I was recently at my annual dermatology appointment – I come from a long line of skin cancer history, so I get a full body scan once a year to make sure there aren’t any unusual marks – and at the end of the appointment, the doctor asked if I have any questions.
So I asked the thing that’s on every mid-thirties, closer to 40-year-old, woman… In this first episode of Season 2, we’re talking about… skincare.
I was recently at my annual dermatology appointment – I come from a long line of skin cancer history, so I get a full body scan once a year to make sure there aren’t any unusual marks – and at the end of the appointment, the doctor asked if I had any questions.
So I asked the thing that’s on most mid-thirties, closer to 40-year-old, woman’s mind… “If there’s one thing you’d recommend (besides sunscreen) to slow down the natural aging process, what would it be…?”
In this first episode of Season 2, we’re talking about… skincare.
So what was my dermatologist’s answer? In a surprise twist, she actually didn’t try to sell me on Botox… and her answer was the exact same as an esthetician I talked to a few weeks earlier. They both said: Alternate using a retinol and Vitamin C serum at night, and use hyaluronic acid and SPF 30 during the day.
Yeah, so I asked for one recommendation and got four recommendations but I guess, doctors do tend to be overachievers.
Being based in Southern California, I was already using a daily SPF on my face, but that left me in research mode for the other three products I needed to be applying to my face at least once per day – presumably for the next I don’t know 50 years? Will I still be trying to slow aging when I’m 88, probably not…
Fast forward to me scouring the internet for a retinol, vitamin C serum and hyaluronic acid – and sifting through the hundreds of products on the market, ranging from $6.00 to $320 per bottle.
But then of course, being me, there’s a whole other level of complication that comes with this research, because I don’t want to start putting any questionable ingredients on my face – every single day. The thing about the skin care industry, whether it’s makeup, sunscreen or yes, anti-aging serums… is that conventional skin care products can contribute to hormone imbalance, infertility, as well as breast, ovarian and uterine cancer in women.
And that’s because of three main ingredients – can you call them ingredients? – three main components: BPA, parabens and phthalates. If you Google it, you’ll find dozens of studies drawing a similar conclusion about these toxins but the one I’m going to highlight is from 2018 when researchers at George Mason University discovered links between the chemicals widely used in cosmetic products and changes in reproductive hormones.
The researchers analyzed the urine samples of 143 women aged 18 to 44 who had no known chronic health conditions and did not use birth control.
Those with chemicals such as parabens (which is a preservative widely used in makeup and skincare), and bisphenol A (BPA) in their urine were found to have abnormal amounts of the reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone.
So, there was the presence of parabens and BPA in their urine. As well as “abnormal” levels of estrogen and progesterone.
And granted, 143 women is admittedly a small sample size for a research study, but this is only one study.
Additional studies indicate that too much estrogen has been linked to fibroids, irregular menstrual periods and breast cancer. Too much progesterone is associated with breast cancer, while it is thought BPA, known as the ‘gender-bending’ chemical for its effects on male breast growth, could cause infertility.
For the purposes of this episode, it’s not parabens or BPA that I want to focus on – I talked quite a bit about both in Season One. It’s the third component, phthalates, that I want to zoom in on here.
I have talked about phthalates before in the Fragrance episode that I’ll link to in the show notes below, but believe me when I say, they’re worth bringing up again.
Phthalates describe a group of chemicals used to make plastics more durable. They are often called plasticizers and they’re added to everything from cleansers to household goods to vinyl flooring to personal care products to water bottles and takeout containers to make them durable, flexible and/or fragrant. The reason that phthalates, in particular, are such a threat to our health is because, even if you aren’t putting them on your skin, they easily escape from these products as vapors or particles in the air that we inhale.
In fact, phthalates can be found in the urine of nearly every American, as well as in blood, sweat, breast milk and semen.
They’re also found in makeup, hair spray, deodorant, and perfumes from brands you may have in your medicine cabinet and makeup bag right now: Revlon, Procter & Gamble, Calvin Klein, Johnson & Johnson, the list goes on.
As I learned in reading both animal studies and human studies, hormone-disrupting chemicals like phthalates change how reproductive organs develop in the womb. So, it’s not just your own fertility that’s being affected – the harmful effects of these toxins end up playing out over a lifetime and even across generations. In fact, scientists think prenatal exposures to phthalates may set the stage for gynecological disorders like PCOS and may make women more sensitive to other chemicals that impair fertility. So basically, exposure to phthalates can cause a pregnant woman to pass on fertility problems to her female baby.
According to a separate study, children and babies were shown to have higher exposure to most phthalates than adults do. Prenatal exposure to phthalates is correlated with greater social deficits, as well as impaired social communication, social awareness and social cognition in children – this particular study specified children 7 to 9 years old.
I’m just going to pause here with a quick thought: The hardest part about doing this podcast is sharing the type of info I’ve just spent the last five minutes talking about. I hate the idea that you’re on your daily walk, pushing your sweet baby in a stroller, and I’ve just completely freaked you out. I can completely empathize with a racing heart and sweating palms as you mentally survey all of the products you used while you were pregnant. I’ve been there and I don’t want anyone to go into panic mode. The format of this podcast is based on the idea that knowledge is power – it’s about progress over perfection, knowing that if you breathe air, drink water and eat food, then there’s no way to completely avoid the things I’m talking about.
