The average person spends thousands of dollars a year on skincare products—lotions, creams, serums, tonics, and ointments designed to moisturize, heal, and fend off the outward signs of aging. For most people, the foremost consideration when choosing skincare products is, “Does it work?” However, the growing popularity of so-called clean beauty products indicates that more people are also caring about the quality of the ingredients they slather so liberally over their faces and bodies.
Why does it matter? Skin is the largest organ of the human body. It is also permeable. Anything we put on our skin makes its way inside, so we certainly don’t want to be applying harmful substances to our skin. We also rely on our skin to provide a barrier with the outside world, keeping harmful organisms where they belong. When it’s healthy, skin plays an important role in the immune system. In part, it does this by housing its own microbiome. The skin microbiome is distinct from the one you might be more familiar with in the gut, but just like the gut, the skin microbiome can be disrupted. When that happens, a host of health issues can follow 1 Thus, we want to protect the skin microbiome, and one way we do that is by not applying harsh, even toxic, substances.
And of course, we want our skin to feel good. Dry, itchy, painful skin will make a person miserable. Even when it doesn’t cause physical discomfort, skin conditions can cause embarrassment. After all, it’s the outer shell that we present to people. Granted, other people don’t judge us as much as we think they do (they’re too busy worrying about how other people are judging them), but it’s natural to want to put your best foot—or best face—forward.
All this is to say, we want safe, effective, and affordable ways to care for our skin. Here’s where I’d start.
Choosing the Best Skincare Products
If you walk into your local drugstore and pick up any skincare product or cosmetic off the shelf, you’ll see a mile-long list of unpronounceable ingredients. Unpronounceable doesn’t automatically mean bad or harmful, but it can be hard to distinguish between ones you feel good about putting on your body and those you’d be better off avoiding.
More and more companies are making an effort to produce safer skincare products to meet consumers’ increasing demands. Labels proudly display buzzwords like natural, green, clean, non-toxic, and earth-friendly. The problem is, none of these terms are regulated by the FDA, so ultimately, they could mean anything… or nothing. The FDA does have a short list of banned or regulated ingredients, and “it’s against the law to use any ingredient that makes a cosmetic harmful when used as intended.”2 Beyond that, each manufacturer or retailer gets to decide for themselves what constitutes “clean” skincare.
Therefore, it’s up to the consumer to find trustworthy brands and to scope out the ingredients in the products they buy. You can really go down a rabbit hole here; some skincare companies list literally thousands of suspect ingredients they’ve banned. If that’s too overwhelming—and I wouldn’t blame you if it is—here are the top four I’d recommend avoiding.
Common skincare ingredients to avoid:
Parabens are ubiquitous in personal care products including shampoos, conditioners, makeup, toothpaste, lubricant, shaving gel, moisturizers, and sunscreens. They are controversial due to their potential estrogenic effects3 and the possibility that they could be linked to various health problems. Although the evidence for their harm is inconclusive, public anti-paraben sentiment is strong enough that many companies have removed parabens from their products.
What to look for: Any word with “paraben” as the suffix in the ingredient list. Look for “paraben-free” on labels.
Being plasticizers, phthalates are abundant in plastics, but they also show up in most cosmetics, especially nail polish (to keep the polish from becoming brittle on the nail) and synthetic fragrance (as a preservative). Like most other plastic compounds, phthalates are endocrine disruptors. In humans, epidemiological studies have linked phthalate exposure to an alarming array of issues including insulin resistance and diabetes, obesity, allergies, asthma, and poor sperm function.45 Kids and adults are both at risk.
Now, correlation does not necessarily imply causation, but the observational studies coupled with potential physiological mechanisms (endocrine disruption) make me pretty suspicious of phthalates. Of course, much of our exposure comes from plastics and the ambient environment, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t limit exposure through cosmetics, too.
What to look for: Fragrance almost always contains phthalates. Sometimes, ingredient names will have the suffix “phthalate,” but you can’t always rely on that. You know what? Just be wary of that “phth” (how the heck do you even pronounce that?) because it shows up in the middle of words, too. As with parabens, many manufacturers are now letting you know when phthalates are absent in their products.
Fragrances are exactly what they sound like: synthetic compounds added to products to make them “smell good” (subjectively—I often despise them). And they’re everywhere.
The real problem with fragrance is that fragrance recipes are considered trade secrets. Companies don’t have to disclose the chemicals contained in a particular fragrance. Unfortunately, most synthetic fragrances contain phthalates, which I’ve already covered, and synthetic musks, which have been shown to impair endogenous cellular defense mechanisms.6 Basically, synthetic musks may hamper our cells’ ability to detoxify. Many fragrance ingredients are also allergens.
