Since ancient times, women have had a love affair with cosmetics. Japanese geisha whitened their faces with rice flour powder while women in Renaissance Europe powdered over their suntanned skin to hide that they belonged to the agricultural class. While our ancestors may have gotten the look they desired, they were actually poisoning themselves in the process by whitening their skin with products that contain lead and mercury.
We've come a long way since then — or have we? We asked Dr. Jessica Krant, M.D., M.P.H., board-certified dermatologist, founder of Art of Dermatology and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, about the effect makeup has on our skin and our overall health. Her answer? It depends.
"Wearing many layers of products every single day means you are going to be absorbing the chemicals in those products every single day. How much, and what chemicals, will vary from person to person and product to product," Krant said.
"The good thing about it is that generally, we wear makeup mostly only on our faces, which means a very small portion of body surface area is involved in any absorption, and if we are diligent, we are removing it in the evenings and not wearing it around the clock."
While makeup can cause irritation, rashes, acne and other annoying conditions, Krant said in some cases makeup can also protect the skin from damage. And while many worry about the cosmetics industry having no regulation or federal oversight, she said there have been no proven cases of normal, modern makeup causing cancer directly.
As for hormone disruption, studies are still ongoing, but the culprits in potential clinically significant adult human hormone disruption are much more likely to be things we ingest (such as BPA in plastics) or rub all over our bodies, not just on our faces.
So, our makeup probably isn't going to kill us, but what if we gave our skin a break for just one week? We asked Krant what to expect from a week without makeup. She said that stopping the use of foundation for a week could help clear up acne breakouts, and it could stop any rashes that are caused by irritating ingredients.
For women who are willing to go au naturel for even longer, stopping the use of foundation for a month could help resolve true allergic reactions and begin to improve acne. A full year with no foundation could help "improve skin health in every way" for women whose skin problems were exacerbated by constantly wearing makeup.
If you're not willing to forgo the foundation, Krant said the important thing is to remove makeup every evening to give the skin a chance to clean itself and breathe. She recommends using a method that is gentle on the skin and moisturizing, rather than harsh and drying. The goal is to leave the skin healthy and intact rather than irritated and inflamed. "Healthy, well-moisturized, calm skin is the most resistant to invasion by unwanted chemicals."
While skin sensitivities vary from person to person, Krant said consensus is forming that it's best to avoid formaldehyde-related preservatives (which are often unlisted, as they can be lumped in with "fragrance"), such as DM, DM hydantoin, phthalates (plasticizers) and "anything with a benzene ring," such as oxybenzone, a sunscreen ingredient.
Women with extra sensitive skin should avoid glycolic acid, vitamin C, salicylic acid, retinol and retinyl palmitate.
For acne-prone skin, avoiding tropical oils such as coconut oil and palm oil, and squalene may help reduce breakouts. Conversely, makeup with oil can be helpful in reducing irritation and inflammation for those with dry skin.
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