If you are looking for chemical free skincare then you are probably becoming a super-savvy about what it is you put into and onto your body. Nutrition is a tad easier ‘eh, you can look at the ingredients list and spot sugar or added salt… but it gets a ‘wee’ more complicated when you realise there are over 46 names for sugar, including glucose, saccharose, maltodextrin… say what?! Skincare can DITTO that and plus it because skincare also uses a different language called INCI which is why all those names on the ingredient list look so crazy.
Shea butter is Butyrospermum parkii.
Vitamin E is Tocopherol.
So when you see skincare that claims to be ‘chemical free’ you think ‘oh yea, that’s safe for my skin and body’… but is it? Is chemical free skincare a con, another meaningless claim? Here is what you need to know if you are on the hunt for ‘chemical free skincare’…
WHAT YOU THINK CHEMICAL FREE SKINCARE MEANS & WHAT IT ACTUALLY MEANS
When you see that ‘chemical free’ claim you probably read ‘this is safe, natural and will love your skin’. That word, ‘chemical’ sounds scary, it sounds like cleaning fluids and stuff that you’d need a white lab coat, spec’s and goggles for.
Did you know [science insider share!] even if you were in a lab with Olive oil or Oatmeal powder, you’d still need to put that white lab coat ‘n those lab specs and goggles on. It’s just what you wear when you’re in a lab, the ‘stuff’ you’re working with might not be a hazard to you, but everything is kept contamination free [that includes stopping you contaminating what you’re making, just like if you were in an industrial kitchen!]. Trust me it feels kinda crazy when you’re doing it and you’re all like ‘What? I know this is safe’ but it is just the 101 of working in a lab ‘good-practise’.
What ‘chemical free skincare’ actually means is that you’d be living in a vacuum where nothing existed, not even YOU! Now that sounds kinda scary… we can’t have you disappearing ‘eh, the world needs you! Everything around you and that ever existed (in our reality) is a chemical. Oxygen is a chemical. Your body is made of chemicals that control the way you feel (like hormones), how your heart beats and when you feel sleepy. Our food is full of different chemicals like vitamin A, vitamin C…
Ok, so the claim ‘chemical free’ is a con, but does it still mean it is safe or ‘safer’?
IS CHEMICAL FREE SKINCARE SAFER?
We know ‘chemical free’ doesn’t exist, but we do know that most products that claim ‘chemical free’ are usually natural or natural based. So is natural skincare safer?
Yes & No.
In some ways YES.
That’s because ingredients [or chemicals] used in natural skincare have mostly been around for ‘yonks’. Olive oil, we know is good for us [in moderation] and we’ve established that it’s not a poison to our bodies. Can you even imagine, waaaaay back in the day when people didn’t know what was and wasn’t safe to eat – gheez, that is crazy to think! As with a lot of things that are good for our bodies when we eat them, they can also do good when we ‘cream’ them onto our skin.
We know a lot about olive oil, we know that it has vitamins in it and we know that it has fatty acids & omegas in it. We know that those vitamins and omegas can all benefit our skin. Olive oil is a mixture of a load of different ‘chemicals’ that we know are good for us, so long as it’s not the only thing you’re eating ‘eh!
In some ways NO.
What we think of as ‘natural’ skincare ingredients are always a mixture of LOTS of different ingredients that we know as ‘Shea butter’ or ‘Chamomile essential oil’. Some of those ingredients in Chamomile essential oil have those soothing, anti-inflammatory skills that everyone associates with Chamomile. Those skin loving skills are mostly due to 1 key ingredient in Chamomile, called Bisabolol. Then there are other bit’s ‘n bobs in the essential oil that we don’t know so well… literally 100’s of different ‘chemicals’/compounds/ingredients that we are still learning about, there’s alcohols, allergens like Citral and benzyl alcohol and loads of other very sciency sounding ingredients that we just haven’t studied yet!
A natural ingredient like Chamomile essential oil may help to soothe our skin… when it’s used at just the RIGHT dose.
Whether something is good for, mostly good with a little bad, or mostly bad with a little good… it’s all about how much of it you have. If you ONLY ate carrots, your body is not going to like you very much, you’ll turn orange from all the carotene [a free fake tan?], you’re going to over-dose on vitamin A and there will be HUGE side-effects.
Back to skincare and say you were after a soothing lavender massage oil, if you got your hands on a 100% Lavender massage oil [ i.e. Lavender was the ONLY ingredient] it would be super skin ‘HARMFUL’, and with the scientific phrases of;
- ‘May be fatal if swallowed and enters airways’
- ‘Causes skin irritation’
- ‘Toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects’
WHOZER, fatal!! You will never find a massage oil on the market with 100% lavender concentration because [thank-goodness] there are safety assessments that have to be done before any skincare is allowed to be sold.
