Clean Skincare: What You Need To Know


We are enveloped, encased, embodied in skin, and so good, clean skincare is critical! One of the first things people notice about you when you meet them is your skin. Is it clear, shiny, glowing, healthy looking? Yes, it sounds superficial, but the truth is, your skin makes a statement about you.

The good news is, even if you are dealing with the challenge of acne or rosacea or some other dermatological irritation, as long as you are working on it, you can glow beyond and rise above any temporary bump in the skin road. Hold your head high and be proud of your efforts. An understanding of the ingredients in skincare products is one of those important efforts.

About our skin

The average adult has 20 square feet of skin covering her or his body at a weight of about 8 pounds. That’s a lot of territory to care for and protect! The skin is the body’s largest organ and protects us from harmful pathogens and environmental factors, helps regulate body temperature, and allows us to experience the sensations of heat, touch, pressure, and cold. It also makes the critical nutrient vitamin D.

Your skin is composed of three layers:

  • Epidermis, the outermost layer, which is composed of the protein keratin. The epidermis consists of Langerhans cells, which let the immune system know when harmful agents such as viruses are around
  • Dermis, which is where the hair follicles plant themselves and various glands (sweat, apocrine, sebaceous) reside.
  • Subcutis, which is composed of fat cells that provide a food reserve as well as insulate the body.

The most abundant protein in the skin is collagen, making up 75 percent of the organ. When we are young, it can do a good job of keeping away wrinkles and fine lines. However, the body’s ability to make collagen declines with age.

Skin issues

Our skin is a target of both internal and external influences, ranging from our dietary choices to internal inflammation, use of personal care and makeup products, toxins in the air and water, and sunshine. When we consider all of these possibilities, we can see how skincare can be a challenge. But it doesn’t need to be.

Before we get into some specifics about skincare, let’s look at some of the more common ways our skin speaks to us.

Acne: This skin condition is characterized by blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, and bumps on the skin, typically on the face, neck, shoulders, and upper back. Acne occurs when the hair follicles become clogged with oil and dead skin cells.

Dark spots: Dark spots on the skin are an example of hyperpigmentation. This occurs when some areas of the skin makes more of the dark pigment known as melanin. Dark spots are not a health issue, but some people choose to remove them for cosmetic reasons.

Dry skin: Also known as xerosis, dry skin can happen to anyone at any age. Often it is a temporary issue, but it can be chronic. Some causes include aging, living in a dry climate, presence of a skin disease such as eczema or psoriasis, exposure to chlorine in pools, or work-related causes (e.g., nurses, hairstylists, dishwashers).

Eczema: The term “eczema” refers to several different types of inflamed skin. Most types of this noncontagious skin condition cause itchy, dry skin and rashes on the face. The cause is unknown and is probably caused by both genetic and environmental factors.

Fine lines and wrinkles: The main cause of early wrinkles is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UV light breaks down the collagen and elastin fibers in your skin. Because these are your skin’s supportive connective tissue, your skin then loses its flexibility and strength, and you begin to develop wrinkles.

Other causes of fine lines and wrinkles include smoking, repetitive facial expressions (smiling and frowning a lot can leave tell-tale lines), and aging.

Oily skin: Although people with oily skin are more susceptible to acne and clogged pores, they also are likely to have less fine lines and wrinkles. Oily skin can be caused by genetics, overwashing, environment (humidity, heat), use of certain medications (e.g., oral contraceptives), poor diet, and hormonal changes.

Psoriasis: Psoriasis is a chronic autoimmune skin condition that speeds up the life cycle of skin cells. Symptoms include inflammation, flaking, and thick, silvery or red patches of skin. People with psoriasis experience a rapid accumulation of skin cells on the surface of the skin, and these extra cells form scales and the red patches that may itch or be painful.

Scars: Scars are a natural healing process that develop when the dermis is damaged. An assault on the skin causes the body to form new collagen fibers, and the result is a scar. Scar tissue forms after a wound has healed completely.

Although most scars are pale and flat, they also can be raised. This occurs when the body makes too much collagen.

Read about skin care products: steer clear of these 5 ingredients

Ingredients we put on our skin

If you use conventional skincare and personal health care products, you are exposing your skin to some potentially damaging chemicals. Here are some of the more common ones you will see on skincare products.

  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). This chemical has been classified as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the National Toxicology Program. Animal studies show that BHA can damage the liver, cause stomach cancer, and interfere with thyroid hormone levels.
  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). These manmade antioxidants are added to skin care products to extend their shelf life. However, they also are likely carcinogens, can interfere with hormone balance, and may cause liver damage.
  • Fragrance. There’s no federal law that requires companies to reveal the chemicals in their fragrances. These secret ingredients may contain hormone disruptors. The best way to stay safe is to buy only fragrance-free skincare products.
  • Parabens. Parabens mimic estrogen and may disrupt the endocrine system and be a factor in reproductive and developmental disorders. You can identify parabens by the suffix “-paraben” on the label.
  • Petrolatum. This mineral oil derivative, also known as petroleum jelly, is an emollient that can actually cause dry, chapped skin, even though it is advertised to alleviate such skin problems. Petrolatum is popular with manufacturers because it is very inexpensive.
  • Phthalates. These chemicals soften the plastics in skincare products and also help them better stick to your skin. However, phthalates also can disrupt your hormones and cause birth defects.
  • Polypropylene glycol, polyethylene glycol. In most cases, these ingredients are synthetic petrochemical mixtures that can cause hives, eczema, and allergic skin reactions.
  • Retinyl palmitate and retinol. Anti-aging products often contain these ingredients. They become cancer-causing when exposed to sunlight, so if you do use them, be sure to only apply them at night. Never use sunscreens that contain retinol-derived ingredients.
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate. This chemical may cause or contribute to canker cores, irritated skin, eye irritation, and acne.

