Why Green Beauty is Essential for Health
Local health and beauty experts dish on the benefits of natural products that are safer for skin.
Wearing SPF year-round can help protect skin from harmful UV rays.
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It’s a given that outer beauty begins with radiant skin, and that limiting sun exposure prevents dryness, fine lines, age spots and—in worst-case scenarios—skin cancer. Nonmelanoma skin cancers are the most commonly diagnosed of all cancers, affecting nearly 3.3 million people in the United States each year, according to the American Cancer Society. In fact, it’s more common than lung, brain and breast cancers combined. While melanoma is more life-threatening than basal or squamous-cell carcinomas, these too can become dangerous if left untreated—not to mention the ghastly scars that growth-removal surgery can leave behind.
The scary news is that sun damage begins as early as infancy, says Daniel Cuozzo, DO, a board-certified dermatologist at Beebe Center for Dermatology & Dermatologic Surgery in Rehoboth. “Skin damage is cumulative,” he says. “Cancer comes much later, so most incidences in adults are a result of sun exposure that happened before there was a lot of awareness.”
The better news is now that we know about the harmful effects of UV rays, we can protect our kids from the same threat. Contrary to popular belief, sunblock is only one small component of sun protection, Cuozzo warns. “It’s best to avoid midday sun when possible and wear protective clothing, including a wide-brim hat,” he says. Sun radiation has been shown to penetrate umbrellas, so even when you seek shade, you’re still exposed.
What about those of us who grew up playing in the sun and surf? “Delaware has a high rate of melanoma relative to its size,” says Cuozzo, who recommends regular self-exams in addition to yearly skin screenings by a dermatologist. His practice offers free screenings to residents a few times a year in conjunction with the nearby Robert & Eolyne Tunnell Cancer Center. “However, if you notice any spot or mole that’s changing, get it looked at right away,” he cautions.
Now that we’re on the cusp of the cold-weather season, we don’t need to worry about UV rays, right? Not so, says Cuozzo, who notes that UV rays remain strong throughout the fall and winter months, and suggests slathering on SPF year-round.
Local dermatologist Daniel Cuozzo reccomends using a mineral sunscreen to shield skin.
MORE THAN SKIN DEEP
If you’re going to smear your skin—the body’s largest organ—with cream every day, you want to be confident that it’s safe.
“It’s been shown that anything applied to skin is absorbed into the bloodstream,” Cuozzo says. The Environmental Working Group, a U.S. nonprofit specializing in research and advocacy in the areas of agricultural subsidies, toxic chemicals, drinking water pollutants and corporate accountability, hypothesizes that parabens—chemical preservatives in everything from shampoo to shaving cream—mimic estrogen and can lead to diseases like cancer.
“These studies haven’t been looked at fully,” Cuozzo says, but points to other adverse reactions like irritative dermatitis. “It’s best to use products that are purer and contain fewer chemicals,” he advises. “Make sure you read and understand the ingredients rather than buying into marketing.”
While Cuozzo says no studies have definitively concluded that chemical sunscreens cause cancer, those containing oxybenzone and octinoxate have been banned in such areas as Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands because they’re harmful to coral reefs. According to The Ocean Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the efforts of environmentalists and ocean conservationists globally, even a small amount of the chemicals in some sunscreens bleaches corals, depleting them of their algae energy source and causing them to become susceptible to viral infections. It estimates that a single drop of oxybenzone in more than 4 million gallons of water is enough to endanger marine organisms.
To protect your health and the environment from any potential risk, he recommends his patients apply a physical blocker (also called mineral sunscreen) that contains titanium dioxide or zinc, since these shield skin without getting absorbed.
Worried about hiding your tan under the ghostly white residue those leave on skin? “The old ones did that, but the newer formulas don’t,” says Cuozzo. “They blend in nicely and you don’t even notice them.”
(Side note: If you’re concerned about not getting enough vitamin D3, you should be—but not because of your SPF, Cuozzo says. While D is critical for healthy bones and helping prevent a host of diseases, “It can be gotten through nutrition and a daily supplement.”)
More than half the battle against aging is taking care of your skin, staying adequately hydrated and adhering to a healthy diet high in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and proteins. But what about damage already done? (You have been working on those wrinkles for a lifetime, after all.)
To reverse sun damage, most dermatologists, including Cuozzo, swear by retinoids, a derivative of vitamin A that boosts collagen production, plumps lines and sloughs away dull skin and discoloration. Its effects are so powerful that beauty brands around the globe are creating milder over-the-counter options, called retinol, to compete with such prescription-strength creams as Retin-A and Renova.
But there is one downside to these: “They don’t work as fast as their marketing indicates,” Cuozzo concedes. “That’s because natural retinols first need to be converted to retinoic acid to have any effect, whereas retinoids don’t need to go through this conversion.” As a result, retinols lose some of their potency in the process.
Though weaker, retinol does offer significant improvement when applied daily. “It’s also the better option for those with more sensitive skin who can’t tolerate retinoids,” Cuozzo notes. (Tip: Apply a pea-sized amount to clean, dry face, and use only at night. The formula itself does not cause photosensitivity, but a fresh epidermis is more sensitive to UV rays.)
