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Organic Skincare Truths by a Singapore Dermatologist

November 23, 2017

With the term “organic skincare” gaining popularity among the masses, I was recently asked, more than once by different people, what I felt were the benefits relating to organic skincare and why people should be using that. Perhaps my answers would surprise people but I feel that it is time the public gets a honest take on this topic by a dermatologist.

Let me first clarify my position, I am an accredited dermatologist and practice evidence-based medicine, whereby specialist recommendations are always made based on peer-reviewed journal publications or at least on an international consensus of the medical community. The terms “organic skincare”, “all-natural”, “chemical-free”, “pregnancy-safe” skincare are rampant in mass media these days, so I certainly don’t fault the lay person or even beauty writers who get the impression that this is the real thing.

In light of these, I seek to discuss “organic skincare” in this article. You will discover my choice of putting the term in parentheses and hopefully this will open your eyes to what the term really means, and does not, information only your dermatologist would tell you about . Without bias, I personally formulate a cosmeceutical skincare line myself as an adjunct to my cosmetic dermatology practice, with natural ingredients which are also evidence-based for anti-ageing and skin rejuvenation, but by the end of the article you will discover for yourself why I do not label any of the skincare as “organic”, and why “organic” is not exactly my key priority when it comes to skincare.

1.To a dermatologist, organic skincare does not exist

First and foremost, the term “organic skincare’’ itself is not regulated and from a dermatologist perspective, organic skincare does not exist as anything more than a marketing fad. Organic is a term relating to food or farming practices, and is applied correctly to vegetables or other crops which are grown without the use of chemical pesticides. If organic skincare manufacturers are keeping to the above definition at all, what this should mean is that were plant derived ingredients are used in skincare, these are grown in a chemical pesticide-free environment. What would be surprising to the lay person is that neither the FDA or HSA (in Singapore) makes any provision in their regulation of cosmetics for labelling “organic skincare”. As such, any skincare label touting this would be responsible for their own definitions of such and the consumer should be wary of such claims and what it implies.

2.There are no specific benefits to skin of using an organically-derived skincare brand

Contrary to popular belief, there are no specific dermatological advantages of using such a brand over any ordinary skincare. In fact, most of these eco-skincare brands often go untested and unquestioned as well. Often, these organic skincare brands boast plant or nature derived ingredients, without “preservatives” and parabens, also being touted as “home-made”. Despite the seemingly positive branding surrounding these skincare, the associated pitfalls are not different from any other cosmetic skincare — they all have the ability to cause irritation, or allergic reactions in individuals who are susceptible, such as those with sensitive skin i.e. atopic dermatitis.

3. An important factor to consider in anti aging skincare is the effectiveness measured by bioactivity of the active ingredients,as well as the scientific literature surrounding it

Plant-derived ingredients, depending on the source and type, may have anti-oxidant or moisturising properties, but simply including it in the skincare does not guarantee that it is effective. Bioactivity has to be measured by a trained chemist or scientist, which is when the extract is carefully distilled or harvested from the plant in such a way that the effectiveness is proven in the laboratory and can be measured.

4. The safety of organic skincare is not guaranteed, and could be even riskier than normal skincare with chemical preservatives

Brands touting “organic skincare”, especially when home-made, lack the stringent quality controls present in a laboratory setting, which is required for the formulation of dermatologist-grade cosmeceutical skincare. One real danger of certain types of “organic skincare”’ is that they are not regulated for safety, in terms of bacterial contamination. Preservatives such as parabens have gotten some bad press in recent years but the overall consensus in the dermatological community and by the FDA is that they are still regarded as safe and necessary to reduce bacterial growth in applied creams. The lack of “preservatives” is again a questionable label because this means that something else should be added to the product to increase the shelf-life of such a product which is meant for public sale. If not, this product should state the expiry of within 2 weeks to a month maximum of opening, because bacterial contamination will set in and this will cause problems when applied to skin.

Furthermore, the current Singapore Health Sciences Authority — HSA requirements for cosmetic skincare distributed via public sale, requires that the production facility acquires a basic certificate of Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) before it is allowed approval. Home-made formulas that are sold online or by individual proprietors are hence on a “at your own risk basis”, and as a dermatologist, I do not recommend using any home-made or naturally derived products (from plants etc.) on a DIY basis because the irritation and allergy risk, i.e. phototoxic or photoallergic risks are high. Besides, the benefits of plant ingredients can only be harvested and extracted under a controlled laboratory setting with proper testing, as in the case with cosmeceutical skincare. Anything else, the public would be better off with a simple dermatologist-recommended pharmacy-brand moisturiser that is free from fragrances.

5. Problem-skin can’t be treated with ANY type of skincare but can be worsened with certain products

If you have problem skin, no amount of good skincare can treat medical skin conditions such as acne, eczema (dry sensitive skin) or rosacea (a condition that results in red flushed face with pimples). Such conditions require treatment with prescription medications and can be well controlled. These also do not disappear on their own so waiting to “outgrow” the condition, no matter what age you are at, is not a wise idea. Also, avoid consulting the internet, or beauty forums as suggestions there are not based on medical evidence and could even result in worsening of the condition or create a new problem, such as skin irritation or allergies from these DIY remedies.