Not all ingredients are bad for the skin

Once we put aside the unhealthy conventional chemicals and other ingredients that we put on our skin, what’s left? Fortunately, there are many good, natural ingredients that are safe to use on your skin. When buying skin care products or making your own, be sure the following ingredients are the ones you look for and use.

Read about understanding organic skincare ingredients


When you consume foods and supplements containing beta-carotene, your body converts it into vitamin A, a nutrient that is necessary for protecting your skin against sun damage, promoting new cell production and cell turnover, and healing skin wounds. Applying topical beta-carotene to the skin can improve discoloration associated with melisma.

Coconut oil

Coconut oil contains three fatty acid compounds that can help your skin: capric acid, caprylic acid, and lauric acid. Capric acid is an antimicrobial agent, and caprylic acid has antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. It also can fight skin infections, acne, and candida. Lauric acid is an antiviral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal substance.

Coconut oil also is a great source of vitamin E, which has skin-repairing abilities and can help reduce the appearance of stretch marks and scars. Vitamin E also moisturizes the skin by entering the cell membranes and protecting them against damage.

Green tea extract

The catechins in green tea, especially epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), help prevent and reverse damage to the skin from ultraviolet rays. Catechins as well as flavonoids, such as kaempferol and theaflavin, also fight inflammation and work to soothe the skin.

Hyaluronic acid

Your body produces hyaluronic acid naturally, but sometimes your skin can use a little extra help! Hyaluronic acid increases moisture in the skin, helps make skin flexible and elastic, and holds onto the skin protein, collagen. Numerous studies have shown that hyaluronic acid is important in slowing aging, treating fine lines and wrinkles, improving hydration, relieving sunburn, and treating cold sores.

Hyaluronic acid also can accelerate wound healing because it has anti-inflammatory properties and triggers the body to produce more blood vessels in areas where the skin is damaged. One study showed that hyaluronic acid applied to wounds can reduce wound size and relieve pain rapidly.


Licorice extract has anti-inflammatory properties that may make it helpful in managing acne, and rosacea. The anti-inflammatory component is glycyrrhizinic acid, and it’s been shown to reduce skin inflammation in a recent study. Licorice also may be helpful in reducing uneven pigmentation.


The Food and Drug Administration has approved colloidal oatmeal for treatment of skin conditions such as dry skin, eczema, and poison ivy. The proteins and lipids in oats “help replenish and maintain the skin barrier, and oats contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant chemicals,” all of which are beneficial for the skin, according to Jessica Wu, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at University of Southern California in Los Angeles.


Soy-based skincare products are a good alternative for people who want prescription-strength results, according to dermatologist Michael Gold, MD, medical director of Gold Skin Care Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Soy can lighten skin discoloration associated with sun damage and melisma because it can interfere with the skin’s overproduction of the dark skin pigment called melanin. Use of topical soy can make your skin look more even and brighter.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) has several qualities that make it an excellent ingredient for skincare: it’s a powerful antioxidant that fights damaging molecules and it is a player in collagen synthesis. Topical ascorbic acid can cross the epidermis into the underlying skin layers and provide benefits such as preventing and treating UV damage, lightening dark spots, and battling sagging skin.


Willowherb is a wildflower that has antiseptic and antimicrobial properties and is soothing to the skin. These qualities make it a natural choice for managing skin irritations, such as eczema and acne. Skincare products that contain willow herb may show Epilobium augustifolium extract on the ingredient panel.

Witch hazel

Witch hazel is often found in moisturizers and toners because it can manage oil, help hydrate the skin, reduce inflammation, and alleviate redness. These qualities make skincare products with witch hazel an option for those with acne and other skin irritations.

Companies cleaning up their ingredients

The times they are a-changing! A slowly growing number of companies are cleaning up the ingredients they include in their skincare product lines. As more and more consumers demand clean skincare and other personal care items, the pressure is on the industry to give consumers safer products.

At the same time, new brands are entering the marketplace that are using only clean ingredients like BeautyCounter. If you want to find skincare products that are good for your skin, check out MadeSafe, the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

Bottom line

If you want the safest, cleanest possible products to touch your skin, then you need to be an informed consumer. Look for skincare products that say they contain all-natural and/or organic ingredients and then read the ingredient list to be sure you are getting what the product claims. Only deal with reputable skincare manufacturers and always visit their websites to check out their claims and contact them if you have questions. Our personal favorite is BeautyCounter.

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Clarke KA et al. Green tea catechins and their metabolites in human skin before and after exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry 2016 Jan; 27:203-10
Dereure O et al. Efficacy and safety of hyaluronic acid in treatment of leg ulcers: a double-blind RCT. Journal of Wound Care 2012 Mar; 21(3): 131-32
Feiereisen S. The 8 best natural ingredients for your skin. Everyday Health
Liu W et al. Glycyrrhiziic acid from licorice down-regulates inflammatory responses via blocking MAPK and PI3K/Akt-dependent NF-kB signaling pathways in TPA-induced skin inflammation. Medchemcomm 2018 Jul 19; 9(9): 1502-10
National Geographic. Skin. 2017 Jan 17
Papakonstantinou E et al. Hyaluronic acid: a key molecule in skin aging. Dermatoendocrinology 2012 Jul 1; 4(3): 253-58


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Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently, she lives in Tucson, Arizona.