Eight years ago, back when I was so green to all things motherhood that the ins and outs of nursing a newborn felt like learning to operate a jetpack, I relied a lot on La Leche League’s info that supported breastfeeding. One of their evergreen slogans there, meant to encourage moms to not wean too early, was (and still is):
Cow milk is a wonderful and natural food … for baby cows!la leche league slogan
Short and sweet and it drove the point home with no elaboration needed.
Sadly when it comes to skincare, the equivalent of the commonsense above is sorely lacking. And no, I am not bemoaning the absence of breast-milk-based products 🤢 but rather of the obvious parallel:
Plant and fruit essences are wonderful, nourishing ingredients … to the seeds of those plants.
It seems so counterintuitive, I know, because we’re steeped in natural beauty trends and cosmetics industry propaganda, but just because a plant extract, a certain fruit, or an essential oil is natural to the botanical source that produced it, who is to say that it’s natural to … our skin?
Or that it belongs there?
Or will keep it healthy if we introduce it there?
We’re so starved of interactions with nature in the modern world that we often end up looking for a taste of nature in places that are just downright … weird.
Want more of nature in your life?
Great! Me too.
So how bout we go on a hike?
I swear it’s what kept me, personally, sane through three months of social distancing in upstate NY from mid March to mid June, when Covid-19 was raging like wildfire in my beloved NYC. Perhaps now is the time to give it a go in your state?
Or go camping, fishing, rowing.
Spend more time outdoors.
Hell, take up Lord Byron or Percy Shelley (the grandpappy of cloud porn). There’s a whole trove of great romantic poetry that will satisfy even the hungriest soul when it comes to love of nature. My personal favorite is John Ruskin (and yes I am an English lit nerd).
But going to the drug store and picking up a plastic tube with a fruit or flower’s picture printed on the label?
We’re barking up the wrong tree.
And worse, fooling ourselves.
Let’s just say this out loud a few times, until it sticks:
Latest Natural Beauty Trends Notwithstanding, No Plant Was Put on This Earth to Be the Holy Grail of Our Skincare Routine
Thing is, plants have their own ends in mind and they’re working on means to these ends. Those ends being survival and reproduction, and the means being defense mechanisms against aggressors.
And only occasionally, depending on the particular plant and its reproductive strategy vis-a-vis its surrounding habitat, do those means involve attracting certain kinds of animals (flowers attract bees for pollination, fruit-bearing plants want their fruit eaten, so the seed can ideally be pooped out on a field somewhere, from which a young shoot can grow). And only sometimes do these attractive qualities coincide with our skincare goals!
Takeaway: plants have not developed their unique molecular compounds to give us the gift of dope looking skin.
They’re doing it to further their own selfish ends.
It makes sense from the perspective of evolution. And once the Garden of Eden closed shop, it makes sense in Genesis too.
Plants are the sources of some of the most powerful poisons… when they don’t want to be eaten. And some of the strongest allergens… when they don’t want to be touched.
Poison ivy anyone?
Even when they seem to be fine to touch on a macro level, they almost always carry micro-irritants meant to fight off parasitic insects. The concentration of those irritants may be relatively small as it is calibrated to fend off little bugs. But one sure way to get it into highly purified, potent form that will mess up even large mammals is…to derive that plant’s essential oil!
You heard that right.
Essential oils are not essential in the sense of the essential elements listed on the periodic table, which comprise the building blocks of every possible molecule in the universe.
“Essential” here only means that the essence of that plant’s smell is captured by those oils. They happen to be mind-blowingly resource intensive to produce, which means they’re ecologically horrible for the pants they’re made of, and horrible for the environment at large. From a profile of the EO industry in the New Yorker (excellent read):
It takes more than a million rose petals to make an ounce of rose oil, which doTerra [EO supplier] says is good for the complexion. … As oils have become more popular, sourcing has become contentious. Frankincense, coveted both for its alleged ability to regenerate cells and for its Biblical prominence, is derived from the resin of trees that grow only in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.
Anjanette DeCarlo, an environmental scientist who specializes in frankincense, told me, “If the demand keeps up without proper controls, we risk causing an ecological crash of a rare and endangered ecosystem.” Young Living [other EO supplier] recently pleaded guilty to illegally trafficking in rosewood oil from Peru, which considers rosewood trees a threatened species.How Essential Oils Became the Cure for Our Age of Anxiety—By Rachel Monroe, the New Yorker
If you understand that plants are only looking out for their own interests, it’s not hard to understand why some essential oils are antimicrobial or anti fungal (because microbes and fungi attack plants), why almost all of them are allergenic on contact and toxic to ingest (to discourage that plant’s consumption), and why some of them are cancer causing and sun sensitizing (again to ward off offenders). Under different circumstances they also hold promise as anti-tumor agents. Wait, how can that be?
Again, simple. The same plant may be adapting for itself an advantage for survival by evolving a mechanism for harming animals that would eat it, by giving them cancer, and also another mechanism for suppressing its own tumors. To isolate and purify the exact compounds that
Here we go:
Nearly 80 essential oils (including 2 jasmine absolutes) have caused contact allergy…. Co-reactivity with other essential oils and the fragrance mix is frequent, which may partly be explained by common ingredients. [translation: essential oil blends are even more allergenic than single source oils.]Essential Oils, Part IV: Contact Allergy, American Contact Dermatitis Society, 2016
And what goes for essential oils in particular also goes for all botanical extracts in general, EOs being the most purified form of botanical extract.
