Common Sense Health

The Importance of Natural Skin Care… the next great health awakening

By: Maureen McDonnell, RN


Over the past 35 years, I’ve observed many people become quite knowledgeable about the importance of what they put in their bodies. Back in the 1970’s, when I began my fascination with nutrition, the general understanding of the critical role diet played in our health was not quite where it is today. In those days, no one was discussing the pro-inflammatory effect of sugar, or the fact that eating salmon and blueberries and other foods high in antioxidants were anti-inflammatory. Heck, we didn’t even know that inflammation was a big deal! We weren’t comparing the nuances of the Mediterranean diet vs.the Paleo diet, asking for gluten-free options, or discussing the fact that dairy is top on the list of allergenic foods. But now, these discussions are common place. We’ve reached a sort of tipping point in our understanding of the fact that what we put in our bodies plays an important role in our health.


The next great awakening in terms of preventing illness and maximizing our health seems to be in the area of what we put on our bodies. Did you know that most of what we put on our skin (approximately 80% of lotions, potions, sunblock, oils, etc.) enters our blood stream within 26 seconds? Additionally, it is estimated by the Environmental Working Group that the average woman uses 12-15 personal care products every day which can contain over 160 chemicals (most of which have never been tested for safety).


In her excellent series of books, Green This!, NY Times best-selling author Deirdre Imus notes, “more than 10,500 ingredients are used in personal care products and only 11% of those have been reviewed for safety. That means that we have no idea if almost 90% of what we put on our bodies is toxic or not. The Food and Drug Administration, the government agency that regulates personal care products, doesn’t have the authority to test any products before they hit the store shelves and doesn’t do any systematic reviews of safety once they’re out there.” Much of the information listed below on products to avoid is taken from Deirdre’s well researched book, The Essential You.


I think you’ll agree that it is a bizarre state of affairs when it is left to the consumer to determine the potential harm inherent in a new chemical or ingredient rather than the manufacturer being responsible for proving its safety. Basically, this means that only when enough of us get sick and call into question a chemical or group of toxins, will the possibility exist of creating sufficient pressure on the manufacturer to either perform additional testing or remove that product from the marketplace. With four industry-hired lobbyists for every one congressperson in Washington, you can imagine that the removal of a potentially harmful substance (especially if it’s a real money-maker) doesn’t happen very often.


This scenario reminds me of the travesty that has befallen families of children with autism. Many parents believe toxic ingredients in vaccines are causing damage to the neurological systems of their children. You would think by now the industry would have recalled the suspected culprits (Thimerosal, which is 50% mercury; aluminum; formaldehyde; etc.) as they did with certain brands of car tires when their safety was called into question. This unfortunately has not been the response from a business that chooses profit over people. As a matter of fact, presently the pharmaceutical industry is digging in their heels and defending the use of these chemicals in vaccines despite the strong outcry from thousands of parents and physicians.


With a little help from reputable watchdog organizations, we have to do our own homework!


According to a publication by Green America (a network committed to create a just and environmentally sustainable society) the following ingredients should be avoided in personal care products. For further information go to, a website maintained by the Environmental Working Group. EWG scientists have evaluated over 27,000 products and given each one a score, checking for allergens, carcinogens, reproductive or neurological toxins, endocrine disruptors, or otherwise harmful ingredients.


Top 9 ingredients to avoid in personal care products:

Parabens: These are hormone disrupting (estrogen-mimicking) chemicals found in shampoos, moisturizers, conditioners, foundations, baby lotion, etc. They can alter hormone levels causing “estrogen dominance,” possibly impair fertility and potentially raise your risk of certain types of cancer.


Mineral Oil: Mineral oil is a by-product of the petroleum industry (it may be listed as paraffin, toluene or xylene). It is contained in many skin care products including shampoos and soap. Since your skin is your biggest eliminative organ (meaning it helps your kidneys, liver and intestines get rid of toxins), you want the skin go be able to “breathe.” Mineral oil “clogs the skin preventing it from releasing toxins.”


Phthalates: (listed as Dibutyl Phthalate or DBP, Diethyl Phthalate). Used as solvents and plasticizers. Studies have shown these chemicals can induce birth defects, low sperm count and other reproductive problems in animals. One study showed high levels in girls with precocious puberty (developing breasts before age 8) and another showed higher rates of male genital abnormalities, liver and kidney lesions and higher incidence of childhood asthma and allergies. Phthalates have been banned by the European Union but continue to be used in many products in the US.


Lead: A potent neurotoxin found in popular brands of lipstick and men’s hair coloring kits.


Mercury: After Uranium, mercury is one of the most toxic substances on the planet! Mercury is a neurotoxin often listed as “Thimerosol” and still used in some cosmetics, mascara and did I mention vaccines?


Formaldehyde: A known carcinogen, commonly used as a hardener in nail polish and often contained in bath products.


Fragrance: The FDA requires companies to list their ingredients in food, drugs and body care products—but chemicals used to make up a fragrance (which potentially contains hundreds of volatile compounds in one secret “scent”) do not have to be listed.


Nanoparticles: Found in lotions, make up, and especially sunscreen, these substances are one hundred times smaller than the width of a human hair, can penetrate a human cell wall and are highly reactive. Although their risks are mostly unknown, concerned consumers are checking to see if their products contain these mostly untested ingredients at or


Tricolosan: This is a main ingredient in anti-bacterial soaps. It also has hormone disrupting properties and has been linked to the emergence of resistant “super bugs” (which are unresponsive to antibiotic therapy and cause MRSA and other untreatable bacterial infections).


