DOES SKINCARE 'WORK'? A closer look at skin, skincare & toxins.
If you read the lat Kavana blog post on ‘Toxic Babies & the Mean 15’, you’re aware of the ‘toxic body burden’- the chemicals found in the bloodstream or people everywhere, including the astounding 287 synthetic chemicals found in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies.
But how do these harmful chemicals get into our bodies and that of newborn babies? Does the skin let them penetrate willy nilly or does it protect us?
This week’s Kavana or intention, is to debunk a prevailing, popular myth around skincare, explore how the skin works to protect us and discover how toxins and substances in skincare get into our bodies through the skin.
Perhaps the most popular myth on many ‘clean-beauty’ and celebrity beauty websites and social media pages, is that 60% of what we put on our skin (ie: chemicals in skincare) absorbs into our bloodstream, in 26 seconds.
This myth insinuates that toxic-chemical laden products, should be avoided, since they can penetrate beyond the surface layer of the skin- also known as the epidermis- and go deeper into the body’s bloodstream and lymph in the subcutis or hypodermis, where they can wreak havoc, almost instantly.
But is this true? Does our skin absorb 60% of what we put on it, and does it do so in 26 seconds? Do toxic chemicals not get stopped by the skin’s barrier layer and if not, do they go deeper and/ accumulate over time and cause damage or worse, in the body? Short answer: No, it’s not true but it’s also not ‘not’ completely true! If that sentence is confusing, let me explain.
THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO HMMM?:
First of all, if the claim that our skin absorbs 60% of what is put on it in 26 seconds is true, how is the body not totally waterlogged after 26 seconds in a bath, shower or swimming pool? Why is there still makeup on skin at the end of the day if 60% of it is absorbed in 26 seconds? And while we’re at it, why don’t we just apply broccoli on our skin, instead of eating it? Green beauty for the win!
On the other hand, if this isn’t true, and 60% of what is put on the skin is not absorbed, how come skin can burn after a long time in the sun or feel dry after a swim in the salty ocean?
Does skin absorb some chemicals and not others? More importantly, do toxic chemicals in skincare actually get absorbed through our skin and harm us?
An understanding of how toxins work when they reach our skin’s surface, can only be reached if we know what skin is and how it functions. So first, a brief look at the skin, in this episode of science is fun!
THE SKINNY ON SKIN:
The soft outer membrane covering of our bones, muscles, ligaments and internal organs, plays a pivotal role in protecting the rest of our body from infection, pollution, the elements, UV radiation and other external agents like harmful chemicals, allergens, pathogens, and yes, toxic ingredients in beauty products.
While some might claim otherwise, it is the skin that is in fact the largest organ of the human body and it is incredibly layered. It is precisely this layering that mitigates the absorption of toxins into our body and helps the skin do a brilliant job of ‘self-care’, all by itself. The skin can self- moisturize, self-exfoliate, self- regenerate, self-protect and self-heal itself! But how does it do this?
THE SKIN’S OWN LAYERED APPROACH:
Like a layered 12-step skincare routine, the skin itself, has it’s own self-care system and layering plays a pivotal role in it. There are three layers to the skin, from top to bottom identified as the Epidermis, Dermis and the Hypo-dermis aka the Subcutis. The Epidermis or top most layer, houses an additional four layers that help protect us from the outside world. Incredible!
This top layer of the Epidermis is called the Stratum Corneum (SC), and it is where most toxins are excluded, and selective chemical absorption occurs. This top layer of the skin-or SC, is where most over the counter skincare action happens, when we apply something topically on the skin.
Most skincare is thankfully created to nourish the skin barrier- this top layer of the epidermis. The goal is to protect the Stratum Corneum (SC) and not penetrate deeper in the skin’s lower layers or the bloodstream beneath. The FDA and Health Canada classify blood penetrating ingredients as drugs, so by law, over the counter skincare ingredients, toxic and non-toxic alike, should not be able to penetrate the blood. Sneaky toxins in skincare on that Mean 15 list I wrote about in the last Kavana blog, circumvent this protective regulation. But how?