Sure, once in a while a plant is found that happens to have medicinal properties for humans. But that’s the exception, when by pure coincidence the stars align and what’s good for that plant also happens to be good for us. It’s not the rule. That’s why it takes scientific research to find those rare exceptions and study them.
OK, so now we know what’s not natural to your skin. You might be asking what is?
It’s just like the La Leche League slogan. Human babies need human breast milk for optimal nutrition.
And human skin needs the constituents of healthy skin to be at its best. What are those constituents of healthy human skin? They can be derived by studying skin biology. Not by studying herbs in a field.
Here’s a shortlist:
an intact skin barrier, with an acid mantle protecting it (So that products that gently acidify the skin to keep its ph around ~4.5 are good.)
glycerine (The skin secretes fats which are made up of fatty acids and glycerol; then enzymes on the skin break down those fats into glycerol and free fatty acids; that glycerol in turn plays key roles in keeping the skin moist and supple, and regulating the production cycle of new skin cells.)
certain fatty acids (Lots of different kinds of fats can be found in healthy skin, but not at equal concentrations. Younger and healthier skin has more linoleic acid than oleic acid, whereas in sun damaged or older skin the ratio is reversed, so products that restore a high percentage of linoleic acid to the skin help improve the skin barrier.)
lactic acid (The only AHA that’s actually naturally found in skin, as a component of sweat. It’s been shown to be just as effective as the much more irritating glycolic acid at brightening skin, it can also thicken the dermis, and it boosts ceramide production.)
ceramides (The structural beams of the skin’s lipid matrix, responsible for its elasticity and suppleness. The best natural sources are so called phyto-ceramides, phyto meaning plants. See? the stars do align once in a while. The best source is colloidal oatmeal.)
collagen (Lots of skin care products try to sprinkle some on, but it’s a fact that it barely makes it into the viable layer of skin when applied topically. For best results, take a collagen supplement. This one has the best quality and best price per ounce, and is the one I personally take.)
hyaluronic acid (Ditto with respect to delivery mode. Don’t waste your time and money with serums. Just take a pill or two every day.)
vitamin C (Found in greater concentration in young and healthy skin than in damaged skin, and also known to boost collagen production by the skin. Plays all sorts of roles in skin metabolism with no side effects. The only problem is it’s very susceptible to oxidization, which makes it useless or worse. Take our proprietary nano-spheric formula that’s shelf stable and is guaranteed to not oxidize for two years.)
a healthy and well-balanced skin flora (By flora I don’t mean 🌸🏵️🌺🌼💐, but more like…🤔…wait, there’s actually no emoji for germs. Bummer! But yeah. Just like your gut is home to good germs that keep the bad ones at bay, so too your skin is like a planet colonized by good germs that keep the bad ones in check. When you take antibiotics it’s a take-no-prisoners killing spree in your gut and your health suffers for it unless you take great pains to recolonize your gut with healthy flora. When you use just about every skin care product on the market, you are slathering biocidal preservatives on your skin ☠️ and they in turn are killing everything that lurks there: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Emphasis on the good, because the bad and the ugly find ways of coming back to haunt you. By the way, that’s just rich when products riding on natural beauty trends are advertised as bringing you a slice of nature. Were those biocides plucked out from a pristine field of flowers too? Or are we not supposed to think of them?)
Of all these, the last one is the hardest to wrap your head around. But it’s probably the most important, because biocidal preservatives are so common in our skin care products, and we are using more and more products in elaborate multi-step routines, that our exposure to biocides has never been greater and, unchecked, will continue to grow.
Think about it. When a baby is born, it travels down the birth canal and gets coated all over by mom’s vaginal flora. Do you think cavemen gave baby baths to their newborns?
That bacterial coating actually serves important functions for training our immune system and keeping pathogenic bacteria away from the baby. And it’s why babies smell… like baby. That healthy and wonderful smell. The special flora plays a key role in regulating, protecting, and moisturizing baby skin.
We could hold on to that flora well into adulthood and continue to reap the benefits, if only we take it easy with anti-bacterial washing, heavy-surfactant cleansing, and biocidal preservatives in skin care. I cover all this in depth here.
But more important than any list of healthy skin must-haves is the right mindset about skin care.
If you’re serious about getting real results from your skin care, it’s time to stop fetishizing botanical ingredients just because they remind you of some idyllic notion of nature that maybe you feel like you’ve lost touch with. And it’s about time to start thinking about what’s natural to your skin, not what’s “nature,” out there. When you focus on what’s natural to your skin, you learn about skin biology and how your skin works and what it needs to be healthy. Some of the answers will surprise you, because they’re not what the beauty industry is shouting to the hills. But they’re a much surer way to dope looking skin than the plastic tubes with flowers printed on it, full of biocide-laden gunk.
There’s natural nature, which is what actually exists, and can be discovered by studying skin. And there’s artificial nature, which exists only in your head, and was put there by a slew of marketing campaigns.
Learn the difference.
Know thy skin.