Is “clean” skin care worth it?

Skin Care

by Rachel McAndrew, MD

Sep 25, 2019

If you’ve shopped for skincare products lately, you’ve probably seen these labels overtaking the shelves: “clean,” “natural,” “organic,” “safe.” These words are compelling — after all, who wants unsafe skincare products? Sitting pretty on the beauty aisles, they can make even your most beloved moisturizer seem toxic.

But is so-called clean skin care worth the hype (and the price tag)? Let me offer a little guidance to help you make sense of your skin care options.

What do the words “clean” and “natural” really mean?

There has been a large cultural shift in people seeking more natural products in many facets of their lives. Unfortunately, as it applies to skin care, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate labels like “natural” and “clean,” so it is difficult to know what you are really getting. When a company labels a product as such, are you just paying for the more attractive packaging and marketing, or are the ingredients truly better for you?

It is important to review the ingredient list on the back of your products to ensure that the ingredients in the product match the marketing on the front of the bottle.

Which ingredients should I look for in skincare products?

The starting point for any skincare routine should include three basic products: a sunscreen, a moisturizer and a retinoid. Here’s what to look for in each, although the effectiveness of certain products will vary according to your individual skin.


Your sunscreen should be SPF 30 or greater and ideally contain mineral-based ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These elements provide the broadest spectrum of coverage to block ultraviolet rays, which contribute to signs of aging and skin cancer.


You will want to look for a gentle moisturizer that is labeled “non-comedogenic.” This means that it will not clog your pores.


Retinoids such as retinol, adapalene, tretinoin and tazarotene are vitamin A derived topical products that build up collagen, smooth fine lines and wrinkles, and even out skin tone when used over time.

Related: 5 golden rules for taking care of your skin

Are chemicals safe to use in skin care?

Not all chemicals and acids are bad — in fact, some can be very effective in keeping your skin healthy. Alpha and beta hydroxyacids (AHAs and BHAs) are widely used in skin care and are safe when used appropriately. The acids work by exfoliating dead skin cells, encouraging cell turnover and increasing collagen production.

AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid and citric acid, and can be effective at smoothing the appearance of the skin and improving discolorations. Salicylic acid is a commonly used BHA, which is effective at treating acne. Just be sure to avoid BHAs during pregnancy.

What chemicals should I watch out for?

While many chemicals are used in our products to keep us safe, several chemicals have come under considerable scrutiny and are worth discussing here. Keep an eye out for these chemicals.

Chemical sunscreens

A recent study found low levels of the chemicals used in chemical sunscreens circulating in the blood of people who use these products. While there is no evidence that this is of any significance to your health at this time, you may want to stick with purely mineral sunscreens (as recommended above) until further research can clarify if these chemicals pose any health risk.


Studies have shown that parabens have estrogenic effects and there have been potential links to breast cancer.

These are preservatives that serve an important function in skincare products — they help prevent the growth of microbes such as bacteria and fungi. Parabens can be found in our personal care products, pharmaceuticals and food.

Studies have shown that parabens have estrogenic effects and there have been potential links to breast cancer. However, we do not yet have a high-quality study demonstrating a direct causal link between high levels of parabens and breast cancer.


Sulphates (commonly sodium lauryl sulphate and sodium laureth sulfate) are found in personal care and cleaning products and help create the foamy lather that we often associate with feeling clean. The primary concern with sulphates is they can cause eye irritation and can be drying, irritating and even lead to allergic reactions in the skin.

The myth that sulphates cause cancer appears to be an unfounded, likely a misinterpretation of scientific literature. If you don’t experience skin reactions or excessive dryness with the use of sulphates, they can be safely used.

How do I know if the products I’m using are “safe” for my skin?

With so many new skincare products and ingredients coming into the market, rapidly changing skin care trends and often-exaggerated marketing claims, it’s hard to tackle your skin care on your own.

Talk to a dermatologist who can recommend a safe, personalized skincare routine to keep your skin looking and feeling healthy.

About the Author

Rachel McAndrew, MD is a dermatologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Austin Downtown and Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Lakeway. She enjoys seeing patients of all ages and focuses on medical dermatology. Originally from Michigan, she completed medical school at Michigan State University. Her love for Texas started during her undergraduate degree at the University of Texas and she returned here to complete her training in dermatology. She now lives in Austin with her husband and son.

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