Let’s take a closer look at the skin’s natural defenses or self-care mechanisms that help protect us, before we see how they are circumvented by toxins.
OUR SKIN’S SELF CARE & DEFENSE: NATURAL MOISTURE
PORES: The pores or opening for hair follicles are microscopic openings in the skin through which particles can pass through, in which a single hair grows. While hair helps trap and filter potentially harmful particles on the surface of the skin, the pores act as a conduit for things to be filtered out of the body.
Primarily, sebum, our skin’s natural oil, is released to the surface layer of our skin to help our skin be naturally moisturized.
Pores function primarily to get and keep things out of our body, including things other than sebum, like sweat and toxins. Pores are not ‘designed’ to allow things into the body, thereby helping us not turn into human, waterlogged Michelin men after a bath or shower. This physical structure and it’s mechanism of release, also helps regulate body temperature and keep us aglow.
CERAMIDES: While pores act as conduits to let things out through the skin, ceramides, a well known cutaneous fat/lipid, make up about 30-40% of the epidermis, helping create a barrier to help prevent things the body needs, from getting out. Ceramides help prevent excess water loss (aka Trans-Epidermal Water Loss TEWL), locking moisture into your skin, keeping it soft and supple, while helping prevent environmental damage, allergens, germs, bacteria and fungi from getting in.
HYALURONIC ACID: Additionally, Hyaluronic Acid (HA) a.k.a Hyaluronan, a clear gooey substance that is naturally produced by the body, and found in eyes joints and skin- over 50% of HA in the body is found in the skin- helps skin cells survive longer, as it holds 1000 times it’s weight in water. It also serves as a go between of collagen and water, helping to nourish collagen, the fibrous protein which helps keep skin elastic and firm. It’s main function is to retain water and keep tissues well lubricated and moist. *Notewrothy caveat: most HA based skincare products are created from cosmetic grade HA powders that must be activated with water. When activated, the HA holds the water used to activate it, losing a lot of it’s water retaining properties in the formulation itself! Most HA molecules are too big to penetrate the skin as well, so a controversial ingredient.
COLLAGEN & ELASTIN: Collagen is the most common and abundant form of protein in the body and along with elastin. These proteins helps skin cells renew and repair themselves, and also helps to keep skin moist. The amount of moisture in the skin helps reduce the likeliness of skin problems like infection, inflammation and/ other perturbations like sun damage.
OUR SKIN’S SELF CARE & DEFENSE: THE ACID MANTLE
Aside from our skin’s pore structure, pore function and innate moisture production, the skin has another form of self-care and self- defense, in the form of the ‘acid mantle’.
The skin’s acid mantle is like a protective shield on the surface of the skin, that helps maintain the pH (potential Hydrogen) a measure of the of the skin’s acidity, below 5.5. This level of pH neutralizes invading bacteria and is essential for the suppression of virulent microbial pathogen growth.
The acid mantle also helps enhance the antimicrobial barrier, thanks to antimicrobial peptides that help with the antimicrobial function on the surface of the skin. The lower the pH of the Stratum corneum’s acid mantle, the more acidic, porous and thus absorbent the skin becomes.
Keeping the acid mantle intact, is key to keeping things out of pores- the outgoing channels of our body’s oil (sebum) and water (sweat). Avoiding ingredients like alcohol and chemical peels or lasers that can all help lower the skin’s pH and make ingredients absorb into the skin more easily, is key to helping uphold the skin’s natural protective barrier. Choosing non-toxic skincare carefully, to ensure these kinds of ingredients are calibrated to support the pH of skin’s acid mantle, is key.
Avoid harsh, drying, alcohol laden toners for example and instead, choose hydrating mists like Kavana’s bestselling Rose Glow Mist, that include ingredients like glycerin, silk peptides, allantoin, rose hydrosol and Vitamin B5, that support the skin’s acid mantle.
