Where Does It Go? Skin Absorption 101

Posted by Smita Kishore on

What does your daily grooming ritual consist of? Shampoo, conditioner, soap, deodorant, cream, lotion, lip balm, toothpaste, sunscreen? According to a survey of 2300 individual conducted by the Environmental Working Group, the average person uses 9 products daily, which contain 126 unique ingredients, with some people using as many as 15 products on their skin daily without a second thought. 

This wouldn’t be so concerning if the ingredients in our cosmetics were actually regulated. You heard me: safety tests are not required for the cosmetic industry. Pretty much any raw material can be used, and some ingredients are even protected by trade law so there’s no way of knowing what’s truly in them.

Even more disturbing is the fact that many companies continue to use toxic chemicals in our products simply because they aren't banned yet, not to mention they are much cheaper to use than organic ingredients. While the EU has banned over 1300 chemicals, the FDA has only banned 8 and restricted 3. That’s quite a large discrepancy if you ask me.

Which makes me pause to ask, just how much of that toxic gunk is actually entering our skin? We have 2 million holes across our skin. 2 million! And unlike food, which has an opportunity to filter out the things that don’t belong through our digestive system, our skin doesn’t quite work in the same way.                         

Anatomy & Physiology Breakdown

Our skin is the largest and most permeable organ, yes organ, in our bodies. Our outermost skin contains nothing but dead skin cells that house hundreds of thousands of bacteria. We shed almost 600,000 particles of skin an hour! But the good news is that we are constantly making more deep below the surface to replace the dead cells above. Our skin is also our heating and cooling system, with the capacity to produce a ½ gallon of liquid an hour.

The three layers that make up our skin are called the epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous fat.

    • Epidermis: This is our skin’s cell factory. News cells are born at the bottom of the epidermis and take about 4 weeks to make their way up to the surface; once they reach the top, they’re already dead so our skin is shedding these all of the time. The epidermis is also where you’ll find melanin, which is responsible for making our skin darker or lighter (i.e., more melanin = darker skin).
    • Dermis: Contains blood vessels and nerve endings that send messages to our brain, helping to create our sense of touch. Also houses our sweat and oil glands that make sebum (our skin’s natural oil) and sweat, which travels up to the epidermis to be excreted from our pores.
    • Subcutaneous Fat: This is the layer that keeps us warm and helps protect our bones and organs. Our hair follicles also begin here and contain tiny muscles (Arrector Pili) that tighten when we’re cold resulting in goosebumps.

    While our skin serves as our protective armor helping to keep us in and the rest of the world out, despite these 3 layers, substances can still be absorbed if they are small enough. Unfortunately, many of these substances are found in everyday lotions and sunscreens, some of which are even filled with nanoparticles that are designed to easily penetrate our skin’s walls.

    Anatomy of the Skin - Skin Absorption

    Chemical Skin Absorption 

    Some of you have may have heard that 60% of what we put onto our skin is directly absorbed into our bloodstream? Well, it’s not quite that simple. The amount of a product or chemical absorbed by our skin depends on a variety of factors, including:

      • Chemical Size: Large chemicals often cannot pass through our skin’s protective barriers; however, certain chemicals are just small enough to squeeze through, while others are developed to penetrate the skin quickly as in medicinal patches. 
      • Skin Temperature: Higher skin temperature is correlated with increased absorption.
      • Skin Integrity: Is the skin damaged or intact? Damaged skin absorbs more quickly and allows larger particles to sneak through. 
      • Chemical Concentration: How much of the chemical, or combination of chemicals, is being applied? The larger the amount or number of chemical combinations, the greater the risk. 
      • Exposure Length: How long is the chemical in contact with the skin? The longer the exposure, the greater the risk. 
      • Area of Skin Exposed: Forehead? Face? Arms? Different areas of the body absorb more than others, depending on the thickness and temperature of the skin. 

      There are also a few different pathways chemicals can travel to enter our skin: 

        • Intracellular Pathway: Chemicals pass directly through cells.
        • Intercellular Pathway: Chemicals weave their way around cells.
        • Transappendageal Pathway: Chemicals sneak in via our hair follicles or sweat ducts. 

