With proper care, our skin can be a glowing reflection of health at any age. Yet, with intense product marketing and a lack of oversight by the FDA, the skin-care industry can be at best confusing, at worst potentially harmful. As more and more health ailments—including breast cancer and reproductive disorders—are linked with ingredients (such as phthalates and fragrance) commonly used in personal-care products, it may be that what we put on our bodies is nearly as important to our health as what we put in our bodies. Our choices aren’t limited to settling for questionable ingredients or going without skin care: A number of basic, natural products—such as oils, botanicals and herbs—are healthier for us inside and out. Use this simple guide to put together an easy-to-follow regimen to support healthy, fresh-looking skin, no harsh ingredients required.
First, let’s briefly break down the anatomy of our skin. Only 2 millimeters thick, our skin is a large and complex organ. An average square inch holds 650 sweat glands; 20 blood vessels; 60,000 melanocytes (pigment skin cells); and more than 1,000 nerve endings. What protects and maintains the overall health of our skin is what’s called the acid mantle. This thin, viscous fluid is made up of sweat and oil; retains lipids and moisture; and defends us against bacteria and fungal infections. However, sunlight, diet and other factors—including the products we use on our skin—can interfere with our acid mantle, affecting our skin’s pH level.
To work its best, the acid mantle should be slightly acidic. The sweet spot is a pH around 5.5, according to No More Dirty Looks by Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt. Washing with even moderately alkaline soap or detergents is an easy way to off-balance our pH levels. Skin that is too alkaline becomes dry and sensitive and is more prone to infection; skin that is too acidic, which is less common, can result in breakouts and red, inflamed skin. Evaluate your skin-care regimen and stick to gentle cleansers, toners and moisturizers made with minimal ingredients to support your skin’s health.
The Three-Fold System
1. Cleanser. Washing our faces gets rid of pollution, makeup, dead skin cells and other daily contaminants. It should also gently remove excess oil without stripping skin of its natural oils. When choosing cleansers, start by avoiding sulfates—surfactants used in many cleansers that can be drying, irritating and may be contaminated with the carcinogen 1,4-dioxane. Also avoid penetration enhancers such as acids, polyethylene glycols (PEGs), sulfates and propylene glycol.
Increasingly, beauty experts recommend the oil cleaning method. Free of any harsh detergents or other drying ingredients, nutrient-rich facial oils may help balance skin’s oil production. To follow this method, massage raw, cold-pressed oil such as coconut or extra-virgin olive oil into your skin. Place a hot washcloth over your face until it cools (a couple of minutes), then rinse. You won’t need to follow up with a toner or moisturizer when using this method.
2. Toner. Although cleansers and moisturizers do the bulk of the work in this three-fold system, toners are still beneficial. Toners can help restore skin’s natural pH balance and prepare skin for moisturizer. Some beauty experts say to ditch toners—certainly you should ditch the harsher options. Astringents contain a high percentage of alcohol. Instead opt for toners with natural grain alcohol or natural tonics such as witch hazel or rose water. Water-based toning mists can be great, especially on-the-go. Many holistic skin-care experts use hydrosols, which essentially are the water that remains after essential oils are distilled from their source. Use them as you would a toner.
3. Moisturizer. Moisturizers attract and retain moisture in the outer skin layers and provide a protective film on its surface. A quality moisturizer should help your skin appear softer, smoother and plumper. Because moisturizers are meant to stay on for long periods of time, often overnight, it’s especially important to use moisturizers with clean ingredients. Choose products with natural active ingredients that suit your skin needs—think rosehip oil for sun-damaged skin, shea butter for dry skin and tea tree oil for acne. Avoid products whose ingredient lists include petrolatum (petroleum jelly), propylene glycol (PPG, 1,2-dihydroxypropane), formaldehyde (dimethyl-dimethyl hydantoin, bronopol), parabens (any ingredient ending in -paraben) and fragrance. Be especially wary of products that promise to reverse wrinkles or sun damage, as these products are often filled with concerning ingredients.
You can also replace regular moisturizer with facial oil. Use a small amount for the glow of well-hydrated skin without the shine or stickiness of some lotions. Try jojoba, argan or extra-virgin olive oil, which all have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
There’s really no cure for wrinkles, which take decades to develop and can’t be magically reversed by any cream. Fortunately, there are a few things we can do to minimize the appearance of wrinkles. Use toners made with soothing herbs such as chamomile or green tea for their anti-aging benefits. Moisturizing also helps keep skin less prone to inflammation. Use moisturizers with soothing ingredients such as Indian frankincense, green tea and vitamin B5, or antioxidant-rich ingredients such as vitamin C, vitamin E, alpha-lipoic acid and coenzyme Q10. While much of our skin is usually protected by clothing, our faces and necks are exposed to the sun year-round. Guard skin from sun damage by minimizing unprotected exposure to the sun (a good hat can help), and by using mineral-based sunscreen daily. Read Sunscreen Ingredients: Which Ones to Look For and Which Ones to Avoid for more information.
Acne is most common among teenagers, thanks in part to fluctuating hormones. But that doesn’t mean adulthood guarantees freedom from blemishes. Hormone imbalances, poor diet and a buildup of toxins in the body can contribute to acne at any age. Three key tools help defend against acne. The first, hormone balance, may be supported with herbs such as burdock root and chaste tree berry—consult a holistic doctor. We can also fight acne with supplements such as vitamin A or zinc. Finally, try an acne-fighting diet, which should limit or eliminate processed foods high in refined sugars, refined grains and trans fats. Instead, choose antioxidant-rich foods such as dark, leafy green veggies, and foods high in healthful fats such as cold-water fish and nuts. To fight acne topically, turn to toners with tea tree oil, witch hazel or chamomile, or use spot treatments made with a natural source of salicylic acid (although it can be too drying for some skin). A new study has also shown argan oil effective against mild acne, as it may help slow sebum production.
Short-term under-eye circles can be the result of too little sleep, but allergies or genetics may also be contributing factors. As we age, the delicate tissue around our eyes thins and fat from behind our eyes moves forward, pushing pigment out. People with fair skin or deep-set eyes tend to experience dark circles more. To keep your face looking fresh, sleep with an extra pillow: Gravity can cause fluid to collect under the eyes, so a more upright sleeping position may help. You can also address dark circles with cool-brewed green tea bags (to reduce the swelling) or creams rich in vitamin E (to help mitigate sun damage) or vitamin C (to help maintain skin pigment). If you think allergies may be contributing, talk with your doctor about treating allergy symptoms.
Find products to help you get glowing skin in Beauty Haul: Products for a Healthy Complexion.
No More Dirty Looks by Siobhan O’Connor & Alexandra Spunt
The Green Beauty Guide by Julie Gabriel
100 Organic Skincare Recipes by Jessica Ress
Gina DeBacker is the associate editor at Mother Earth Living. She loves managing the health section, as well as testing beauty products enriched with natural ingredients. Find her on Google+ and Instagram.