When it comes to food and nutrition, there seems to be some consensus about dieting: eat the right things in the right-sized portions, follow a healthy lifestyle with plenty of sleep and less stress, and you will increase your probability of losing weight. That all makes perfect sense, although there are of course exceptions.

When it comes to skincare, it seems there is also some consensus with dermatologists when it comes to healthy skin: put the wrong ingredients on your skin, and you will potentially have a bad reaction, and if you use too many products, you will increase the probability of reacting.  

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, “Using too many products on your skin, especially more than one anti-aging product, can cause irritation. This often makes signs of aging more noticeable.”

Macrene Alexiades-Armenakas, MD, PhD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine, explains that “the more products you use, the greater chance one will not agree with your skin.” (Source: Dermascope)

Dr. Lisa Kellett, a dermatologist at DLK on Avenue in Toronto. “The problem with mixing the wrong ones is that they can turn into potential irritants and cause an allergic reaction. But they can also cancel each other out, making them ineffective.” (Source: Global News, Canada)

Like in the food world, in skincare people have turned to so-called natural products in their quest for better, healthier choices. However, even with natural products, skin is not immune to the threat of irritation and allergic reactions. Ingredients such as lavender, peppermint, and jasmine have been known to cause contact dermatitis, among many others. Much like in the food world, more natural and cleaner ingredients is only part of the equation.

It’s interesting that these quoted dermatologists refer to reducing the number of products, yet this is really about the number of ingredients in each product. When you look at the small print in skincare packaging, for serums and moisturizers you’ll typically find 30-99 ingredients in a bottle. If you multiply that by a cleanser, toner, serum, moisturizer, and then you add at least five to seven separate makeup products, you are talking about hundreds of ingredients being applied to your face every morning. That’s the food equivalent of entering a hot dog–eating contest with 300+ different sauces, and practicing every day!

The natural, organic, and clean skincare trends are not delivering the goods when it comes to reducing the number of ingredients. Many natural and organic products still have 30, 40, or more ingredients in them, many of which are zero-impact ingredients. “Clean” skincare seems to only address the issues of controversial chemicals, which is not enough. What about all the ingredients that have zero positive impact on your skin and its care, like fragrance, texture modifiers, color, and so on? Clean skincare needs to get much cleaner.

I recall watching a show once about the state of the general population’s diet and nutritional choices. There was a family who lived on junk food, and a nutritionist visited their home and encouraged them to make better food choices. Left to their own devices in the week before the nutritionist changed their diet, the father proudly boasted that he started ordering a Big Mac with the salad included so he could “up his greens.” Not exactly a lifestyle-changing dietary switch, albeit a step in the right direction.

This “adding lettuce to junk food” is no different, in my opinion, to thinking that because a skincare product contains one or a few “healthy” ingredients, in a list of 30-99 ingredients, that the comparable processed cheese, fatty meat, and white bun can just be ignored. I’ve seen “healthy green” brands with signature healthy ingredients, but then they include 30-60 ingredients that do absolutely nothing for the well-being of skin, and that’s just in one product. This isn’t caring for skin. Marketing a product with one or two great ingredients, but 30+ other ingredients that don’t benefit skin, is just adding lettuce to your burger and expecting to lose weight.

It’s little wonder that people have sensitive skin. I’ve never really quite understood the skincare category “for sensitive skin,” where you have one separate product line that is designed “for sensitive skin.” I’ve never understood this because we all, to varying degrees, have sensitive skin. Even sensitive-skin products won’t work for people with particular sensitivities. It’s kind of like saying that all products without a “sensitive skin” label have been formulated with zero regard for how your skin may react. Is that the case? Well no, but it’s safe to say that a lot more attention can be paid to minimizing sensitivity in skincare products as a basic minimum standard.

My point is, one would assume that when it comes to “skin” and “care,” the fundamental basics are covered—caring for the skin as a priority. All products should be designed with “sensitive skin” in mind, although it is, of course, easier said than done. In truth, it would be nearly impossible to create a product of any kind that every person in the world would have zero sensitivity to. People have allergies and reactions to almost everything that exists, natural or otherwise.

I’d previously written an article (Free Us From the “Free From” Lists) about how it’s absurd that in today’s skincare market, the fact that a product does not contain one of a long list of “harmful chemicals” is a marketable advantage. That article suggests that it should be a minimally implied term that if a product falls under the definition of skincare, that it shouldn’t contain any harmful ingredients, period. There shouldn’t be “free from” lists because all products should be “free from” all bad ingredients, always. Similarly, “for sensitive skin” should be a basic expectation from products purporting to care for our skin.

In drawing parallels between the food and skincare world, we are a nation, a world full of skincare addicts who just keep stuffing layer upon layer of ingredients onto our faces and wondering why our skin may still look or feel unhealthy. When we’re made aware of healthier ingredients, which often come formulated with tens of other less-friendly ingredients, we’re choosing the proverbial lettuce with the burger, but we’re ignoring the calories of the rest of the burger. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a skincare addict, but we can be making universally healthier choices.

It’s time for a skincare ingredient diet. Cutting the “calories” (number of ingredients) is the first step in that process. Start by reading the small-print ingredient list and see for yourself. Ask yourself one question: “How many of these ingredients positively impact the well-being of my skin?” We don’t just mean to look out for the so-called bad ingredients, but also the ones that are not caring for your skin: texture modifiers, color, fragrance, and the list goes on.

It’s like the American version of the old English saying, “Take care of the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.” In other words, focus on reducing the number of ingredients in your products, and you won’t have to worry about how many products you’re using. This is the future of clean skincare. It’s not about how many good and skin-loving ingredients you use, it’s about minimizing the ingredients that aren’t necessarily marketed, but they’re there lurking in the small print on the side of your packaging.

Photo: Fraser Hill

The views expressed in opinion pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BeautyMatter.