ANTIOXIDANTS (VITAMIN C): Antioxidants chemicals like vitamin C and E are also present in the skin and help protect it from oxidation (preventing oxidation or of the proteins/ lipids) and maintain the skin’s homeostasis and softness. Stable forms of Vitamin C (a.k.a ascorbic acid, THD ascorbate, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate), can help brighten skin, as it is somewhat protective against UV light. It aids in skin’s natural regeneration, helping the body repair damaged skin cells.
Vitamin E helps block free-radicals and and may increase the amount of Vitamin E stores in the sebaceous glands- helping replenish the skin’s moisture (sebum) production, which helps slow down the skin’s aging process. It can also stimulate blood flow to the skin and hair, which helps increase collagen production, causing skin to glow.
UV ABSORBERS (UROCANIC ACID): Endogenous (internal) UV absorbent urocanic acid which is generated from histidine in the skin, is a potent UV absorbent, while exogenous nutrients like Vitamin E (a-tocopherol), Vitamin A and carotenoids like Beta carotene, along with antioxidants like lycopene and lutein can contribute to the UV barrier via enzymatic and non-enzymatic mechanisms.
OUR SKIN’S SELF-CARE & DEFENSE: EXFOLIATION/ DESQUAMATION
In addition to the self-moisturizing and self-protection properties of the skin, it also has a built in self-exfoliation system, via the monthly process of ‘desquamation’, wherebye thousands of cells rotate from inside the skin’s bottom layer of the epidermis, up to the top, outer layer or Stratum Corneum, of the skin. Around 40,000 dead skin cells a day, are naturally shed by our body.
But the question remains: Given the skin’s natural defenses, how do toxins get past all these barriers and into our bodies via our skin?
2 PIECES OF ID:
Like the mean girls in high school, the skin is very selective about what it allows in. Two primary identifying factors govern the absorption of skincare ingredients, into the skin:
- First, the size of the molecule
- Second, the molecule’s affinity for lipids (fats).
*Lipids are a group of organic chemicals like fats, oils, hormones and certain components of membranes that are grouped together because they do not react appreciably with water.
Of course other factors come into play, where the skin’s absorption of molecules is concerned. The integrity of the skin (damaged or intact), the temperature of the skin, concentration of ingredients applied to the surface, duration of contact, surface area of exposure (part of the body exposed ie: scalp vs forearms vary greatly in their absorption), solubility of medication/ cosmetic and the physical condition of the skin, can all affect the absorption of ingredients into the skin.
The question of how much does the skin absorb depends on all of these complex, situational variables.
While the absorption is contingent on many factors, the three general routes through which chemicals can enter the skin are the same- intracellular (directly into cells via permeation), intercellular (weaving between cells) and transappendageal (through appendages like the hair follicle or sweat ducts).
This said, when it comes to skincare, most molecules, are simply too big to make it past this first criteria of molecule size. Additionally, if they were small enough to penetrate into the blood, they would be labelled and sold as drugs, not over the counter cosmetics and personal care, according to Health Canada and FDA regulations.
Most skincare ingredients, are also not lipid soluble or too low in concentration to get to the blood stream. The first ingredient on most skincare formulations is usually ‘Aqua’ or water, which as you likely know, does not mix with oil and/ fats lipids).
However, there is a class of lipid soluble molecules that do sneak past the skin and into the bloodstream and cause all matter of problems. These lipid soluble molecules are toxins- specifically, ‘xeno-estrogens’.
Fat/lipid solubility, a.k.a ‘liposolubility’ is the second identifying characteristic that allows molecules to get into the blood stream. Conventional skincare products and fragrances, often contain toxins known as “xeno-estrogens” that are liposoluble compounds.
In perfumes/ fragrances, these xeno-estrogens can be inhaled, deposited in the airways and absorbed into the bloodstream via the lungs. When it comes to skin, how are xeno-estrogens absorbed into the bloodstream?
