When most of us are asked to name organs in our bodies the first words that will roll off our tongues will most likely be the heart, liver, kidneys and so on. Put your hands up now if you thought of the skin! The fact is, the skin covers every inch of our body, and protects it. It is also the most visible organ and one that others will see. It follows then, that taking good care of such a precious organ should be part of anyone’s self-care routine if they plan to have a healthy life. I am not talking about wrinkles or sun spots, or even sunburns here, beauty, in this case is more than skin deep!
In much the same way as your nails and hair can mirror internal health, so can your skin. As we age this will wrinkle and sag, might discolour in places, but the extent to which it does will also be a measure of your state of health. What you put on your skin is just as important as what you put into your body. Whatever you put on your skin will be absorbed by your body and affect your health, positively or negatively.
I use an organic shampoo and conditioner for my hair that doesn’t contain any of the harmful chemicals which, among other myriad side-effects, are hormone disruptors (SLS, SLES, ALS, ALES, petrochemical cleansers or parabens). It does not froth like regular shampoos (the foaming agents are harmful additives), but it washes and nourishes my hair just as effectively, if not more so. It is the same price as the commercial brands that you can buy at any shop or supermarket across the world, it is just not as easy to find. The packaging is fully recycled and recyclable, which is an added bonus. The whole process of washing my hair takes about 10 minutes at the most, and I don’t repeat this daily unless needed, like after a trip to the beach or gym.
Unlike shampoo, many of us use skin moisturisers daily on both face and body and this doesn’t get washed away, unlike shampoo or conditioner. This means it stays on your skin all day and has all the time in the world to be absorbed and to make its way deeper into your body. If you happen to also go to the pool – in which case you can add the chlorine to the list of harmful substances damaging your skin- or beach, or you do any outdoor activities for a prolonged period, you might also add a layer or two of sun cream on top, which will also get absorbed into your skin. Notice the contradiction here? We eat healthy organic products, and use healthy shampoo on our hair which stays on for a few minutes at most, yet how many of us actually think about the creams and lotions we use all over our body and leave to be absorbed?
In the summer months when, depending on where you live, you tend to spend more time outdoors, the sun is also at its strongest. We have heard over and over again how using a good broadspectrum UVB and UVA cream to protect our skin from harm and damage is essential but what we are not told is how to choose a sunblock or sun cream that will do this WITHOUT also creating damage to our skin and other organs, or indeed sun creams that might not work at all!
If you consider that it is estimated that anything you put on your skin, from body lotion, to oils, and even perfumes (and yes, tattoos should also be included in this list), is 10 times more powerful than anything you put into your body, it bears thinking about.
Enter stage right a new discovery recently made by scientists: the Interstitium.
What is the Interstitium?
On 28 March of this year articles appeared across media over the world reporting a new finding. An article which had been published in the journal Scientific Report and co-authored by two doctors from Mount Sinai Medical Centre, Dr David Carr-Locke and Dr Petros Benias, as well as Neil Theise, a pathologist at New York’s University School of Medicine, included some interesting information. In the article they explained how using a different laboratory technique on samples taken from their cancer patients, they came across a previously unseen area just under the skin, the Interstitium. Whilst there is an ongoing discussion in medical circles as to whether this actually constitutes an organ, the findings are nonetheless important.
The Interstitium is one of the first layers a cancer penetrates when it leaves the tumour. It is like a bodywide shock absorber filled with fluid. It fills the spaces between organs and includes all the body’s connective tissues, skin, and submucosae of all internal organs. This layer expands and contracts depending on the amount of fluid it has, and drains into the lymphatic system, the network of vessels transporting lymph across the body, which is involved in the body’s immune response.
It is now believed that cancers metastasize (ie spread) from one organ to affect other organs through the lymphatic system via the Interstitium. Previously doctors were not sure how this spread occurred. Think of the Interstitium as a fluid highway.
While more research is needed on this aspect, we can however see how important this organ is in the promotion and maintenance of optimal health. The fluid of the Interstitium is where water is held, and where any harmful substances from creams, oils, mosquito repellents, tattoo inks, botox and chemical fillers will end up, and will be transported across your body. Can you see where I am heading with this? Consider also that there are claims that in the US 73% of sunscreens don’t actually protect your skin from the sun. Is it really worth taking the risk?
The harmful substances to avoid
The list of harmful substances found in everything from toothpaste, to body wash, body creams, face creams, shampoos and even perfumes and mosquito repellents are well documented. There are thousands of studies that have brought to light these toxic substances. Here is a list of the most important ones to watch out for.
· SLS – Sodium Lauryl Sulphate. Found in body lotions, toothpaste, mouthwash, make up, body wash and shampoos. Has been linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, organ toxicity, skin irritation and endocrine disruption. According to the Environmental Working Group, it has been mentioned in over 16,000 studies as harmful! Could they all be wrong?
· SLES – Sodium Laureth Sulphate (full name Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulphate). A Foaming agent that can cause eye and skin irritation. Some people become sensitized to this and react with allergy-like symptoms.
