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Ingredient Education

Updated: May 25, 2019

Understanding Skin Care Ingredients

Natural vs. Traditional and What You Need Knowing the ingredients in your skin care products can help you achieve your skin care goals.

The use of chemicals in cosmetics and skin care products is something we hear about more and more. Some natural alternatives to chemicals exist, but many cosmetic companies won't use them because they are more costly and less readily available. While most products cannot be 100 percent natural (because of bacterial growth), many natural alternatives to harsh chemicals can be helpful and effective in skin care. For example, cosmetics often need preservatives. Pre-bottled products must contain a good preservative to control the growth of bacteria, molds, and yeasts. Bacteria can grow in an unpreserved product in a matter of days. While some natural preservatives can help stabilize a product, a chemical preservative is probably needed for proper protection. Yet, many products on the market contain unnecessarily high percentages of preservatives to achieve longer shelf lives. Usually less than 1 percent of the cosmetic preservative is sufficient to stabilize a product for a shelf life of one to two years.



There is an emerging interest by manufacturers and consumers in natural preservatives. This is where your licensed esthetician can assist you in identifying the right professional product (as opposed to an over-the-counter product) that will be best for your skin. Manufacturers are now looking to the past and using exotic flowers, herbs, and oils that were used thousands of years ago. When present in sufficient percentages in products, many of these natural ingredients can be effective for cleansing, rebalancing, and reducing the signs of age. Some companies make claims their products are 100 percent natural. Often the chemicals, such as cosmetic preservatives, are hidden in the ingredient list. For example, a company can claim their product contains no preservatives and you may not recognize one on the ingredient list. But some may contain alcohol (ethanol, ethyl, or isopropyl), which will dehydrate and irritate your skin. Keep in mind that alcohol is a naturally occurring chemical; some forms are beneficial and moisturizing to skin, such as cetyl and cetearyl. Below are some natural ingredients that may be appropriate to replace chemical formulations that can be hard on the skin.

Natural Preservatives

These can be found in many forms, including grape seed extract, food-grade preservatives (such as citric acid, orris root powder, potassium sorbate, and sodium benzoate), pure essential oils, and vitamin E oil or extract. These can help control some bacterial growth and help maintain shelf life. Body and bath oils, bath salts, powdered clay or grain-based products, and salves are among the products that don't need cosmetic chemical preservatives.

Corn and Sugar

These two ingredients, along with others, can undergo a process that produces a mild lathering agent. Some products found in health food stores feature this natural lathering agent in shampoos.

Natural Carrier Oils

An alternative to mineral oil, natural carrier oils (like apricot kernel, almond, jojoba, vitamin E, and others) can help to nourish, moisturize, and soften skin. They are excellent for body massage and can be blended and used directly on skin.

Pure Essential Oils

High-grade essential oils are extracted from flowers, herbs, leaves, stems, and roots by a steam distillation process. Each essential oil has its own unique properties and can be helpful both externally (topically) and internally via aromatherapy. Avoid synthetic essential oils; it can be highly irritating just to smell them, let alone put them on your skin.

Natural Colors

Some alternatives to artificial colors that may be available are carrot oil, chlorophyll, and naturally colored clays. You may pay more for them; many cosmetic companies avoid using these as they are difficult to find and are much more expensive than traditional options.

Herbal Extracts

Herbal extracts are more concentrated than other formulations and can be beneficial to skin. Some of the more popular extracts include aloe, chamomile, green tea, kelp/seaweed, and marigold. They do, however, often contain grain alcohol or synthetic glycerin. Vegetable glycerin is a natural alternative. Oatmeal

This is an excellent skin cleaner. Oatmeal gently removes dead skin cells while cleaning and softening skin. It can be found in body masks, facial masks, and facial scrubs. While many facial scrubs contain ingredients like kernels and walnut shells, which can be too rough on the face, a gentle ingredient like oatmeal is a great alternative.

Fruit Acids

Fruit acids and alpha hydroxy acids can be helpful in removing dead skin cells, enabling new cell growth. In general, these fruit acids can be too strong for those with sensitive skin. Your esthetician can help you discern which products contain these acids and in what percentages.

Natural Fruit Enzymes

Papaya and pineapple contain enzymes that can help to gently remove dead skin cells, renew the skin, and improve circulation. There are times when returning to the simpler ways of the past reaps big benefits. There are many different ways to let natural ingredients help you look and feel your best. Your licensed esthetician can help you make good decisions about what products--natural or not--are best for your lifestyle, skin care needs, and preferences.

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