Of course there are more chemicals to concern ourselves with. But, now that we have a short list of what we want to avoid, let’s turn our focus to safe and helpful ingredients we want to see listed in our personal care products:


According to another one of my favorite women’s health authors, Dr. Christianne Northrup, MD, skin care products should contain the following:


Topical antioxidants. Research has shown that antioxidants, vitamins and herbs applied to the skin will help prevent and repair damage caused by free radicals. Dr. Northrup recommends looking for products that contain at least two of the following:


Vitamin C in a fat-soluble form: Ester C


Green tea extract


DMAE (found in abundance in fish, especially salmon)


Vitamin E


Vitamin A


Coenzyme Q-10


Boron nitrite


Tocotrienols (a high potency form of Vitamin E)




Essential plant oils (e.g., Calendula, lotus, ginseng, orange peel)


Oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs)


Alpha lipoic acid


Alpha– or beta–hydroxy acid or glycolic acid: For those of us looking to prevent wrinkles and doing what we can to slow down the aging of our skin, Dr. Northrup explains: “The hydroxy acids help dissolve the “glue” that holds dead skin cells together, thus resulting in easier removal, so new plumper cells can rise to the surface. They also increase the hydration of the skin and they encourage the repair of elastin and collagen in the skin and may even help thicken it a bit.”


Sunscreen: We all know how protective sunscreen can be in preventing skin cancer and other signs of aging. However, in recent years we have also learned about the critical role Vitamin D plays in our health, and that sunshine is our best source of this important nutrient. Consequently, many health experts are recommending short periods of sun exposure without sunscreen. The best time for these is early morning or late afternoon. In addition to protective clothing, when we do apply sunscreen we want a product with both UVA and UVB protection as well as SPF factor of at least #15. We also want to choose a sunscreen that does not contain the above mentioned toxic ingredients. For a list of safe effective sunscreens go to


Inside Out Factors: Dr. Nicholas Perricone, Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Yale and author of The Wrinkle Cure and The Perricone Prescription, is another physician who understands the importance of using toxin-free natural skin care products. Like Dr. Northrup, he believes obtaining healthy skin is also an “inside out” job and recommends lifestyle factors such as: an insulin-stabilizing diet (consisting of lots of organic vegetables and lean protein), minimal amounts of sugar, alcohol and caffeine, optimal levels of Omega 3 fatty acids and other anti-inflammatory foods, and plenty of pure filtered water. The body (including the skin) repairs itself at night and so getting 7-8 hours of sound uninterrupted sleep is also important in obtaining and maintaining that healthy glow.


You would expect a progressive, health oriented area of the country like WNC to offer natural skin care products, and luckily for us, that is the case. In addition to being an amazing clothing designer and beautiful model of grace and style,


J Monet is also an expert in Ayurvedic skin care. Her line, comprised of all organic ingredients is, according to Julia, “like a feast of nutrients for the skin.” J Monet products are not only available at her clothing studio (see ad pg 48), they are also available at The Waterlily, an all organic salon located at 7 Beaverdam Rd. The owner of the Water Lily salon, Alissa Neill also offers organic hair color which is free of ammonia and other toxic chemicals. Glow Skin is a third skin care salon (see ad pg 39) that offers natural products and services including facials, microdermabrasions, LED lights, etc .


Owner Sheila Laughlin is a licensed esthetician who believes naturally-based products are the best way to achieve healthy, glowing skin.


If you are like me, you’ve made some “skin mistakes” along the way. I can’t believe it now, but when I was a child and teen, I literally “baked” for hours in the hot Jersey Shore noon-day sun. Now my 100% Irish skin is quite sun-damaged and shows the foolishness of my youth. But I do what I can with my diet and I use the most natural (and still effective) products I can find. At the risk of sounding like an infomercial, I have to say after trying many commercial brands, I’ve seen the best results for my skin from Arbonne’s RE9 anti-aging line. I do sell these products (see my ad) so I am a bit biased. However, without a doubt, I find Arbonne’s line (which is formulated in Switzerland; is all vegan; gluten free; botanically based; does no testing on animals and is free of worrisome chemicals) to have brought about awesome improvements in my skin.


Now that many of us are awakening to the idea that what we put on our bodies is just as important to our health as what we put in our bodies, it only makes common sense to avoid using personal care products that contain questionable ingredients. I don’t think we were meant to have flawless skin at any age, and trying to be perfect or look young forever can be futile and exhausting. Using the gifts provided by Mother Nature however (whole healthy food, botanicals, herbs and natural skin care products) can go a long way in keeping the effects of Father Time at bay. Most importantly, beyond everything we eat, or put on our bodies, feeling good about ourselves and loving the skin we are in are the keys to happiness—and that ladies, is the best, most natural beauty secret of all!


Maureen McDonnell has been a registered nurse for 35 years (in the fields of: childbirth education, labor and delivery, clinical nutrition, and pediatrics.) She is the former national coordinator of the Defeat Autism Now Conferences, and the co-founder of Saving Our Kids, Healing Our Planet. Maureen lectures widely on the role the environment and nutrition play in women and children’s health. She is the health editor of WNC Woman Magazine and owner of Nutritionist’s Choice Inc. Presently, Maureen serves as the Medical Coordinator for the Imus Ranch for Kids with Cancer. She and her husband have five grandkids and feel blessed to be living in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina.


Perricone, N. (1997). Topical vitamin C ester (ascorbyl palmitate). J. Geratric Dermatol., 5 (4), 162–170; Perricone, N. (1993). The photoprotective and anti-inflammatory effects of topical ascorbyl palmitate. J. Geriatric Dermatol., 1 (1), 5–10.

Lopez–Torres, M. et al, (1998). Topical application of alpha–tocopherol modulates the antioxidant network and diminishes ultraviolet-induced oxidative damage in murine skin. Br. J. Dermatol., 138 (2), 207–215;

Maureen McDonnell, RN
Written by Maureen McDonnell, RN