A friend recently asked me to recommend a good moisturizer that wasn't full of chemicals. I get asked this type of question a lot because who isn't distressed about the idea of "toxins" in the products we're using? The specter of cancer and other diseases looms in everyone's minds because we all know someone who's had it or died from it. My mother has had it (twice! she's thankfully clear now), and I've lost my share of friends to it.
The idea that something you're applying daily to your body could be upping your chances of getting cancer or some other irreversible illness is enough to make you just back away slowly from all products and want to go back in time to a pre-technology era, just live in the damn forest.
So, the question about a chemical-free moisturizer is a good one. What is at the heart of that question I think though is really: "where can I find a safe moisturizer?" And that's what I'd like to address in this post.
First, we have to acknowledge that chemicals are all around us, even in plants (phytochemicals), so it's not so much a question of chemicals but again, of safety, and what we really know about ingredients. Like, what are the track records of the ingredients in the things we're applying? How much data (preferably longitudinal) do we have on the ingredients?
I believe we need to get beyond the "chemical" (I think people are really referring to "synthetic, lab-made" when they say this) versus natural debate. Because if we admit chemicals are all around us, we can start having a better conversation about it. For example, there are some plant chemicals I'd never want on my face, and some synthetic ingredients I can't wait to apply. I'll explain...
The psychology behind what we choose to buy and use is complex. When we think about risks to our body, it's natural to think of the scariest examples (like breast cancer) that we feel we have little control over because there are so many genetic and environmental factors that can contribute to it, and ignore the ones we think we might have a bit of control over (like sun damage, which can lead to skin cancer).
So, if someone is afraid of "chemicals," they might skip their daily SPF over a fear (I'd say unfounded) that the ingredients will cause some kind of cancer, but by doing so they're dramatically increasing their risk of getting skin cancer specifically, which kills so many people each year (my cousin lost her 30-year-old husband to it) and is a lot more preventable from a behavioral standpoint. Many cancers are caused by genetic factors over which we have little control, but not this one!
Basically, it’s the spectacular versus the mundane. In reality, it's far more likely we're going to get skin cancer from not using daily sun protection products than it is we're going to get, say, breast cancer from using any given skin care product. But that doesn’t really matter in terms of our fear response when we see someone’s blog post telling us the risks of a common ingredient, and if an industry person says “no, I promise it’s safe!!!” we’re going to be skeptical because we’ve already had the bejeezus scared out of us—and why would we trust the person selling the ingredient??
I think what we don’t consider is the person scaring us about the ingredients could very well be selling something, too. More often than not, they’re selling us the cure to our fear, a “chemical-free” alternative. And often, those alternatives are chockfull of delicious-smelling (i.e., marketable) but objectively terrible for the skin ingredients like highly volatile (and skin cell-killing, phototoxic) but very natural essential oils, which should never be applied topically to the skin. So who the hell do we trust in this scenario? I’m going to go with neither. I’m going with a third option, which is scientific method.
When I consider what's in a product, MY first question is, is it going to irritate my skin? Irritation leads to a whole host of problems, including the chance that skin will be more vulnerable to UV rays. That's why I mention essential oils, they're inherently volatile. That's why they spread out in the air so quickly, they're great for aromatherapy. But that kind of volatility on your delicate skin cells? That's bad news. And so many of the great-smelling products in the "natural" section of the aisle have essential oils. The best natural ingredients smell like nothing. But that's not easy to sell. Most products geared toward people avoiding "chemicals" are going to have that reassuring "natural" scent added to it. It's a problem.
So, my recommendation for a good moisturizer isn't one with no chemicals, it's one with safe synthetic and non-volatile natural ingredients. Even non-volatile natural ingredients can be problematic for people with allergies though. SO, in my opinion, it might even be best to go with a purely synthetic product! But that's another point. My main one is, go fragrance-free and avoid using products with bad chemicals: https://www.paulaschoice.com/ingredient-dictionary... (this is a non-hyperbolic but up-to-date list of ingredients commonly found in beauty products)
As to specific products I'd recommend, I think beautypedia.com has the best reviews of such things. They support their reviews with published, peer-reviewed research studies rather than handpicking fringe research and just scaring the pants off you.
Thank you for reading and please feel free to ask me more questions! This is my favorite topic, and the reason I started my business in the first place:)