I have encountered patients who developed phototoxic or photoallergic reactions from citrus (lemon/ orange juices) applied to their skin. A common misconception is that these DIY home remedies are ‘’natural and organic” but from a dermatologist perspective, this is not true. There are no skin benefits to applying lemon or orange juice such as vitamin C, which is only beneficial when one ingests it as a fruit or a juice. Topically applied vitamin C needs to be in a certain formulation, either ascorbic acid or Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate — I incorporate a nano-formulated form of SAP in the cosmeceutical Vita C Gold which I prescribe in my practice for it to have brightening and anti-oxidant properties for skin.

Applying orange or lemon juice directly will simply result in skin irritation due to the acidic nature of these juices, worse still, some individuals may react to sunlight (UVA component) with the citrus component and develop a severe skin allergy that can result in scarring or pigmentation.

6. Facials, organic or not, makes no difference to your acne-prone skin

The above also applies to skincare services (e.g. facials) similarly labeled with the “organic” term, that organic skincare does not offer any true differentiation from any ordinary cosmetic skincare. Similar to any individually-applied skincare products, it is pertinent to know what is in the products applied during facials and skincare services. As your skin absorbs whatever you apply on them, it is important to always read through the labels and ingredient list, conduct prior research and then a patch test on the inner part of your arm. This helps to prevent any form of skin allergy and sensitivity you might get from trying such new products.

Besides, most aestheticians and facialists use instruments such as extractors and needles which are not medically sterilised (i.e. autoclaved, there is a difference between a new clean needle vs a sterilised instrument). This may lead to infections and scarring, besides having absolutely no benefit in the treatment of acne. Acne is primarily a inflammatory process, worsened by hormones, genetics and oil production. Treatment of acne by dermatologists involves addressing inflammation using oral or topical medications, as well controlling hormonal and oil production factors, via medications or certain cosmeceuticals. Comedonal extraction is only sometimes performed by dermatologists, as the preferred method of eliminating comedones is by the use of retinoids, which modulate the way skin turnovers, as well as with chemical peels whereby the top layer of skin dissolves with glycolic, lactic and salicylic acids, preventing the accumulation of keratin (read: dead skin cells) which can worsen comedonal acne.

7. Environmentally friendly? Perhaps. Skin-friendly, not necessarily

Most people think organic skincare are either eco-friendly, natural or vegan. Here’s the catch, they can and cannot be. Organic skincare products can have components which are organically farmed and also approved by the FDA (which simply means it does not contain toxic or banned ingredients), but having the HSA or FDA approval does not necessarily mean that these are effective or deliver significant benefits. Organically farmed produce can be friendlier on the environment in general, as less pesticide use means less harmful release of chemicals to the environment which accumulates as waste and potentially harms wildlife. However, these can also come at a greater cost, and by no means does that translate into any real benefits when incorporated into skincare which is not consumed but applied.

In fact, organic skincare often boasts essential oils which can cause both allergic( in susceptible individuals) and irritant contact dermatitis( due to the concentration of most essential oils, it is not medically advisable to apply any type of essential oil directly to skin as it can result in a chemical burning type of reaction).

For truly beneficial skincare that has measurable scientific results, I would recommend using cosmeceuticals instead. Cosmeceuticals refer to skincare that is a combination of cosmetics and pharmeceuticals. They have drug-like benefits, such as improving appearance by means of its ability to affect the structure and function of the skin as recognised by dermatologists and research scientists. Read more about cosmeceuticals here.

For patients with otherwise healthy skin, whether they are in their twenties, thirties or beyond and who are interested in maintaining youthful skin in a cost-effective manner, I would suggest getting started on cosmeceuticals, and regular medical grade chemical peels supervised by a dermatologist, who would determine the concentration and type of acid suitable for your skin. A chemical peel treatment is designed to improve the appearance of the skin by gently stimulating the top layer of skin cells (epidermis) by applying a solution composed of fruit derived acids such as alpha-hydroxy acids, glycolic acids, lactic and salicylic acids. This stimulates the skin to regenerate, smoothening out wrinkles.

Rounding up the discussion here, I hope readers have gained some insight on the labelling of skincare as “organic” and what that doesn’t mean. It is not a defined or regulated term in dermatology and can lead to great misconceptions by the public, in addition to brands riding on a fad which delivers no real benefits skin-wise. As a dermatologist, I am all for public education for skin health. Skin health is not about “aesthetics”, the skin is an organ of the body just like the heart, lungs and the liver, and these tend to degenerate due to genetics, age as well as poor lifestyle habits. Healthy skin certainly looks good, but in the pursuit of beauty, one should always be wise, consult a dermatologist if you have a skin issue such as acne or skin sensitivity, rather than trying all sorts of products. While there is no miracle product that exists that can cure your skin woes, non-dermatologist-tested cosmetic skincare can worsen problem skin. If you have healthy skin and desire some radiance and want to preserve your youth, then go for cosmeceuticals, instead of ‘‘organic skincare” or any other type of skincare fad.

© 2017 Dr Teo Wan Lin. All rights reserved.

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Meet with Dr. Teo Wan Lin, consultant dermatologist at TWL Specialist Skin & Laser Centre, for a thorough consultation to determine the most suitable treatment for your skin.

To book an appointment with Dr. Teo, call us at +65 6355 0522, or email appt@twlskin.com. Alternatively, you may fill up our contact form here.

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