This is my black-listed trio!
As consumers, we love to have a wide variety of options; but having too many alternatives may become overwhelming. Skincare is a good example. The 21st century offers the largest variety of skincare products ever seen; creating a growing $134 billion worldwide Industry (1). One reason for this stellar growth is consumer acceptance that skincare is not just for old ladies anymore, and that prevention is fundamental to beautiful skin preservation. Today, younger consumers, women and men, are on a quest to find the perfect skincare routine.
With this in mind, let’s dive into this ocean of skincare ingredients and try to create a scientifically-oriented protocol that will put everything in prospective. But first, we must accept that in skincare one size does not fit all. Factors such as age, ethnicity, skin concerns (wrinkles, pigmentation, redness, dryness to mention some), level of skin damage (old skin vs. young skin, solar exposed skin vs. solar protected), dietary restrictions, lifestyle (outdoorsy or city living, active social life, etc.), environmental conditions (pollution, humid or dry weather) and overall health would determine if our skin can tolerate specific skincare ingredients. Tolerability (absence of skin discomfort and irritation) drives compliance and sets our skincare for success … after all there is beauty in repetition. Similarly, an irritation-causing skincare routine is a personal beauty saboteur. Chronic inflammation created by a mismatched skincare routine will continuously produce tissue destruction and cell damage preventing skin repair -- exactly the opposite of our aim!
Major skincare ingredients offenders: Black list them! ASAP! - In my experience, there are three major offenders: fragrances, essential oils and surfactants.
Fragrances – are wrongly added to skincare products because people really enjoy them (not appreciating the consequences). Most of the time they are part of a marketing strategy to link a unique smell with a unique product or company. Other times, they are used to mask an odor from active ingredients, as no matter how effective a cosmetic product may be, no one will want to use it if it smells unpleasant. Fragrances are secret blends of approved chemicals (over 3,000 possibilities) and therefore it is almost impossible for the end consumer to know what went into the creation of any unique fragrance.
Chemicals used as fragrances can produce skin irritation and inflammation (itchiness, burning, redness, skin bumps). They are among the main causes of skin sensitization and allergic reactions such as allergic contact dermatitis, irritant contact dermatitis, photosensitivity, worsening of eczema, immediate contact reactions (contact urticaria) and pigmented contact dermatitis. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) identified fragrances as one of the biggest causes of cosmetic contact dermatitis (2). People with sensitive skin are especially susceptible to fragrances, and therefore should avoid the usage of products that contain these chemicals. Terpenes are the most common chemicals used as fragrances. They are weak skin sensitizers although their auto-oxidation in the skin produces STRONG skin sensitizer molecules (3) (based on the local lymph node assay).
Essential oils – there is nothing essential about essential oils and they should not be incorporated into our skincare products. Wrongly, they have been linked to a wide range of benefits due to their natural origin (which does not mean skin friendly) and by confusing them with oils that are good for our skin such as olive oil, avocado oil and carrot seeds oil, to mention some. These do contain antioxidants and vitamins to help with skin repair and health.
Essential oils are volatile and aromatic molecules used as fragrances and as described above, they can cause skin irritation, rashes, blistering or skin discoloration. Some essential oils (i.e., citrus, angelica root, rue leaf oils) contain furocoumarins, coumarins, and linalol/linalool which make our skin more sensitive to solar radiation (also called photosensitivity). These reactions may occur several hours after skin application and repeated exposure to solar radiation in the presence of photosensitizers may lead to long-term issues including skin cancer.
Surfactants (surface active agent) – In the skincare industry we frequently use the terms surfactant and emulsifier as synonyms, however, there is a fine line between these two that makes a huge difference in product performance and tolerability. By definition, surfactants are molecules that lower the surface tension between two faces such as two liquids or a liquid and a solid; acting as detergents, emulsifiers, dispersants and or foaming agents. The most common surfactants in skincare are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), sodium methyl cocoyl taurate, triethanolamine (TEA), dethanolamine (DEA), monethanolamine (MEA), lauryl or cocoyl sarcosine disodium oleamide and dioctyl sulfosuccinate.
Surfactants activity cannot be regulated once in contact with the skin, often resulting in adverse events such as irritant dermatitis or different types of allergies. The intensity of these reactions depends on surfactant concentration, skin contact time and the individual's skin sensitivity to these components. The interaction of surfactants with the skin surface promotes skin barrier dysfunction resulting in dehydration, redness and itchiness. Mechanisms associated to these observations include direct interaction with keratin causing it to swell and preventing the formation of Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF). In recent years, sulfate-free or surfactant-free claims have become one of the most popular claims demanded by consumers, promoting the use of low-foaming cleansing options as healthier, barrier-friendly alternatives to high foaming, potentially dehydrating cleansers.
Final thoughts: At the end of the day skincare products are designed to clean, repair and improve skin appearance, so all of them should have been created trying to minimize irritation and adverse events. Nevertheless, this is not always accomplished. Identifying ingredients that irritate your skin will facilitate your search for the perfect skincare routine. This can be accomplished by keeping an eye on how your skin reacts to skincare products (redness, itchiness and bumps formation), by trying to learn about skincare ingredients or by seeking a professional opinion.