Become BFFs with your Ingredients Label: Ground Rules

One of the most important life lessons I have learned has been to question everything and to doubt the “experts.” At the end of the day the best thing to do is to trust yourself and investigate first hand.

Here are a few tips to help you begin decoding ingredients lists:

  1. The higher it is on the list, the more of that substance is in the product, so the top three ingredients should be ones that you think are worth paying for.
  2. The longer the list, the more likely you will react to something negatively (especially if it has added fragrance).
  3. The more ingredients that don’t have easily recognizable or short names, the less natural it is, and the more time it will take you to decode it all and decide if it’s worth putting on your body.
  4. If it has parabens or lauryl/laureth sulfate in it, it AIN’T organic!
  5. Reading the list is the BEST way to know what your product can really do. For example, if it claims to be anti-aging but has no SPF or antioxidants and contains drying ingredients, then it’s just a claim.

Even experts such as dermatologists and cosmetic researchers will tell you that many ingredients like parabens, sodium lauryl sulfate, and phthalates are “safe in low levels.” Please don’t believe this. Here is why: Take a moment and mentally walk into your bathroom and take out every single product that you put on your face, hair, or body or use to clean your mouth. How many are there? How many times a week or even a day do you use them? How many cups or pounds of the “safe-in-low-levels” ingredients do you think you use over the course of a year? All of that is being absorbed into your body through your hair, skin or mouth, affecting your body chemistry.

I’m not telling you to start washing your hair with baking soda or to only buy “all natural” or “organic” brands. They sometimes contain just as much crap. What I am saying is that now, you have the keys to the kingdom, so start using them!

This website is very helpful: Skin Deep. Even if your product or brand has not been rated, you can examine each ingredient that you’re not familiar with and learn about what it is used for and its level of toxicity. Here’s an article that really helped me: Learn How to Read Cosmetic Labels

Knowledge is power. Challenge and investigate anything and everything that doesn’t seem quite right to you. At the very least, you’ll learn something new. At most, you could save yourself anxiety and protect your well-being.

If you’re like me, you worry all the time about seeming rude, impertinent, or paranoid if you speak up, but enough of all that! Remember what is at stake: your health, your peace of mind, and your self-respect. Don’t these things merit ruffling some feathers, altering your habits, cutting out products, or even changing doctors? You are worth it.

Choosing Skin Care for Acne-prone Skin

Though I currently have only minor breakouts and combination skin, I suffered from significant acne from the age of 16 to age 26. I do not claim to be an expert; however, I have gained insight into caring for my skin and my body that I would like share with you in the hope that you will benefit and be able to avoid some of the problems that I had.

When looking for a good acne treatment, it is important to inform yourself about the ingredients in each product and any potential side effects they may have. Don’t simply take anyone’s word for it (not even mine). Try it out for yourself, and use what works for you. Even dermatologists can be wrong, especially if they do not specialize in acne treatment (and many do not). You get to be the skeptic and the expert here, so take charge of your search!

Some ingredients to avoid are ones that dry the skin such as alcohol, sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium C14-16 olefin sulfonate or those that clog or block pores like Isopropyl isostearate, Isopropyl myristate, Myristyl myristate, Laureth-4, and Oleth-3. In contrast, alpha hydroxy acids (AHA)s like citric acid, glycolic acid, and lactic acid help beneficial ingredients such as antioxidants to penetrate your skin. AHAs are natural acids found in foods like milk and fruit also help to exfoliate, moisturize, treat acne, and reduce acne scars and discoloration (Web-MD).

For any skincare treatment, basic products to use include a gentle but effective cleanser, a toner, a treatment product, and a moisturizer-sunscreen. You might be thinking “but how can I find the best one?” The best approach is to get samples or small sizes to test out the products. But before you spend any money, find a beauty blogger with a similar skin type to yours whom you trust on YouTube or in the blogosphere.

Also look at reviews not just on the brand’s website itself but from multiple sources: You might also look at magazine and newspaper articles online or in print, and I recommend seeing what people on acne.org think about it, especially if at least 25 people have reviewed the product. It is very difficult to get an accurate picture of a product from any one review, so look around and listen to what people are saying; then try it for yourself to be sure.