        Some chemicals, phthalates and fragrances, can also enter our bloodstream by being inhaled through our lungs, while others are ingested through lip balms and lipsticks. Though some may argue that it takes large concentrations of chemicals to produce toxicity or safety concerns, small amounts of chemical combinations can have severe implications. For instance, sodium benzoate on its own is potentially harmless but when mixed with citric acid (AKA vitamin C) it creates a cancer-causing compound called benzene

        Once a chemical passes through the superficial layers of the skin, it is more likely to be absorbed by our bloodstream or lymphatic system. Studies have found that infant use of lotions, shampoos, or powder resulted in significantly increased concentrations of phthalates in their urine, which increased with the more products that were being used. This exposure has been linked to male reproductive development issues.


        How to Reduce Your Chemical Exposure

        Once most chemicals make their way into our bodies, they tend to accumulate over time. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to help reduce our chemical exposure. Here are some tips to help get you started:

        1. Start Small: It can be impossible (and completely overwhelming!) to remove so many products from your routine overnight so start small by eliminating those that pose the most risk, such as:
              • Products you use often: daily or multiple times a day.
              • Products you leave on the longest: cream, lotion, sunscreen, etc. 
              • Products used on babies and children: babies have thinner skin so are at a greater risk for absorption.
              • Shampoos + Conditioners: These tend to absorb into the skin due to the increased absorption rate of the scalp and also wash over the rest of our bodies.
              • Antibacterial anything: While some situations call for antibacterial soaps or sanitizers, they can cause more harm than good when overused as they also kill good bacteria. 

          2. Take Advantage of Free Resources: Refer to the EWG’s Skin Deep Database where you can search thousands of products by category or brand name to see their safety ratings. For a breakdown of ingredients to avoid in particular products, check out Safe Cosmetics

          3. If You Don't Recognize It, Don't Buy It: Just because a product is labeled natural or organic, doesn’t mean that it’s free of harmful ingredients. Always read the ingredient lists of products before buying. If you don’t recognize or understand an ingredient, I recommend not using it. 

          4. Shop Local: Know where your products are coming from and support companies that you believe in. Check out your local farmer's markets and craft fairs and get to know the makers of your goods! 

          5. Wear a Base Layer: If there's a potentially harmful product that you love and just can't let go of, try wearing a base coat of coconut oil to help create an extra layer between the product and your skin. 

            Specific Ingredients to Look Out For 

            If you only have time to scan your items for a few ingredients, here are the ones that I try to avoid the most: 

            Phthalates: Helps products stick to skin and improves the stability of fragrances. Continue to build up in our bodies over time causing endocrine disruption, which can be toxic to our reproductive glands.  

            Parabens (Methyl, Ethyl, Propyl, Iso, Benzyl, Etc.): Used as a preservative. Hormone disruptor that mimics estrogen in the body. Currently being studied for links to breast cancer, especially when applied near the underarms. 

            Fragrances: Not only harmful to the environment but may also cause skin irritation, allergies and organ system toxicity. Not to mention that the chemical ingredients in scents are concealed and protected by trade law so we have no idea what may really be in them.

            TEA + DEA (Triethanolamine and Diethanolamine): Considered so harmful, both are banned from products in Europe as they are known carcinogens.

            Triclosan/Triclocarbon: Chemicals that kill bacteria. Banned by the FDA in soaps yet still common in deodorants and cosmetics. One of the worst endocrine disruptors that encourages resistance to antibiotics. So overly used in products that 75% of people have detectable levels of it in their bloodstream

            PEGs/Ceteareth/Polyethylene Compounds: Synthetic chemicals frequently contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which is a carcinogen that easily penetrates the skin. 

            Vitamin A Compounds (Retinyl Palmitate, Retinyl Acetate, Retinol): Widely used in sunscreens, lotions, and makeup. Sunlight causes Vitamin A to break down, producing free radicals that can damage DNA and increase skin sensitivity. 

            Sulfates: Creates the foam in our products. Found in toothpaste, body wash, shampoo, shaving cream, etc. Often derived from petroleum and not sustainable for the environment. Increases skin sensitivity. 

            EDTA: Made from coal tar and often seen as Disodium EDTA and Tetrasodium EDTA. Penetration enhancers that increase absorption of harmful ingredients into the skin. Also linked to brain damage in animals. Not biodegradable and pollute the environment. 

            While it can daunting to remove so many of your everyday products from your routine, it's important to be aware of what's in them so you can make more informed decisions. For some, this may mean using less of your favorite product; for others, it may be removing it completely. For me, it came down to making the things I use most often on my own. Regardless of what path you choose, take the steps to inform yourself of what you're putting onto your body so you can make the choices that work best for you. 

            Love + Light,

            ~Smita :)

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