Are You Sure That’s Safe?
Nothing takes me back like a heady whiff of a certain face cleanser that I used as a teenager. Its frosty, citrusy scent evokes a rush of memories about those years when I was — for better or worse — negotiating new realities and expectations of what it meant to be a woman and an adult.
But when I want to take that little trip down memory lane these days, I steal a sniff in the drugstore aisle — because I’d never put that stuff on my face again.
It’s easy to rely on the familiar, but over the past few decades our knowledge of skin care has changed as much as the skin on our faces. Even if you’ve moved on from baby blue astringents and baby oil “suntan lotion,” there may be some assumptions and habits you developed early on that may not be doing your skin any favors. Here are our top five offenders.
The Boozy Stuff
Just like there’s a difference between a white wine spritzer and that third shot of tequila, there’s good and bad choices when it comes to alcohol in your skin care. For starters, not all alcohol is equal. There’s the ethanol-type alcohol that we imbibe and fatty alcohols like cetearyl, cetyl or stearyl alcohol that are used as moisturizers and stabilizers.
Ethanol (often listed as SD Alcohol or Alcohol Denat) can be the troublemaker when used in skin care, particularly in higher amounts. It can make products feel weightless and promotes the penetration of other ingredients (which is why you’ll find it in serums and lotions), but studies have found that it also causes skin irritation, contact dermatitis and cell damage.
Still love that squeaky clean feeling you got from your first toner? Embrace the fact that you’re exchanging short-term pleasure for long-term damage, or kick the habit by looking at product labels before you buy. If ethanol is listed among the first four or five ingredients, take a pass and consider a product like Neutrogena Alcohol-Free toner, which gives you that freshness without stripping your skin.
The Scrubby Stuff
You’ve microchipped your dog and replaced your landline with a smartphone, so why would you thumb your nose at the marvelous progress we’ve made in exfoliation? Gone are the days that we would try to scrub off the zits with loofah-esque “puffs” and creamy tubes of “natural polishers.” You’ve put your skin through years of sun, stress and who knows what else, and now’s the time to start treating more kindly.
Chemical exfoliation is usually a great, gentle choice for most women, but if you love the baby-butt smoothness that a physical scrub gives you, avoid physical exfoliants with rough, irregular edges that can tear skin (think crushed apricot seeds and walnut shells) or plastic “microbeads.” (Did you know they might be ocean killers?) Try gentler alternatives, like the very modern Clarisonic sonic skin cleansing system or even a very low-tech baby washcloth.
The Tingly, Invigorating Stuff
Companies use fragrance to evoke emotion, which is why so many cleansers and creams feature frisky, bright scents that scream “active!” and “clean!” through the use of citrus and mint notes. Problem is, the peppermint and menthol in your cleanser or cream are considered counterirritants: They create inflammation on the surface of your skin to reduce inflammation in deeper tissues (which is why Ben-Gay works), yet any inflammation can damage the collagen and elastin that keeps you looking young. Citrus scents may contain limonene, an oil that can sensitize skin, or citrus essential oils that may irritate your skin, especially if you wear them while exposed to the sun.
If a potentially irritating fragrance improves your mood but does nothing to improve your skin, why bother putting it on your face? Indulge in fabulously scented shower gels that are quickly washed off, keep fragranced creams below the delicate décolletage and under clothing and get that perky/crisp 1990s CK One vibe going on with a scented candle instead.
The scientific side of skin care really got going in the 1980s and 1990s as Baby Boomers started hitting their fourth decade. Cosmetic marketing began to stress ingredients that would reverse aging, and even packaging and labelling became more lab-like.
The problem is that we started spending money on scientific-sounding, yet dubious “clinical results.” Since the FDA does not regulate most skin care and cosmetics, companies can base their claims of “93 percent increase in appearance of fine lines” on as few as 10 people evaluating their personal experience with the product. In most other cases, the research is conducted by scientists employed by (or paid by) the company who makes the product.
Ultimately, there’s still just a few ingredients that have demonstrated anti-aging results, and a handful of others that look very promising. Stick with them and file the next VivaYouthSmooth2000XL™©® cream that comes down the pipeline alongside that amazing flying car that never really happened.
Almost Anything in a Jar
In simpler times — i.e. back before “active” became a noun in the beauty lexicon — skin creams were commonly packaged in attractive jars. We ignored the accompanying bacterial contamination that inevitably occurred with dipping (or double dipping) our fingers into the product during our nightly beauty ritual, and that habit seems to have stuck with a lot of us.
Nowadays, we expect our skin care to be chock full of antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E that degrade when exposed to light and oxygen. Some companies are shying away from controversial parabens and other preservatives, which in turn require packaging that keeps out as many microbes and bacteria as possible. So it’s no wonder that the demand for better packaging, in the form of tubes and airless packaging technology, is on the rise. If your favorite beauty product still comes in a jar, it’s time to tell the company to drop the Trapper Keeper of cosmetic packaging technology.