What to look for: Fragrance, parfum, aroma.
4. UV-filtering chemicals
Many sunscreens use UV filters like benzophenone and oxybenzone for their UV-blocking properties, but they also come with a cost: endocrine disruption. Certain forms of benzophenone, for example, inhibit the action of thyroid peroxidase, an enzyme necessary for the production of thyroid hormone.7Chemical sunscreens frequently contain parabens and other problematic ingredients, as well.
If you’re looking for safer sun protection, opt for a hat and a lightweight cover-up, or go for a mineral sunscreen instead.
What to look for: Benzophenone, oxybenzone (benzophenone-3), octyl-methoxycinnamate, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), 3-benzylidene camphor (3-BC), 3-(4-methyl-benzylidene) camphor (4-MBC), 2-ethylhexyl 4-methoxycinnamate (OMC), homosalate (HMS), 2-ethylhexyl 4-dimethylaminobenzoate (OD-PABA). These are different chemicals with similar effects.
How to Promote Healthy Skin
Healthy skin is more than what you rub on it. Your lifestyle is reflected in your healthy glow—or lack thereof.
When you don’t sleep enough, your skin suffers. Insufficient sleep leads to impaired skin barrier function and accelerated skin aging.89 Sleep deprivation has a direct impact on the integrity of the skin, including the production of collagen.10 The result is saggier, more wrinkle-prone skin, a sallow complex, and under-eye circles to boot.
If you’re dehydrated, so is your skin. To maintain skin elasticity, make sure you’re drinking enough water.
And avoid drinking too much alcohol. Alcohol abuse has long been associated with various conditions of the skin, including jaundice, hyperpigmentation, flushing, and psoriasis.11 While I doubt most readers take their alcohol consumption to abusive proportions, these extreme cases indicate that alcohol isn’t particularly skin-enhancing.
Build a Healthy Gut
The state of your gut biome is central to basically every aspect of your health, so why not your skin? Scientists acknowledge that the state of your gut affects you skin via the “gut-skin axis.” Rosacea, for example, can be a sign of underlying H. pylori infection.12 Gut dysbiosis—too many undesirable microbes and/or too few of the good guys—leads to leaky gut and systemic inflammation that in turn contributes to skin afflictions like atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, hidradenitis suppurativa, and alopecia.13 Folks with these skin conditions also tend to have higher rates of ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel disease. It’s all connected.
If the idea of researching and choosing safe skincare products has your head spinning, here are some ways you can use simple items you probably already have in your home to nourish your epidermis.
Scrub with sugar or sea salt: Finally, a good use for sugar. Be careful using abrasives on the face, but these are great for the neck down.
Moisturize with avocado oil: Avocado oil is packed with good-for-your-skin nutrients, like carotenoids, healthy fat, and vitamins A, D and E. Together, they can boost collagen production, fade age spots, calm inflammation, and treat sunburns. Pour a few drops in your hand and work it into clean, damp or dry skin.
Dab on apple cider vinegar: The acidity of apple cider vinegar can potentially help with acne, atopic dermatitis, and psoriasis. Just make sure you dilute it first.
Moisturize with shea butter: Shea butter—packed with stearic, palmitic, linoleic, and oleic acids, as well as vitamins E and A—smooths dry skin like no other. It’s best when used in its purest, rawest form, so seek out unrefined shea butter.
Make your own deodorant spray: I’ve had many readers tell me they no longer need deodorant after going Primal, but if you want something for your pits, mix equal parts vodka and distilled water in a small spray bottle. Add a few drops of your favorite essential oil (lavender and tea tree are nice), and voila.
To Shower or Not to Shower?
Water, the most basic element of hygiene. How could we possibly go wrong there? Grok, for his part, had access to mineral-rich, relatively pristine lakes, rivers, and springs. To really emulate Grok, we’d have to wash ourselves with pure, unchlorinated water (sorry to all those readers who have city water) and abandon all soaps, shampoos, toners, cleansers, and lotions.
Now I know some hardcore individuals who have given up showering and all personal care products. I’m not saying you have to, I’m saying it’s possible. But I also don’t blame you if that’s a bridge too far. That said, if your water is chlorinated to the point where you can smell it, or if you have chronic skin conditions of any kind, consider fitting a water filter to your shower head. And ease up on the soap lathering. Your skin was designed to produce its own oils to provide natural protection against the elements, and a good lather is going to reverse all that hard work. Wash off the dirt, sure. Subject your skin microbiome to an aggressive sand-blasting, no.
Thanks for stopping by, folks. What changes have you seen to your skin since going Primal? What kinds of practices and products do you use for good skin health? Also, what have you stopped doing or buying that made a positive difference?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.