Cleanser: Should clean dirt, excess oil, and possibly remove the makeup from your face while still being gentle. If your face feels tight, itchy, or uncomfortable after using a certain cleanser, try again and get another one or change to a more mild cleanser for the winter months or any time your face feels too dry. Remember to touch your face very lightly as you apply your cleanser. There is no need to scrub to clean your face well.

Here are ones that I like: Michael Todd’s Honey Oat facial wash, MT’s Cleanse and Tone. They suggest Charcoal Detox cleanser for acne-prone/blemished skin. However, since I have not tried it yet, I wanted to recommend the others first.

Toner: It’s not always easy to find a toner that is any good. Though it is typically described as a step to completely clean your face, the benefits of a very good toner also include calming any irritation, having anti-bacterial properties, and adding hydration. Some toners also help to resurface the skin and reduce wrinkles and discoloration or darker pigmentation through the use of alpha hydroxy acids like citric acid and glycolic acid. Overall, a well-formulated toner helps treat and hydrate your face and prepare it to absorb all the treatment and/or moisturizer you are about to apply. *Avoid toners with alcohol or other harsh ingredients.

  • I love Michael Todd’s Blue-Green Algae toner, and it’s formulated to fight acne-causing bacteria while being hydrating and safe for sensitive skin. I also really want to try their Organic Lemon toner because it is formulated with several AHAs and should counteract my remaining discoloration and acne scarring.
  • I’ve also used LUSH’s Breath of Fresh Air toner (Bouffée d’air frais), which is nice, mild, and hydrating. However, their Tea Tree Water and Tea Tree Toner Tabs (Kryptonique) are made to suit oily or acne-prone skin. Though I adore the fact that LUSH’s products are hand made and use mostly natural ingredients, I simply do not think their products are properly formulated to really deliver the all the “good stuff” in them to your skin. So half the equation is missing for me.

Treatment: This could look like a serum, a mask, or an exfoliating product or anything else you’re using for your acne or general skin care. Some treatments you will want to use every day (e.g. serum); others you might use 2-3 times per week (e.g. exfoliant), and still others you will only use once a week (deep treating or cleansing mask).

No treatment is a substitute for a good cleanser and toner and no amount of awesome toner or cleanser can replace your treatment. This applies to every skin type but especially to acne-prone skin because you need to get deep into your pores and not only remove toxins but also give nourishment and healing to your skin. That’s why treatment is so important.

Moisturizer: If you have a good toner and a serum that moisturizes, you might not need this step. However, if your skin is still dry or you just prefer some extra hydration, I recommend these:
For non-greasy but deep hydration try Michael Todd’s Hydration Boost serum I looove this product. I also want to try their Organic Aloe Vera Oil. Both are recommended for all skin types. Don’t be frightened away by the “oil” part of the aloe vera, it’s 100% organic and has four ingredients: Organic Glycine Soya, Euterpe Oleracea (Acai Fruit) Pulp Powder, Organic Aloe Barbadensis, and Lavender Essential Oil, which is NOT on the pore-clogging ingredients list (I checked). Finally, adding a few drops of organic 100% jojoba oil to your moisturizer is a good idea.

Sunscreen: The products necessary to treat acne and acne scarring (AHAs) often make your skin extra sensitive to the sun, but even if they didn’t, a good sunscreen or a moisturizer or foundation that includes an SPF of 30 or higher would still be a must to treat your skin right.

Here are a few to try: The top three sunscreens reviewed by acne sufferers on the acne.org forums were

  1. Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunblock SPF 30,
  2. Neutrogena Visibly Even Daily Moisturizer, SPF 30, and
  3. Aveeno Positively Radiant Daily Moisturizer SPF 30.

It seems as though Dermalogica’s Oil Free Matte SPF 30 might be a winner; it is a little pricey at $48 for 1.07 oz, so you might look into getting a sample. I have used a Dermalogica sunscreen in the past and liked it. Also, their Solar Defense Booster SPF 50 (also $48) is customizable as you can add drops of the product to your moisturizer or into your foundation.