· ALS – Ammonium Laurel Sulphate. Also a foaming agent. Its effects are similar to those of SLES. Both of these release toxins when heated up (eg during a hot shower!).
· ALES – Ammonium Laureth Sulphate, the common name for Ammonium Dodecyl Sulphate, a surfactant or “wetting agent” which also acts as a foaming agent.
· Petrochemical cleaners and derivatives– there are a large number of these used in commercial products including in lipstick and Vaseline. These can lead to anaemia, kidney degeneration and nerve damage.
· Parabens – Four common ones are Mehtylparaben, Propylparaben, Isoparaben and Butylparaben. They are preservatives used in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries to extend the shelf-life of the products. They have an oestrogenic effect and are carcinogenic.
· Phthalates – examples are Dibutylphthalate (DBP), DEHP (which has been discontinued by some European cosmetics companies!) and Butylester. They are chemicals used to soften PVC plastic as well as solvents in cosmetics and other consumer products. They can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system and disrupt hormones.
· Cosmetic fragrances – these are synthetic aromas made using petroleum or coal, used by producers because it is cheaper than using natural scents such as essential oils. They can cause allergies and respiratory problems, among other things.
· EDTA - Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid is used both as a preservative in foods, and in the cosmetics industry to stabilise products. It chelates (i.e. binds) to heavy metals (chromium, lead, mercury, aluminium etc) and is used to decrease the reactivity of metals in the product. It is classified as harmful because it is considered toxic to organs and can cause irritations of the skin.
It is worth noting that some of these substances go under different names in ingredients lists on the packaging, but that you can check using the INCI codes list. This is the International Nomenclature of Cosmetics which has been around since the 1970s and is used by the US, Europe, China, Japan and some other countries. This will give you the information on the names used by the cosmetic industry to double check ingredients when buying a product, since all ingredients have to be listed.
You can also check the safety ratings of many commonly found brands and products on the Environmental Working Group’s website (see link at the bottom of the page). The scores go from green (for safe), to low hazard, medium hazard or high hazard with numerical scores from 1 up, depending on the hazard level and based on data availability of the ingredients used. This can be a useful tool to identify the safer products to choose.
What you can replace them with
Apart from using the database of EWG, you can, of course, also go the more natural way. The following is only a very small selection of the options open to you.
It’s summer, so let’s start with sunscreens. Did you know that there is a whole range of physical or mineral, sunscreens available for both adults and children out there? These are normally made using one of two ingredients, or a combination of the two: Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide. These minerals sit on top of the skin reflecting away UVB and UVA rays, and are not absorbed into the skin like regular suncreams, hence the reason they are referred to as physical sunscreens. Zinc Oxide is considered to be the best overall broadspectrum, but titanium oxide is slightly easier to spread on the skin. The difference between sunscreens using these two minerals is not just how they work from the very first moment they are applied (regular sunscreens start working 30 minutes later or more), but also they may appear a bit pasty and are not as smooth to apply. This will depend on the formulation of the cream, and what percentages of these minerals are used. It is, however, a good alternative option to regular sunscreens full of toxic chemicals.
As for toothpaste, body washes, body lotions….. think Cleopatra or your grandmother. What did they do in the era without toothpaste in tubes, and creams sold in tubs at the supermarket? They used what nature gave them! For toothpaste you can find aloe vera and other formulations without all the harmful chemicals, or you can make your own with baking soda.
For your skin and hair the easiest and best way to go is using natural oils. Olive oil, almond oil, argan oil, noni oil, coconut oil…. Pick the one you like the most and use that over your hair to moisturise, on your skin just after the shower, and even on your face. Different oils have different properties and might be easier or more difficult to find depending on where you live. Opt for the organic oils you’d use on your salad, whenever possible. I am a great believer in if you can’t eat it, why would you put it on your skin? That’s the easiest rule of thumb to establish toxicity!
Want to personalise your beauty products? Add some pure essential oils (again, choose the ones you which you would also be able to put in food and safely ingest). Then your body oil or face moisturiser also double up as your perfume. Personally I like to use a mixture of almond oil as a base with a few drops of frankincense essential oil.
A word of caution here, essential oils are extremely powerful and have a lot of different properties, so use only a few drops at a time, mixed with a base oil (see the list of oils above) and with the supervision of an experienced professional. Don’t trust what you read in most websites. The same oil can have different subspecies (look out for their latin names!) with very different properties and effects, something which most people fail to mention in their online articles!! Similarly, a lot of oils sold as “pure” are anything but pure, so tread very carefully in your choices.
Finally, you could use the ingredients in your pantry. Like that avocado that you didn’t manage to eat and it is a bit too ripe now? Turn it into a facemask or hair moisturising treatment! Foods such as oats, honey, vinegar, rosemary and eggs can all be used effectively for many different cosmetic applications. Just remember, next time you head for the cosmetics section at your supermarket, ask yourself: would I eat this?