Many mainstream bath and beauty essentials contain potentially harmful chemicals.
THE WHOLE KIT AND CABOODLE
A glance at the ingredient list on many mainstream hygiene products—from bath to beauty essentials—reveals a host of chemicals that are potentially harmful, according to the Environmental Working Group. They’re in toothpaste, body wash, face cream, antiperspirant, nail polish, hair dye—you name it.
Victoria DeSilver, founder of Avenue Apothecary & Spa in Rehoboth Beach, says she’s been studying “natural, organic and green beauty” for 20 years, attending various trade shows and educational trainings. She steers clear of anything with parabens, fragrances or other unnatural chemicals in her spa and shop.
“It’s crazy that in this day and age we have to be so cautious when choosing personal-care products, but we have to educate ourselves,” DeSilver says. Her goal is to do some of the work for her clients by delivering the “cleanest beauty and wellness products” and educating them in the process.
Perfumes are the first product you should replace, she advises, as these contain the worst chemicals.
“The terms ‘fragrance’ and ‘perfume’ indicate a non-natural source, while natural scents are typically derived from just that—natural essential oils.” Natural perfumes can be hard to find and require more research, so DeSilver likes to mix essences of flowers and herbs to create her own signature scent.
Europe has banned some 1,200 ingredients from its personal-care products, whereas the U.S. has prohibited only 10, Desilver says, “even though the studies are out there that show these ingredients to be harmful, and some are even known carcinogens.”
She points to studies in which chemicals, like parabens, turned up in the tissue of breast cancer patients. In 2012, the Journal of Applied Toxicology reported a study by the University of Reading and Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention Appeal in which they examined breast tissue from 40 breast cancer patients to look at the concentration of parabens in each. Researchers detected one or more parabens in 99 percent of tissue samples, and higher amounts found near tissue from the armpit area versus other parts of the breast. However, seven of the women sampled reported never having used deodorant. While researchers could not report definitively that parabens caused the tumors, DeSilver—and many others on the green-beauty bandwagon—think it’s no coincidence.
What if you layer on the organic products first: Are you then safe from outside layers of cream, foundation or blush being absorbed? “Our skin absorbs whatever we put on it, like thousands of tiny little mouths,” DeSilver explains. “Some say using natural products is even more important than eating organic, as our stomach breaks down chemicals and passes them through our digestive system.”
Using natural products is becoming increasingly important for health.
She adds that cosmetics chockfull of chemicals are also the biggest causes of clogged pores and skin conditions, like acne. “Therefore, I feel it is very important to avoid chemicals altogether, even if it’s the last thing you put on.”
What’s also important to note, DeSilver continues, is that the FDA does not generally test or regulate personal-care products. “Therefore, it’s important to know what the [questionable] ingredients are and choose companies that are simple and clean,” she says. She also warns about companies that “greenwash” their marketing, meaning they use packaging and slogans that make their products seem natural when they’re not.
Speaking of packaging, more and more green brands are jumping on the eco-friendly trash truck, thinking not only about what makes its way into our bloodstream but also our environment, and opting for compostable labels and bags, as well as recyclable boxes and bottles.
For instance, Tata Harper Skincare (a brand of sustainable products sourced right from the founder’s garden) is packed in glass, which is more easily recycled. Natural-beauty brands like Kjaer Weis and Elate Cosmetics take it a step further with refillable compacts that eliminate waste altogether, as does Seed Phytonutrients, which packages its shampoos and other haircare products in shower-friendly paper bottles made of 100 percent recycled and recyclable materials.
As hairstylists for global salons, Sherell and Michael Flagg often came across clients with scalp issues, which they attributed to the use of the products containing sulfates and fragrances. Seventeen years ago, they opened Resh Salon & Spa in Bear; in 2003, they created an in-house all-natural haircare line that’s “better for the environment and your hair,” Sherell says.
“We have four children, and one of our girls had eczema,” she says. “That got us thinking about what products would be safe to use on her, and we realized there was nothing on the market we felt was safe enough.”
They consulted a colleague, a chemist, who helped get them started on testing their own mixtures. “There was a lot of trial and error,” says Sherell, but ultimately, they arrived at the perfect plant-based formula for just about every haircare need, from dandruff to dry ends.
You won’t find sulfates, parabens or petroleum in their products. In addition to possible adverse health effects, “sulfates also strip hair of natural oils,” Sherell says, “and petroleum acts as a barrier that prevents the good stuff from penetrating strands.”
Currently in the U.S., safety standards are regulated under the FDA’s Cosmetics Act of 1938—“a time when we didn’t have nearly as many synthetic chemicals that we needed to be protected from,” DeSilver notes. “Until our government implements tougher standards, we need to sharpen our own screening tools.”
The good news, DeSilver says, is that with more widespread awareness about these issues, more companies are opting for safer ingredients—that still offer great results—in a newly competitive market.