‘Xeno’, translated from the Greek, means ‘foreign’ and estrogen refers to the dominant hormone in biological females: estrogen. ‘Xeno-estrogen’, literally means ‘foreign estrogen’. These foreign estrogens are usually synthetic, man-made or plant-derived (phyto-estrogens), that mimick our body’s natural, endogenous (inner) estrogen hormones.
By mimicking the behaviour of our body’s endogenous (natural) estrogen, they disrupt the delicate hormone balance of the body. Because they do this, xeno-estrogens are also known as Endocrine (hormone system) Disrupting Compounds or EDC’s for short.
But how exactly do xeno-estrogens mimic our body’s natural estrogen?
Well, the defining physiochemical characteristics of natural and xeno-estrogens- their liposolubility- allows them to passively enter cells through the plasma membrane, where like a lock and key, they bind to estrogen receptors meant for the body’s own, natural estrogen molecules. It’s as if a boat entered a dock meant for another boat. It fits perfectly but it’s not the right boat for that dock. In the case of xeno-estrogens, it’s an enemy pirate ship!
Different cells have different receptors or docks, for different types of hormones. And the docks or receptors for estrogen, are clogged up by xeno-estrogens, leading to higher levels of estrogen in our blood stream.
This traffic jam causes major disruption in the body, because the blood stream is the superhighway loop, in which hormones travel between the brain, the pituitary gland, the thyroid and the rest of the body’s hormone making glands and organs to ‘tell’ them what to do.
Relaying messages from the brain and glands or organs that create them, the hormones run into traffic jams caused by pesky xeno-estrogens and can’t relay the messages they need to from the brain to various organs in the body.
This causes a disruption between estrogen and other hormones like progesterone and testosterone and many others in the endocrine (hormone) system. Because they are fat loving (lipo-philic), these xeno-estrogens are also stored in fat, which means ridding them from the body can be really difficult.
When estrogen and xeno-estrogens are present in such huge numbers, estrogen dominance likely occurs and the nefarious effects of this hormone imbalance, are numerous and dangerous. Just a few of these effects of estrogen dominance can include:
- -PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome)
- -sexual disfunction
- -uterine fibroids
- -breast cancer
- -chronic fatigue
- -headaches/ migraines
- -mood swings or irritability
- -appetite and sleep issues
- -fat gain and inability to lose excess body fat
- -menstruation issues
- -malformation of reproductive organs
- -reduced testosterone and low sperm count
- -Lowered circulatory thyroid hormone levels
- -enlarged breasts (men)
The list goes on…
So how to avoid toxic, XENO-ESTROGENS?
Xeno-estrogens are ubiquitous in our environment. They are found in personal care products, plastic packaging, pesticides sprayed on food, micro-plastics in the water supply, fragrances in the air, household and personal care products, clothing, toys, even those meant for newborns, they are literally everywhere.
Avoiding them is a Herculean task, but there are areas where reducing exposure is possible and the impacts can be felt and measurable. It is possible to memorize or look for the MEAN 15 listed in last week’s blog post on the labels of your favourite products to avoid them.
Keeping a screenshot of that list is helpful but cross checking all labels can be time-consuming, overwhelming and exhausting. Trying to learn and remember one toxin a month to look out for, may be a great place to start, or looking up toxins on the EWG (environmental working group)’s Skin Deep Database or the Think Dirty APP could also be helpful if we really have the time.
An easy acronym to remember to help eliminiate 70% of environmental, xeno estrogen exposure is
It stands for:
Bubbles & BPA: many bubbles contain sodium lauryl sulfate, a hormone disrupting chemical. Stay away from excessive foam and choose products with less lather. BPA is a plasticizer and potent xeno-estrogen. It is so powerful that it was once considered as a replacement for estrogen in hormone replacement therapy! It is found in polycarbonate plastic- what baby bottles are made of, as well as pacifiers, teething necklaces, sippie cups, formula packaging, kids’ toys, art supplies, strollers and more. Canada and the EU have banned it since 2010) but it is still not banned in all it’s incarnations.
