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Are Your Skin Care Products Safe? Anita Pietrofitta, DAOM, L.Ac.

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

Your skin is a defensive barrier against the external elements we encounter daily. But it is also a porous surface. Therefore, when we apply products to our skin, they can be absorbed directly into our bloodstream.1 This is different from what we eat or drink, as our digestive system is designed to filter out and remove toxicants before they get to our bloodstream and cause problems. So, while we demand that our food be safe, what about the products we put on our skin? Some chemicals in skin care may cause health issues. It is important to know that the US FDA has banned only 11 chemicals in cosmetic products, whereas the European Union prohibits 1,328.2,3  These 1,328 chemicals are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer, genetic mutations, reproductive harm or birth defects. Other potential impacts include neurological and immune system damage, as well as allergic reactions.4,5 The bottom line is that the health implications of the chemicals we put on our skin might be significant. Your exposure may be more than you think. Given this, think about how many products we are exposed to each day. We use shampoos, soaps, hair products, make-up, moisturizers, sunscreens, deodorants, oh my! One study found adult women use an average of 12 products with 168 ingredients, and men use six products with 85 ingredients — each day.6 This same study determined one of every 13 women, and one of every 23 men, is exposed to ingredients that are known or probable human carcinogens on a daily basis.

You may be thinking the dose of chemical ingredients in each application is so low that it can’t hurt you. But what about the cumulative effect of the many different chemicals we apply to our skin daily, in addition to what we eat, breathe and drink? The FDA tested red lipsticks and found lead in all of them, although at low levels, and deemed the values to be safe.7 But lead is a known neurotoxin.8 And what if you are applying lipstick many times a day, every day? When is the line crossed when it is no longer safe, particularly when experts say there is no safe level of lead in the body? Many chemicals are circulating and stored in our body. Without a doubt, many chemicals we are exposed to are circulating within our bodies. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been measuring chemicals or their metabolites in random blood and urine samples of participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) since 1999; they publish their results in a report called the National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals.9 This testing has found perchlorate and a flame retardant called BDE-47 in all, or nearly all, samples respectively. Additionally, many other combinations of chemicals, such as BPA and chemicals used to create non-stick cookware, were found in most samples (>90%). Another study found an average of 200 chemicals in 10 samples of umbilical cord blood.10 This last study emphasizes how important it is to decrease exposures before and during pregnancy.

It is also important to note that if our bodies are unable to remove chemicals, the chemicals end up in our tissue. For example, chemicals categorized as endocrine disruptors are stored in fat cells,11 and others, such as lead, are deposited into bone, the liver, kidneys and the brain.12 The cumulative effect is called “total body burden” or “bioaccumulation.” Your exact level, as well as the health impact on your body, is difficult to quantify. We are all exposed to different chemicals, with different doses and timing. And, our bodies are unique in their ability to detoxify these substances, due to our genetics and other conditions occurring within us.

What can you do? The bottom line is that it’s nearly impossible to be completely chemical free. We are bombarded daily by the chemicals in our environment, and there is no real way to know how much of these we are absorbing. However, just like choosing healthy food to eat, we can be discerning and use a precautionary approach when selecting the products we put onto our skin.  

Don’t despair. Eat healthfully, exercise and decrease stress to enhance your body’s ability to detoxify. And follow these important steps to decrease the number of chemicals you apply on your skin:

  • Start looking at labels and buy products with fewer synthetic chemicals. You can use Think Dirty and the Environmental Working Group’s Healthy Living App to guide your purchases. 

  • Buy products from a company with transparency and good values that you know you can trust.

  • Simplify your skin care routine by using fewer products.

  • Do your own research. For more details use these key resources:

    • The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics provides information on specific skin care chemical concerns.

    • The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database provides ratings on specific products as well as information on individual chemical concerns.

    • The Story of Cosmetics is an eight-minute video providing a quick overview of the issues noted above.

  • Look for products in glass bottles instead of plastic. The plasticizers easily transfer into solutions that contain fat and these can disrupt your hormonal system.13 

  • Be especially careful with children and expectant mothers. Children and fetuses are much more susceptible to chemical agents.14


Anita Pietrofitta, DAOM, L.Ac.

Anita is a board-certified licensed acupuncturist in both California and Arizona, and nationally certified as a Diplomat of Oriental Medicine. She began her career in health care after personally experiencing the benefits of acupuncture and herbal medicine, and studying the philosophies of East Asian medicines. Eastern medicine’s key tenets resonated with Anita and she realized her passion was to teach others how to feel their best, naturally.

She attended the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco (ACTCM), where she earned both her master's and clinical doctorate (Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine) degrees. She focused on Integrative Medicine, Women’s Health, Pain Management and Environmental Medicine. Anita currently works in the Integrative Medicine Center at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona. 

Prior to her career in health care, Anita was an engineer and a manager. She worked for Intel, Boeing and Motorola and has both bachelor's and master's degrees in Industrial Engineering. She uses all of her training as a consultant for 5YINA, a seasonal skin care line based on the wisdom of Chinese medicine.

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