Whatever variations you choose, the products you use MUST work well as a team. Just as we can’t mix oil and water, you don’t want to use any product that will either cancel out the effects of another or that will magnify the others’ effects to a level that could irritate or harm your skin. This is why I recommend following a skin regimen that was made to work as a system such as Michael Todd’s regimens for acne-prone/oily skin and acne-prone/oily sensitive skin or The Regimen as presented on acne.org (see the picture below)

Personally, I love skin care products that use as many organic ingredients as possible while making sure the nutrients, vitamins, etc. are delivered to my skin. I believe I have found this in Michael Todd True Organics (MTTO). The trial/travel-size “Discovery Collection” of five key products for acne-prone skin (and for all skin types) costs about 29€ and lasts about one month. MTTO also grous five of their full-size products as regimens, which are made to work as a system for each skin type. Right now, they cost from 51€ to 62€, which is about a 50% savings for each regimen. The regular acne/oily regimen costs 51€ and the sensitive version is about 55€.


Pictured above is the Michael Todd True Organics regimen for sensitive oily or acne-prone skin.

The benefits of acne.org and using The Regimen are that there is a whole online community using it, and the website gives detailed information about acne and acne treatment. In addition, other acne sufferers are talking about nearly every acne-related topic imaginable on the site’s forums. The products are minimally packaged, come in different sizes (one month, 3-4 months, travel size), and have been formulated for maximum effectiveness with a minimum of ingredients. Finally, the founder of the site Dan Kern and his team are very accessible and are known to respond quickly to questions and feedback. Personally, I have found that benzoyl peroxide (2.5%), the staple treatment of this method was far too drying and harsh on my skin when my acne was bad. However, many people swear by it, and Kern’s formulation is a gel so it is never white and doesn’t get lumpy or clumpy.

Because the products from Michael Todd True Organics and acne.org are designed to work together as a system, it is essential that you use them as they were intended for the minimum amount of time they recommend to see results before you decide if you like them or not.

However, if a certain product from a system or skin care line negatively affects your skin after you have used it a few times, you should change the recommended steps. Keep in mind that some products such as masks may tingle or even burn for the first few minutes. If it does not stop or your skin is red, irritated, or dry after you have left it on the minumum-recommended time and washed it off completely, then I would definitely stop using that product and either substitute a similar but less potent one from the same manufacturer or just eliminate that step from your routine altogether.

Also, if you are using other treatments, especially those prescribed by a doctor such as Retin-A, sulpher wash, or Accutane, you will likely need to treat your skin differently. For example, Accutane is extremely powerful and tends to sensitize and dry out skin significantly. So, you would not want to use the entire acne.org Regimen on top but would be better served using MTTO’s Sensitive Skin regimen.

No matter how quickly you want your skin to clear up (everyone has an event they want to look their best for) or what kind of results are predicted, stick with The Tortoise on this one: “Slow and steady wins the race.” It’s not going to be like waving a magic wand. Build up to your optimal level of treatment slowly, maintain that level for as long as you need to in order to see satisfactory results, and have a long-term maintenance plan to keep taking care of your skin.

Your acne is an outward expression of what is going on inside your skin and your body. Getting rid of it with only superficial methods is like cutting off the top of a weed and expecting it to go away forever. And blasting the weed with harsh chemicals? That only harms the ground beneath and keeps the good things from growing. That’s why I believe that what you do to take care of your body, mind, and spirit are equally essential to clear skin and a better quality of life.

Stay tuned! I will write about these issues in my next post

Here’s a fuller list of comedogenic or pore-clogging ingredients.

My Skin Story:
As a teen, I had very oily skin and deep, painful breakouts. At my most oily, I could consistently turn an entire oil-absorbing sheet clear and make a few spots on another sheet. I thought the best solution was keeping my skin squeaky clean, getting rid of all the oil I could, and killing off as much bacteria as I humanly possible by essentially nuking my face.

I didn’t realize until recently that I have been using entirely the wrong types and combinations of products on my skin over the years. Even when I had bad acne, it wasn’t the oil itself that was the problem, it was that my oil and sebum production were not balanced. Can you guess what causes this? Over-drying the skin. While this is not the only cause, drying out your skin or irritating/overstimulating by using exfoliating products can make your oil glands start producing overtime.

Read what founder of acne.org, Dan Kern, says about his own experience over-washing his face here.
Dermatologist Audrey Kunin, MD, Teresa Stenzel, Bioelements Director of Education, and Dermalogica’s research all back up my assertion that stripping the skin causes your skin to produce too much oil and sebum to compensate for inadequate moisture.