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Free from… logic? An interview with a doctor about all-natural skincare

With morning show headlines warning you that “Your lotion could be killing you!” and Facebook posts informing you that your toothpaste is giving you Alzheimer’s, it is easy to lose track of which compound you must exorcise from your life immediately after years of ignorantly ingesting it in the erroneous belief that it was doing you good.

As one of these clueless consumers possessed of little to no understanding of the science (or lack thereof) behind such claims as “Parabens give you breast cancer”, I sought out one doctor’s opinion on the “free-from” craze. I have experienced positive results from switching to all-natural skincare and it’s irrefutable that any environmentally-friendly product is a plus, but do we really need to spend hours deciphering ingredient lists with the Rosetta Stone of Wikipedia before we moisturise?

Dr. Gabriela Ochoa had this to say.

Hyaluronic acid is touted as a miracle cure for aging, drying skin. Does it genuinely work as well as we would like to believe?

Dr. Ochoa: Well that all depends on your definition of “miraculous”, but in short, yes.

Hyaluronic acid (HA) is a disaccharide (2 sugar) polymer – that is to say, a glycosaminoglycan – meaning that its molecules are quite large. Within the human body, it is primarily found in connective tissue and the eyes, and stands out from its fellow polymers because it contains no sulphates. This is the main reason why its primary dermatological function is encouraging the formation of keratinocytes. These are the cells that stimulate the formation of the epidermis, the outermost layer of your skin. In essence, hyaluronic acid contributes to the processes required to create new skin, whilst maintaining it hydrated and serving as an antioxidant. To put it simply: it is fucking awesome for your skin.

The bad news is that the presence of hyaluronic acid in your skin diminishes as you get older and through contact with the sun. This is why it is highly recommendable to use hyaluronic acid not only topically, but also subcutaneously via injections.

With so many serums to choose from, how can we know which ones are effective and which aren’t? Is the concentration important?

Dr. Ochoa: The ideal serum would be one that contains not only hyaluronic acid, but its derivative: Sodium hyaluronate. Sodium hyaluronate has a smaller molecular size than HA, meaning it can penetrate the skin more deeply. Compared to HA, sodium hyaluronate is cheaper to produce, making it is just as easy to find and purchase.

Another thing to bear in mind when selecting a serum is to opt for one containing low-density HA, which will be absorbed much more easily by the skin, penetrating its deeper layers. However, hyaluronic acid is so beneficial that it’ll do your skin some good in nearly all of its manifestations. High-density HA may also be more synthetic than its low-density counterparts, although this is primarily a concern when using it as a filler instead of topically.

Any tips for choosing the most suitable serum for your skin type?

Dr. Ochoa: If you have dry to very dry skin, the optimal serum will be one with – believe it or not – salt (Sodium hyaluronate) because this will penetrate the skin at the fastest speed and deepest level.

For combination to oily skin, a straight up HA serum is more than sufficient, as it will maintain the more superficial layers hydrated and firm.

For mature skin, a combination HA and retinol serum will pack a stronger anti-aging punch, boosting the polymers’ rejuvenating qualities.

So hyaluronic acid is at least partly deserving of its panacea reputation, but are parabens as equally deserving of their Voldemort-like status as the worst of the worst?

Dr. Ochoa: Well, actually, parabens should be used in any product that contains aqua (water), as this prevents the proliferation of bacteria and fungi. It has been demonstrated that the amount typically used in beauty products is low enough as to be harmless — this is particularly true of methyl and ethyl parabens, which have been proven to be completely safe.

Regarding the association between parabens and breast cancer due to the former’s estrogenic effect, this is absolutely false. The estrogenic effect caused by parabens is significantly weaker than that caused by certain compounds found naturally in food, such as daidzein in soy beans, and which have been deemed safe for consumption. Therefore to say that parabens in cosmetic products are carcinogenic is just wildly wrong.

Another two substances constantly painted as villainous by proponents of all-natural skincare are propylene glycol and silicone. Should we believe the unhype?

Propylene glycol is included in beauty products to maintain stability in case of temperature change. The compound’s intended cosmetological effect is to hydrate and humidify. Because it is widely known to be a component of hydraulic fluids and industrial antifreeze, this association has fuelled rumors about its sensitizing effect on the skin. However, when medical practitioners advise you not to come in contact with propylene glycol products, they are referring to the compound at 100% concentration. This is obviously not the amount present in cosmetic products so it is unnecessary to avoid propylene glycol for cutaneous use, so long as you don’t draw an antifreeze bath.

Silicone helps emulsify the different components of a product, while at the same time allowing them to act upon the skin. Although it does lock in humidity, enabling the skin to be softened, this effect can cause product buildup. So I would recommend that you use silicone-containing products exclusively during the day, avoiding them at night to give your skin a chance to breathe.

OK final one: sulphates — will they leave me desiccated like a coconut?

Dr. Ochoa: The key thing to keep in mind with sulphates is that both products chock full of or free from them can sensitize and dry out your skin. The outcome all depends on the formulation of the product, the amount of sulphate it contains and the typology of the user’s skin.

Most studies on this subject focus on the effects of sulphates when applied on the skin and covered for 24 hours, which is clearly far removed from how we actually use sulphate-containing cosmetics. Having said this, one of the sulphates that has been best-documented as having adverse effects is Lauryl sodium sulphate. Therefore if you see this at the top of the ingredient list in a product, it would probably be best to avoid using it as it could have the highest probability of causing skin sensitivity.

Any final pearls of wisdom for us?

Dr. Ochoa: Honestly, there is simply no scientifically verified reason to stringently avoid using products containing any of the compounds we have talked about. If you prefer to use all-natural skincare and in your experience this has been better for your skin, then by all means do so, but it is logically unsound to make broad, deterministic claims about the damaging effects of compounds that have not been scientifically proven to be harmful.

My top three tips for dermatological health are:

  1. use a non-greasy makeup remover
  2. wash your face twice a day, preferably with products that don’t contain soap
  3. use a hydrator with SPF in the morning and a more creamy, dense gel or lotion at night

Oh, and make sure you wash your makeup brushes at least once a month!


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