What's On Your Face?

Written, photographed, and modeled by Muylin Loh

My skincare journey began at Lush. A brand that prides itself on their natural and freshly handmade products, backed with a solid green policy and admirable commitment to fight animal testing. It sounded like a great place to start. Though I wasn’t sure what to look for, I ended up choosing my cleanser and moisturizer based on the uniqueness of their names. After all, “Skin’s Shangri-La” could only be as luxurious as it sounds, right? Fast forward to one week later - my face was in the worst state it’s ever been, completely irritated and filled with small bumps.

Everyday - multiple times a day - I would hover over my mirror, getting increasingly upset by the condition of my skin. The products must’ve been too harsh on my skin, so I researched what exactly in the formula caused this irritation. Initially scanning through the list of ingredients didn’t lead me anywhere, so I found resources that could decode these crazy chemical names. EWG’s Skin Deep and cosdna are databases where you can search for products and they break down the ingredients, detailing the purposes and concerns of each. Each ingredient is rated from one to ten; the higher the score, the higher the hazard. Using EWG, I was startled to find that the moisturizer I used scored an average of 6 out of 10, with four ingredients rated 7 and higher. Fragrance had the highest score, with one of the concerns being irritation. Well, at least it’s starting to make sense.

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On a scale of reactions, irritation was considered a mild concern; the more serious risks include allergies, organ system toxicity, endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity - the list goes on. How is it possible that these ingredients have harmful effects on your health and yet nobody seems to be talking about it? This prompted me to be more cautious when searching for another moisturizer to switch to. Soon enough, it became clear that it wasn’t just Lush that packed these toxic ingredients into their product offering - in fact, most beauty companies do.

The ugly truth is that the US has not passed regulation on personal care products since 1938. Since then, over 80,000 chemicals have been introduced to the general market, but only 10 percent of these have been tested for human safety. To put this into perspective in the beauty industry, the European Union bans about 1,500 ingredients and the United States bans only 30. The FDA does not approve products before they hit the shelves and has minimal power in recalling products. Although this doesn’t necessarily mean that all products are harmful, it does have important implications for us, as consumers, to be mindful and read labels profusely. Even in small amounts, toxic ingredients can have a negative cumulative effect on our health. As mentioned earlier, fragrance often has a very high score in terms of toxicity because manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients that go into fragrance on product labels. This means that the word “fragrance” can hide possibly hundreds of toxic ingredients, including phthalates, known to help scents last longer but have unexpected risks. Deemed a trade secret, many beauty companies use "fragrance" to hide their formulations from their competitors.

With the unregulated nature of this industry, brands can use buzzwords like natural, pure, and organic that don’t have real enforceable definitions, even if the ingredient label on the back screams the exact opposite. Statements like “free of” or “benefits include” distract us from figuring out what’s actually included in the product. Lush is a notorious example of such a company as one of their biggest selling points are fresh ingredients made into natural products. When in fact, 83 Lush products contain parabens, a harsh preservative that is known to disrupt hormone function, because their main ingredient is water, which means that the product requires strong preservatives to prevent molding. Other ingredients include foaming agents, sulfates, synthetic fragrance, amongst many other fillers and preservatives that have not been tested for safety. If you ran their products through the EWG database, you’d be shocked to see what you find.

In hopes of saving my skin, I made frequent trips to Sephora, tried dozens of moisturizers and treatments, including ones that Youtubers claim are essentials, ultimately getting disappointed by the lack of results that were ever so promised. Finding something I could comfortably use without aggravating my skin was the real challenge. By midday, my face would either feel too tight, or too heavy, or just plain irritated. The bumps on my forehead were as persistent as ever.   Acne treatments were too harsh on my skin, thus worsening the problem. My skin wasn’t cooperating to anything and as I monitored progress closely every day, seeing little to no results was quite discouraging. That is until I finally made the switch to clean skincare.

Browsing on Sephora, I noticed there were some products with a green seal, labeled “Clean at Sephora”. Clean beauty was relatively new to me but the more I read about it, the more I was sold. It offered the perfect solution to the toxicity of conventional beauty products. Clean beauty prioritizes ingredient safety over source, which means it doesn’t contain ingredients like parabens, sulfates, phthalates, synthetic fragrances, mineral oils, or chemical sunscreens that are linked to harmful hormone disruption, cancer or skin irritation. Natural products generally have a shorter shelf life because they don’t include the fillers and preservatives that are commonly used in traditional beauty products solely to lengthen shelf life. Instead, they contain botanical ingredients that naturally break down after a while but are more nutritious for your skin. Additionally, there is a higher concentration of active ingredients in the formula so greater results can be achieved with less product. Similarly to cooking, a great dish doesn't include artificial flavors or fake, processed foods but rather pure and fresh ingredients. Simply put - better ingredients equal better results.

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More consumers are demanding safer products, which means more beauty retailers are banning ingredients that are known to be harmful from their product offering. Brands like Ursa Major, Drunk Elephant and Herbivore are paving the way for clean skincare and setting the standards for safe products that deliver maximum results and compete with popular conventional products. Gradually, I made the switch to clean skincare, and with proper care and maintenance, trial and error, my face actually started clearing up. I experimented with AHAs and BHAs and different types of moisturizers and found that the moisturizer that worked best on my skin didn't have an ingredient label that seems to go on forever - in fact, it only had 12 powerful and potent ingredients. Free from toxins and other nasties that do not belong on your skin, I discovered that perhaps the phrase "the simpler the better" might actually be true after all.

My current skincare routine comprises of three steps. I wash my face with Indie Lee’s Brightening Cleanser, seal in moisture with Peet Rivko’s Daily Moisturizer and protect with EltaMD’s facial sunscreen.

If you’re currently breaking out and can’t figure out why, run your products through EWG and see if it might be certain ingredients that are causing irritation. If you can use just about anything without breaking out, consider yourself lucky (and me very jealous). However, it’s still important to be mindful about the fact that a lot of the time, these effects take place beneath the surface. Think about it this way - if you wouldn’t eat toxic chemicals, why put it on your body? 60 percent of everything you apply on your skin makes its way into your bloodstream. As consumers, we owe it to ourselves to be more aware and make decisions based on facts and figures.

Although you may be reluctant to throw your products away and make the big change (as I was), I recommend you start small. The next time your cleanser or moisturizer runs out, look for a clean alternative. Switch out your products slowly and fill in any gaps as you go. I personally started out with my main area of concern and worked my way around to replacing my traditional skincare products with natural alternatives. It is a long process, but understanding clean beauty and ingredients is a continual process that’s become a hobby for me. I hope your research will take you along the same path.