen – is this even possible?

ANSWER: This is such a great question because the terms we see advertised on sunscreen bottles can be incredibly confusing. For example, does organic mean natural? Actually, organic sunscreen technically means that the sunscreen includes carbon-based ingredients like oxybenzone and avobenzone. Organic sunscreens, according to dermatologists and chemists, are the chemical sunscreens. In contrast, physical blockers – which are minerals – are inorganic, meaning not-carbon based and include zinc oxide and and/or titanium dioxide. So, you truly have to check the label to know whether your “organic” sunscreen is the type of sunscreen you think you are buying! Some of my favorites, which would be in sync with most definitions of clean beauty, are: Naturopathica UV Defense Cream and ThinkBaby SPF 50+ Sunscreen.

  1. Is xanthan gum safe? It’s in a lot of clean beauty products.

ANSWER: Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide. It’s basically a sugar-based polymer, or chain, produced by bacteria. It’s commonly used in cosmetics, many foods, supplements . . . it can be found in so many ingestible and topical products. It can be a digestive irritant if consumed in large quantities, but overall, based on available studies, it doesn’t appear to pose substantial health concerns. It does not appear to be absorbed into our bloodstream and I have not seen any studies to date that specifically concern me when it comes to topical usage.

  1. Is grape seed oil as a body moisturizer safe for everyday use?

ANSWER: In general, grapeseed oil does appear to be safe based on what we do know, provided that it’s cold-pressed or expeller-pressed. Grapeseed oil might have some beauty benefits due to its Vitamin E and omega-6 fatty acid content. It can be used for oil cleansing and can protect against skin irritation. I would like to see more studies on grapeseed oil usage, particularly with respect to everyday use, though, before I come to a conclusion on whether that’s beneficial.

  1. What do you think about parabens? Cetaphil is so often recommended and I’ve been using it for years but I know there is some concern about parabens.

ANSWER: This is a great question because parabens have been so widely used as a preservative in beauty and skincare products for so many years and now, we are seeing so much attention called to “paraben-free” products. So, the question is, what is the danger here and why are parabens getting so much negative attention? Currently, the US Food and Drug Association and World Health Organization consider parabens to be safe at low levels. The main concerns with parabens surround whether they are hormone disruptors. Specifically, estrogen disruption has been linked to cancer and reproductive issues and the questions surrounding parabens relate to these subject matters. Therefore, many companies are including parabens on their “dirty lists” and emphasize that their products are “paraben-free.” Parabens include Ethylparaben, Butylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Isopropylparaben, Methylparaben, and Propylparaben. I have been very much aligned with the clean beauty space and the direction of clean beauty and I do think that mindfulness is warranted when it comes to paraben use. There are so many options now that are paraben-free that I feel it makes good sense to embrace those products and to move away from products which are made with parabens while further research is done with respect to their safety.

  1. Are essential oils actually good for your skin? I’ve heard conflicting advice.

ANSWER: So many of my patients swear by their essential oils. They can be energizing, relaxing, and everything in between. Diffusing them can be helpful in terms of mindfulness and anxiety reduction, which is very beneficial to the skin. In addition, some people like to use essential oils topically –whether diluted with a carrier oil or already incorporated into skincare products. Importantly, some essential oils are photosensitizing, meaning, you should not put them on your skin if you are going to be out in the sun. Some examples are: bergamot, bitter orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime, verbena, and several others. Be sure to check the information which accompanies your essential oils, as many are labeled photosensitizing! Also, certain essential oils can cause significant irritation when applied to the skin, especially if applied without diluting them first in a carrier oil. In fact, I always recommend diluting them in carrier oils before using them topically on the skin. I think a determination as to skin benefits would really need to be made on a product by product basis because essential oils are used at very different levels and for different reasons in particular products. For example, some companies use very minimal amounts of essential oils for fragrance purposes only whereas some products boast higher concentrations. I always recommend that my patients try a “patch test” if they are trying a new product, meaning that you would want to try the product on a small space on the inside of your arm to determine whether you have a reaction/experience irritation. Due diligence in this area is very important – research your oils before applying topically.

Dr. Whitney

 

There is so much buzz surrounding mineral oil. My patients ask me about it all the time. There is a lot of misinformation out there – and a lot of it is scary (for example, many of my patients are wondering whether mineral oil can cause cancer). I wanted to give more background and information on this subject to help to separate fact from fiction. This is especially timely because products containing mineral oil (Aquaphor, Petroleum Jelly) are many people’s go-to products when their skin is dry, red, and chapped during winter.

What is Mineral Oil?

Mineral oil is a clear, odorless oil which is derived from petroleum. It comes in different grades, ranging from the technical grade – which is used to lubricate car engines and equipment – to a highly purified cosmetic grade which is often found in many of the skin care products you might have in your house.

Mineral oil and petroleum jelly are both byproducts of petroleum refinement and both are considered petrochemicals.  Recently, you may see more and more products marketed as “free of petrochemicals” or “petrochemical-free” and that means they don’t contain mineral oil or petroleum jelly.  Some popular products containing mineral oil that you probably have in your home include Vaseline Petroleum Jelly and Aquaphor.

Is it Dangerous?

There is so much ongoing confusion and even fear surrounding mineral oil and petroleum jelly. People are worried about “impurities” and “contaminants” found in mineral oil – and there is some concern that it could even be carcinogenic.

The cosmetic grade mineral oil is completely different from the type of mineral oil used to lubricate engines. It’s gone through purification processes to remove these contaminants and impurities. Mineral oil is an occlusive emollient, meaning that it helps to keep your skin hydrated by locking in moisture by forming a barrier on your skin’s surface. Based on my research, it’s actually considered very safe and rarely causes irritation or an allergic reaction.

Would I be afraid to use Vaseline or Aquaphor on myself or my family, say, after a burn or after washing out a cut or scrape?  Not at all. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology advocates using Petroleum Jelly as standard protocol in wound care.

Do I use products with mineral oil on my skin or my daughter’s skin every day?  

I don’t, but it’s not because mineral oil scares me. Here are two main reasons I don’t rely on mineral oil containing products on a daily basis. First, I expect more from my skincare ingredients. Mineral oil isn’t irritating, and yes it is hydrating, but for me, that’s not enough justification to use it on a daily basis. I’d prefer to find ingredients that not only moisturize but also provide other benefits such as anti-inflammatory or antioxidant properties. The second reason I don’t use mineral oil containing products on a daily basis is because, even though mineral oil is unlikely to clog pores on its own, it can trap other pore-clogging ingredients in the skin. So if you use a product that combines mineral oil with another ingredient, the mineral oil can potentially trap that other ingredient in the skin.

What can I use instead of mineral oil?

Many of my patients are starting to consider other options to mineral oil and have noticed that clean beauty certifications often specifically exclude products containing mineral oil. For example, “Clean at Sephora” specifically means that the products included are free of sulfates, parabens, formaldehyde, phthalates and mineral oils.  Two of my favorite alternatives to mineral oil and petroleum jelly are shea butter and sunflower seed oil. Stay tuned for some of my favorite DIY home skincare recipes using these ingredients!

Dr. Whitney

@DrWhitneyBowe

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