All Kavana products are packaged in frosted glass bottles with minimal, extraneous paper and plastic packaging. The four products packaged in plastic, are BPA free.
Scents: Pthalates are found in fragrances and scented candles and may affect the reproductive organs of baby boys. Because perfume formulas are considered a trade-secret, the ingredients do not have to be revealed or listed as anything other than ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’. This loophole means that mystery juice you wear on your neck, right over/near to your thyroid gland, may be full of toxic, hormone altering xeno-estrogens.
Try and avoid scents that last longer than 15 minutes or scented products altogether, whenever possible, as these can be sensitizing. Pthalates are also used as plastic softeners and fragrance extenders, to make perfumes last longer on the skin.
Be sure to look for glass packaging when buying perfume and look for certified pure, therapeutic grade, organic essential oils like those in Kavana’s Perfume Poems and fragrances. All ingredients are divulged on the bottle and website, so you can learn more about them!
*All Kavana skincare is formulated with phthalate free, 100% pure essential oils and zero synthetic, artificial fragrances.
Fire retardant: Fire retardant contains TBBPA (BPA) and is found in synthetic fabrics- think polyester and polyamide and acrylic. TBBPA will not adhere to natural fibers, so look for cotton, linen, wool and hemp clothes whenever possible.
Antibacterial products: antibacterial products like hand sanitizer, often contain Triclosan- a pesticide and hormone disruptor. Unless you are consciously looking for a drug, avoid beauty and body products with a DIN (Drug Identification Number). As discussed in this blog post, drugs are classified as such because the ingredients in them can penetrate the blood stream.
Kavana’s hand sanitizing Mudra Mist, contains exactly 0% Triclosan.
Cans: Most cans are STILL lined with BPA/ BPS – hormone disrupting plastic linings. Choose alternate packaging such as glass or tetra packs if/ whenever possible.
All Kavana products are packaged in recyclable glass, aluminum tins or paperboard, with minimal, reusable and recyclable plastic components, or BPA-free plastic and plastic components. We will green as we grow, to accept packaging back in return for discounts on products, please be patient.
In the meantime, Kavana is intentionally transparent about what's inside our products and this metaphor extends to our packaging. What the product is not inside of, is just as important as what's in it!
pictured: Kavana's Afterglow Body Oil
Three’s and Seven’s. Avoid plastic packaging and especially plastic with recycle symbols 3’s (pthalates) & 7’s (BPA/BPS). Check the recycle triangle on the bottom of the bottle or package or tetra pack. Look for paperboard packaging whenever possible. Kavana’s Eco-Deodorant bar, is 100% plastic free, 100% non-toxic and 100% hormone safe and 100% aluminum free, and comes in a bamboo paperboard globe that is recyclable and biodegradable.
SPF/ Sunscreen: Oxybenxone and benzophenone are ingredients in many sunscreens that mimic estrogen (xeno-estrogenic) and are possibly linked to breast cancer. Look for non-nano zinc-oxide and titanium dioxide based sunblocks in a base of other clean and non-hormone disrupting ingredients.
*Want to read a lot more in depth about sunscreens and sunblock safety? Check out the 'Sea Safe and Sun: Sun Safety Demystified' blog post and please share.
There are a lot more toxins to be weary of, including Parabens, formaldehydes and formaldehyde releasing carcinogens, Hydroquinone and DEA and TEA, the list is long.
If you want to start reducing your and potentially your baby's exposure to xeno-estrogenic hormone disrupting chemicals, a good place to start is by cleaning up your skincare, body care, fragrances and cosmetics and intentionally choosing healthier options like those offered by Kavana. Pictured: Kavana Mother's Little Helpers Set and LEV: An Ode to Love 100% non-toxic Perfume.
Please tune in next time to learn more about how hormones affect women's skin and hormones, during perimenopause and menopause.
Have questions? Please message me via kavanaskincare.com or on IG @kavanaskincare
I’d love to hear from you!