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Clean Living 101: How (and What) Does the Skin Absorb Exactly?

When I was first easing into holistic health and cleaner living, all the claims out there felt vague at best. I heard a lot of ‘your skin is your largest organ’ and ‘your skin absorbs everything you put on it’ but I wasn’t exactly sure how true those were, or how they translated into actual next steps to improve what I was doing.

I’m hoping today’s blog post can help shed some light for you on if and how exactly your skin can absorb what you put on it… and a few common offenders to watch out for.

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Give me a refresher: how exactly does the skin absorb things?

While your skin is such a fun thing to dress up with makeup and skincare products, it’s actually an organ of your body, just like your heart, small intestine, and stomach. (Kinda crazy, right?) It’s actually your *largest* organ, with some hard-working purposes. For one, it’s designed to keep your other internal organs and fluids inside your body. For another, it’s meant to keep harmful elements like UV rays, bacteria, and pollution out. (No one wants their stomach being fried by the sun all day, right?)

The thing is, it’s not an air-tight container. The medical world corroborates this, so much so that many medicines are even administered through the skin via patches or gels. (It’s actually even possible to die from an overdose of a fentanyl patch.) So it makes sense that what you put ON your skin often ends up IN your body.

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But how much really ends up inside, exactly?

That actually depends on a lot of factors. Things like chemical size, skin temperature, the concentration of the chemical, length of time exposed, and area of body exposed all influence absorption. For example, the face tends to be several times more permeable than the body surface, and studies show that the underarms can absorb a full 100 percent of what’s put on them.

Chemicals in your lotion, makeup, sunscreen, deodorant, and laundry detergent can get into the skin by passing through the cells, between the cells, or through the hair follicles or sweat ducts. Once they’re in, they then have the chance to be absorbed by the bloodstream or lymphatic system. The beauty industry has even designed things called ‘penetration enhancers’ and nanoparticles (really small particles) to help products better be absorbed into the skin.

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Good thing it’s all regulated, right?

One would think. Surely, some governing body is making sure that even the products that do get absorbed into your body are safe, right? In reality, the last piece of regulation in the U.S. was actually passed in 1938. (You know, long before the beauty industry exploded in popularity the way it has today.)

And to make matters even more bewildering, that piece of legislation was actually — drumroll please — only a single page. (You know, like the length of this blog post.) I used to think that as long as I looked for terms like eco, natural, or green, I was in the clear… but those terms are actually not enforced, nor do they even have an agreed-upon definition. The U.S. bans only 11 ingredients. Contrast that with Europe, which bans 1,328.

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What’s the issue with a few chemicals?

That’s where it gets a little tricky. There are so many differences between someone’s lifestyle, nutrition, exercise, location, air quality, stress levels, and health overall, that it’s hard to accurately (and ethically) study what the effects are of using products packed with chemicals. What we do know is that toxic preservatives called parabens were found in biopsies of breast cancer tumors at levels similar to their concentrations use in personal care products, while another study shows that 287 chemical toxins have been detected within the umbilical cord blood of newborns.

Many products contain endocrine disruptors, which mess with the endocrine system, the production levels of hormones, and the way hormones behave. They’re linked to severe, long-term health conditions like reproductive issues, birth defects, metabolic problems, and even cancer.

Fragrance is another term that’s highly unregulated. Because fragrance is considered a trade secret, brands aren’t required to list the ingredients, so the terms parfum or fragrance often become a catch-all for more toxic compounds like color, scent, and experiential elements like how a product sticks to the skin.

Ultimately, it’s really a personal decision weighing the risks of using certain products, versus swapping in ones with less toxic ingredients. For me, it hasn’t been so much that I’ve sworn off the beauty and skincare products that I know and love, but rather, I just try to upgrade to cleaner products as I run out of more conventional ones. (It’s kind of the same way I approach healthy eating — not forgoing my favorite foods, but just trying to find a healthier, real-food way to make them.)

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Upgrading your skincare game

There is so much more to say about this that it’s kind of ironic that the only published legislation is less than one page. If you’re interested in learning more and diving deeper on which ingredients to avoid (and why) and how to get started with simple clean living upgrades for your food, water, skincare, and more, check out The Dexonista. It’s my self-paced online program, made up of short training videos so you can have a more educated stance on clean living and holistic health, plus lists for dozens of cleaner makeup, sunscreen, deodorant, skincare, food brands, and more.

In particular, it would benefit anyone dealing with hormonal imbalances (since so many skincare products contain endocrine + hormone disruptors) or things like low energy, brain fog, inflammation, weightloss resistance, or just a general feeling of the blah’s. Because if your body has to spend too much time detoxing the things you’re putting in or on it (instead of actual invaders like virus or bacteria) over time it can get worn down and not have the resources to keep everything else functioning as it should.

What’s your stance with clean beauty and clean living — are you just getting started, not super into it, or all about clean skincare products?  Tell me in the comments below!

P.S. Check out The Detoxinista to get a step-by-step breakdown on clean living — made simple.

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