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Moisturizers: Hope or Harm in a Jar?

By on December 28th, 2011 Categories: Uncategorized

When I flip through magazines, I often find myself getting sucked into the swirl of skin care ads. The promises are hard to ignore: with just a few pats of a cream or serum, I can look younger, with firmer, softer skin protected against the signs of aging. Any and all perceived flaws seem to magically disappear, sometimes instantly. It’s no wonder that moisturizers and other anti-aging products are things we can’t seem to live without. Yet despite these claims — which aren’t closely regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — some moisturizing products may actually do more harm than good.

What goes on you can go in you. Your skin is able absorb many of the things that you put on it. Just think of today’s new medicines that can deliver a full dose of a medicine through a small patch you place on your skin. So it is important to use healthy products on your skin.

Moisturizers are made up of many chemicals, some of which may be cause for concern. The chemicals may be the active ingredient, a fragrance to make it smell good, or a preservative added to help extend the shelf life of the product. There’s also the potential risk of contaminants — chemicals that come along with added ingredients and other chemicals that are formed when the additives react with each other.

Unless you’re a chemist, it’s hard to keep up with all the potentially harmful ingredients. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve come to rely on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. The database provides hazard ratings for more than 3,000 common moisturizers, as well as other types of products. Hazard ratings range from the lowest, 0, to the highest, 10. The ratings are based on each product’s ingredients; the higher the rating, the higher the risk of potentially harmful ingredients. Moisturizing products with higher hazard ratings often contain ingredients such as:

  • Fragrance. On labels, fragrance can mean any one — or a combination of many — unknown chemicals. Plus, many fragrances belong to a group of chemicals called phthalates, which can mess up the balance of hormones (called hormone disrupters). Fragrance mixes, which can be dozens of chemicals, have been associated with allergies, skin reactions, breathing problems, and even effects on fertility. There is concern about the effect of some fragrances on the health of our breast cells.
  • Sunscreen. Many moisturizers contain sunscreen to block the damaging effects of ultraviolet (UV) light. Chemical UV screens used in hundreds of moisturizers are considered hormone disruptors. Hormone disruptors can affect how estrogen and other hormones act in the body, by blocking them or mimicking them, which throws off the body’s hormonal balance. Because excess estrogen over a long time can make hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer develop and grow, many women choose to limit their exposure to chemicals that can act like estrogen.

  • Estrogen. While no product in the database lists estrogen as an ingredient, there are facial moisturizers that contain “placental extract or placental protein.” These ingredients come from the placenta, the organ that supports the developing baby during pregnancy. It produces progesterone, estrogen, and other hormones. Again, because estrogen can make hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer develop and grow, many women choose to limit their exposure to anything made with estrogen-like compounds.

So how to moisturize with minimal risk?

Use just a small amount of the product. Many women use moisturizers morning and night, doubling their daily exposure to the chemical ingredients. You might want to use moisturizers only once a day and reduce the number of products you use. So instead of face, hand, and body lotion, maybe you can use one or two for everything.

Choose low-risk moisturizers. If you have dry skin like me, and especially if you live in a desert climate or have your heat on for a good part of the year, it’s unlikely that you’ll completely give up your moisturizer. So the key is to find one that offers the least amount of risk. There are more than 400 facial moisturizers/anti-aging products in the Skin Deep database with a “0” rating. A recent and well-researched book, No More Dirty Looks by O’Connor & Spunt, also offers recommendations on “clean” products based on the authors’ research and personal experience with each recommended brand of moisturizers, anti-agers, and serums. Other great resources include the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the book Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry by Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

Keep it simple. Substituting a safe homemade or single-ingredient product for a synthetic product is another way to go. Studies show that plant-based products can hydrate skin cells and reduce inflammation, as well as protect against skin damage and signs of aging. What they can’t protect you from are the harmful UV rays of the sun. But rather than slathering on a chemical sunscreen, try wearing a wide-brimmed hat, lightweight sun-protective clothing (like a long-sleeved shirt and long pants), and avoid the sun during peak hours. Also be sure to take a daily supplement of vitamin D, since avoiding or blocking the sun can lead to vitamin D deficiency. When I can’t avoid sun exposure, I wear a mineral sunscreen. (Read more on safe sun protection.)

To keep dry skin supple, try using vegetable oils such as cocoa butter or coconut oil. Green tea extract and grape seed oil offer anti-aging properties, while cucumber is cooling and soothing to irritated skin. My favorite is a jar of food-grade organic coconut oil that’s good enough to eat (it’s sold on the cooking oil shelf). When I bring it home to my house, the cooler environment turns it into a waxy consistency. But as soon as you put it on, it melts right into your skin. Ahhh…works great as a moisturizer and is very inexpensive. But I use it at the end of the day, after work, once I take off my work clothes and put on my sweats. The oils as well as many other commercial moisturizers can ruin your good clothes.

Be your own active ingredient: Don’t forget about the importance of exercise and healthy eating. Exercise increases blood flow to your skin both during and after a workout, bringing important nutrients to the surface. It also helps rid the skin of old cells, giving your skin a healthy glow.

Stay tuned to learn more about taking care of your skin in “Moisturizers: Hope or Harm in Jar, Part 2” where I’ll talk about other ingredients that may be cause for concern. In the meantime, let us know about your skin-care routine. Post a comment and share some personal advice.

Update: On March 15, 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning about skin lighteners, anti-aging creams, and other skin creams that may contain extremely high levels of mercury. Products that list “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” “mercurio,” or “mercury” as ingredients should be thrown away.

Specific skin cream brand names mentioned in the FDA’s warning include: Diana, Fasco, and Stillman’s. All these products are imported, but the agency emphasized that the warning applies to all skin creams.

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president, and chief medical officer of Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 14 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.


  1. Marisa Weiss, M.D.

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