Whether something is good or bad for your skin depends on HOW much of it is in the bottle. It depends on the DOSE. We live on oxygen (all 21% of it that is in the air we breathe!) BUT give us 100% oxygen and we would die. Without water we would die, but drink too much and we can ‘drown’ ourselves. Polly couldn’t say it better with this article and infographic on ‘Why it’s not natural vs. manmade that determines whether something is safe.
Even if skincare is natural, if it’s not formulated properly you could end up with dryness, irritation, redness, swelling and even develop an allergy!
DOES CHEMICAL FREE SKINCARE MEAN IT’S BEST FOR SENSITIVE SKIN TYPES?
If you’ve suffered a skin reaction [owch – I hope it’s all better now!] then natural, ‘chemical free’ skincare could be something you reach for. It just sounds more sensitive ‘eh! Is ‘chemical free’ (or we know it as non-man-made) skincare better for sensitive skin types?
There are some man-made ingredients that are known skin irritants, a common one being the SLS (sodium lauryl sulphate) found in shower gels. These ‘too good for their own good’ cleansing ingredients take away your skin’s natural protection, so skin gets irritable and irritated. Some man-made ingredients are irritating and not sensitive skin friendly.
There are also some natural ingredients which are known skin irritants, like that lavender oil we just chatted about. There are a load of others too like natural fruit acids [containing glycolic acid] which have a super low pH. That super low pH doesn’t match your skins pH (4.2-5.5) and again your skin can get irritated by anything which isn’t similar to it. It just doesn’t know how to be friends.
If you see that ‘chemical free’ claim, it doesn’t mean it’ll be a sensitive skin winner. It’s all about the ingredients in the bottle!
IF A SKINCARE INGREDIENT IS MAN-MADE, IS IT DANGEROUS?
‘Man-made’ ingredients – that phrase makes some people worried, maybe we should re-phrase to ‘female-made’ *wink wink*. Think of it like this, ‘bread’ does not exist in nature. The flour that makes it kinda does, but after some harvesting and grinding and that’s the same for the butter and yeast. If you are a baker, then you are a kitchen chemist! Bread is chemistry, chemical-reactions happen to turn those ingredients into that yummy, ‘still warm lets melt a piece of butter on it’ bread.
Bread is a man-made ingredients. Is it dangerous to us? No.
Some skincare ingredients when taken from nature can be bad for us. Remember that bit about natural ingredients being a whole mixture of different ingredients. Well sometimes it’s just that 1 special ingredient we want, so we ‘extract’ that bit from the other bits. The Comfrey plant is known for skin-healing. It is 1 special ingredient in the Comfrey plant called Allantoin which does the magic. If we extract Allantoin from Comfrey it is contaminated with other ingredients [called pyrrolizidine alkaloids] which are toxic to us. Comfrey is actually now banned from herbal drinks because of these toxins it naturally contains.
The safe way to get the benefits of Comfrey/Allantoin in your skincare is to use a ‘man-made’ version of Allantoin which is not contaminated with naturally found toxins.
Sometimes natural ingredients have the edge, like Olive oil which is an awesome mixture of vitamins and omegas. Sometimes ‘man-made’, nature identical ingredients have the edge, because they don’t contain naturally found toxins, just the ‘pure’ ingredient.
SO WHAT SHOULD WE LOOK FOR, IF NOT ‘CHEMICAL FREE’?
Choosing skincare right for you is all about being ingredient savvy. It’s just like food, if you didn’t know that vegetables contained a tonne of vitamins which are super helpful to our bodies, then why would we eat them? I mean chocolate is waaay tastier ‘eh! Pomegranates contain antioxidants, Spinach contains zinc, Kale has a good-ol’ dose of vitamin C. We choose our food because we know what vitamin, mineral and omega yummies it has for our bodies.
Getting to know your skincare ingredients and what they do for your skin is the best way to go about choosing skincare that is perfect for you!
What do you look for at the moment in your skincare?
Cheryl Woodman is a scientist & award winning skincare formulator who’s more friend next door than bow tie wearing professor. As creator of Honesty For Your Skin her aim is to help you care for your skin in the best ways possible. She’s founder of the natural & fragrance free skincare brand Honesty while also hosting 1 to 1 skincare coaching to help you get your best skin yet. Find out more here.