The Truth About Skin Care You Need to Know If You Cringe at the Chemicals in Your Products

Updated: Mar. 02, 2021

If you cringe at the idea of slathering chemicals like Dihydroxyethyl, Sodium laureate sulfate, and Polyethylene on your skin, you'll want to read dermatologist Fayne Frey's advice for how to find the cleanest possible skin care.

skincareJL Pfeifer/ShutterstockChemophobia is fear of chemicals—and there are plenty to be found in your skincare and beauty products. As a chemophobic, if you can’t pronounce the names on an ingredient list, you probably believe they must be harmful. And you’ve likely been influenced by the constant barrage of fear-mongering articles in your health and beauty magazines cautioning you about cancer-causing ingredients in your personal care products. You may believe that you must use “natural” or “organic” products because if chemicals are from plants, they must be safe. Not so fast. 

Here’s the truth about skin care that chemophobics need to know.

1. Everything is made up of chemicals.

Water is a chemical. Sugar is a chemical. Vinegar is a chemical. Acetone is a chemical (also known as nail polish remover). And there is no correlation between your ability to pronounce the name of a chemical and its safety. For example, (5R)- [(1S)-1,2-Dihydroxyethyl]-3,4-dihydroxyfuran-2(5H)-one is also called vitamin C. Capric triglyceride is an emollient commonly found in moisturizers, a skin conditioning agent that makes the skin feel soft and smooth.  It is a fatty acid derived from coconut oil.

2. Just because a chemical comes from a plant does not make it safe.

Apple seeds contain amygdalin, from which the poison cyanide can be produced. Potatoes contain a deadly poisonous compound called solanine. Poison ivy is perfectly natural. Some plant-derived compounds are harmful. Some synthetic chemicals are perfectly safe. So you can’t ever assume that plant-based means safe. This is some of the worst skin care advice dermatologists hear.

3. Toxicity depends on the dose.

The ability of any chemical to do harm is dependent on its dose or the amount of exposure of that chemical. Almost every chemical has a dose below which no adverse effect or harm can occur. Water is a perfectly healthy chemical, essential for life. Yet, if a 165-pound person drinks 6 liters of water, it can lead to water intoxication and even death. Acetaminophen is the active ingredient in the painkiller Tylenol. Take one extra strength Tylenol (500 mg) and your headache pain is relieved. Take 14 extra strength Tylenol tablets and you might be looking at liver failure and possible death. The dose of a chemical determines the potential for harm, not the chemical itself.

4. The skin has its own kind of armor for protection.

Our skin has an amazing barrier that is almost impenetrable to charged molecules and large molecules. Ingredients must penetrate layers and layers of skin to reach blood vessels in the middle layer of skin, and in a high enough concentration to have a targeted effect. To date, there are no studies that prove penetration of any particular ingredient in skin care products at a level high enough to cause human harm from over-the-counter moisturizers and sunscreens. 

5. Manufacturers have a legal obligation to ensure that their products are safe.

Skincare and cosmetic manufacturers spend millions of dollars testing and evaluating their formulations to provide safe products. The FDA evaluates the ingredients and makes recommendations regarding the percentages that are allowed for a given ingredient. For example, parabens, an effective preservative (and probably the most scrutinized chemical in skin care products), has never been shown to be harmful in human studies when formulated within the approved limits. Approved for use up to 25 percent, parabens in most skin care products rarely exceed 1 percent. Parabens are approved for use in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and in the European Union. They are found “naturally” in fruits such as blueberries and cherries. Yet because it’s a weak estrogen disruptor—meaning it’s capable of disrupting activity of the hormone estrogen—it causes more panic and concern than any other single ingredient. And yet the estrogenic activity of parabens is actually weaker than human estradiol, the most common form of the hormone estrogen, itself. Keep in mind that all water-based products require a preservative to prevent overgrowth of bacteria and mold. So if you choose a paraben-free product, do you ever wonder about the safety of the preservative that is being substituted for the paraben? If you want to go truly preservative-free, limit your skin-care line to water-free products where little if any preservative is necessary.

6. Insist on quality.

Purchase skin care products from reputable manufacturers committed to product safety and quality of their products. These are the signs your skin care products could be damaging your skin.

7. Select moisturizers and sunscreens with fewer ingredients.

Although the formulation of a skin care product is the most important variable, there is no reason to apply products made with 40, 50, and sometimes up to 70 or 80 different ingredients, especially if your skin is sensitive. These are rules you must follow if you have sensitive skin.

8. Avoid products that contain fragrance.

Fragrance is the most common cause of allergic reactions to skin-care products. While you should choose fragrance-free products, be on the lookout for reactions such as redness, rashes, and itching. If the itching comes from a skin condition like eczema or psoriasis, these home remedies can help.

9. Limit the number of skin care products you use (but do apply sunscreen daily).

Is it possible to use too many skin care products? Short answer: yes. But sunscreen is critical, and the fact is that all sunscreen filters are chemicals. Sunscreens formulated with inorganic or organic (aka mineral sunscreen filters such as zinc and titanium dioxide) are equally effective when used as recommended, and neither has been shown to cause negative health effects in human studies. Mineral sunscreens formulated with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, however, are less likely to cause allergic skin reactions. If you want a preservative-free sunscreen, use a solid sunscreen. Wax-based sunscreens often have very little preservative. These are the sunscreen myths that make dermatologists cringe.

10. Use a well-formulated moisturizer.

A well-formulated moisturizer doesn’t just hydrate skin—it’s actually been shown to improve several skin conditions, including eczema, rosacea, and even psoriasis. Maximizing the water content of skin allows the skin to function optimally, creating a strong barrier against bacteria, fungus, allergens, and even ultraviolet light. What is a well-formulated moisturizer, you ask? Select a moisturizer with glycerin, a sugar alcohol found in most living things, petrolatum, or dimethicone, which are great occlusive ingredients, meaning they minimize water evaporation from the skin. These are the best facial moisturizers for your skin type.

11. Less may be more.

Still concerned about exposing yourself to so many chemicals? Want to go clean? Go without! Based on the scientific literature, the only skin care products that have consistently been shown to benefit skin health are moisturizers and sunscreen. Primers, toners, astringents, facials, masks, scrubs, exfoliants, harsh soaps, to name a few, are cultural pleasures only. Yes, they may feel good, and they may give the skin a little shine, but there is little evidence they are healthy for your skin, and some may even cause adverse reactions. Want to go clean? Really clean? Stop using so many products.

Fayne L. Frey, MD, is a dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon based in West Nyack, New York, and founder of the educational skin care website FryFace.