So, that’s all to say – don’t panic. I will never end an episode without showing you a better way and empowering you to make small changes that will benefit you and your family in the long run. The amazing thing about the human body is that it’s regenerative and restorative – we can heal it from the inside out just by slowly reducing exposure and slowly introducing better options. Okay? So stick with me here.
Alright, so now we know, phthalates: not good for you, found in a lot of things, impossible to avoid but one area where we can avoid them is in our skincare.
So, how do you know if there are phthalates in the current skincare you use? Maybe you’re thinking, “Shannon, I just checked the label on my face wash and it doesn’t say phthalates as one of the ingredients. Does that mean I’m in the clear?”
Well, if you were freaked out before – now is the part where you have every right to become enraged.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (or FDA) does not require the labeling of specific ingredients, including phthalates, in the packaging of cosmetic products.
This is a direct quote from the FDA’s website: “…the regulations do not require the listing of the individual fragrance or flavor, or their specific ingredients … As a result, a consumer may not be able to determine from the ingredient declaration on the label if phthalates are present in a fragrance or a flavor used in the product.”
The statement on the FDA’s website goes on to say: “Under the law, cosmetic products and ingredients, with the exception of color additives, are not subject to FDA approval before they go on the market.”
And then, despite all of the studies indicating otherwise, the statement says: “At the present time, the FDA does not have evidence that phthalates as used in cosmetics pose a safety risk.”
It’s also worth noting that the FDA hasn’t updated its “Survey of Cosmetics for Phthalate Content” since 2010. Think about how many new products have come to market in the past 13 years…
But I digress, let’s focus on what we can do as consumers to fix this for ourselves and for our families if our leadership won’t take responsibility.
The first place to start is with the skincare products in your own home. If we can’t remove all of the phthalates from our lives, then let’s at least try to remove the ones we put directly on our bodies.
The most simplified way I can boil it down is to eliminate products that have fragrance, flavor or a big name cosmetic label. At the risk of demonizing every cosmetic conglomerate, if the product comes from a big brand, has a smell or flavor and doesn’t say “fragrance free” or “phthalate-free,” then it’s probably not something you want to use. Again, this is a generalization but an easy rule of thumb to remember when you go to buy new products.
Where things get trickier is with the brands you use that may not be as well known, or they have fragrance but it says it’s an essential oil or it’s labeled as a “natural” flavor. This is when we can get confused by greenwashing and need an outside vetting source, which is why I recommend the SkinDeep website any time you buy a new personal care product.
SkinDeep was started by the Environmental Working Group and I’ll link to the website below – it’s a free resource where you can search their database of virtually any cosmetic or personal care product, brand or ingredient.
So what I would recommend right now is to whip open your medicine cabinet or makeup bag and search some of the products you use the most using SkinDeep. You’ll get a detailed report about the product, including the problematic ingredients and a ranking from 1-10 of where it falls from Best to Worst. If you find out the beloved Covergirl foundation you’ve been using for 15 years is ranked as a 5, don’t panic. You can then search their database of EWG verified foundations for an alternative.
For some quick recs, a few of my favorite skincare and makeup brands are W3LL PEOPLE (which you can actually find in Target) and Biossance – I’ll link those in the show notes at cleanlivingpodcast.com/skincare. As a friendly reminder to any new listeners, links to all of my research sources and the studies I mention in every episode can also be found in the show notes, as well.
What I want to leave you with for today, though, is the SkinDeep website and a five minute homework assignment to search some of the skin care products that you use the most, using their search tool. It’s cliche to say, but knowledge is power and this is one way to start claiming your own power every single night when you go to wash your face or every morning when you get ready for the day.
Oh, and for those of you wondering about my dermatologist’s recommendations at the top of the episode, I didn’t end up buying Retinol. Retinol is a potent form of Vitamin A and is ranked a 9 by the EWG, because of the mix of retinol and sun exposure. I’m also still breastfeeding so until I can do more research, it felt like a safe pass. I ended up buying a plant-based retinol serum instead called Bakuchiol that is ranked a 1 by the EWG and although I’m sure it doesn’t work as well to reduce wrinkles, it feels like a better option right now. I’ll link to the hyaluronic acid and vitamin C serum I bought in the show notes. Again, that’s at cleanlivingpodcast.com/skincare
Side note: I’m looking at the recording time right now and I definitely did not stick to the 10 minute episode I promised you… Someone got a little too excited – I’ll try to reel it in for future episodes.
Thanks so much for listening to this episode of The Clean Living Podcast — I’m your host Shannon Lohr. If you learned something today please share this episode with a friend — maybe the person who you know is still using that Clean & Clear facial burst cleanser, remember that? (16 year old Shannon loved her morning burst of microbeads… oh, to be a teenager in 2002…) See you next week.