- Karen Stoner, LMT
Lotions, oils, and your skin
Especially during the winter, dry, itchy skin can have you reaching for the nearest bottle of body lotion to try and get some relief. Some lotions work great, some just smell good, and some leave you feeling oily and greasy. There are hundreds of brands and types of lotions to choose from. Also in the news lately has been stories about lotions with hormone- disrupting chemicals, scents, and colors, and it can be hard to tell if you should be using what brand or not. So what works best, and what should you be using on your skin?
I am not a dermatologist, so I am not speaking from a place that knows the intricate nature of skin, however I do put products on people's skin every day as part of my trained and licensed job, so although this isn't a definitive article on skin and moisturizers, I can share a few things on what I do know about what to and what not to put on the skin.
What you don't want in a skin product:
#1 on this list is Mineral Oil. This was Lesson 1, Day 1 of Massage School: "Never use a product containing Mineral Oil on the skin." What exactly is mineral oil? Mineral oil is a by-product of petroleum, left over when petroleum is refined into gasoline. Since it is not natural, and is a man-made product, when applied to the skin, it doesn't soak in quickly, but instead creates a shiny, slippery, oil-slick like feeling on the skin. You will find it in a majority of lotions and skin care products because it is cheap, it is plentiful, and that oil slick feeling gives the product the illusion that the skin is moisturized because of that shiny slippery-ness that it leaves behind. This stuff is in just about everything - from "luxury" body creams to baby products, you have to really hunt and look hard to find mass-available products that don't contain mineral oil. Check labels - you will be surprised at which products, even ones that have "natural" on the label, have mineral oil in the ingredient lists. Since it is basically gasoline, it is something that you want to avoid in skin care products because ultimately it can dry out your skin and make your condition worse, plus there hasn't been much research done on what elements of petroleum actually do seep into your skin, so it is best to try and stay away from products containing mineral oil.
Alcohol - Not usually found in a lot of body products, but with the current state of and need for hyper-sanitizing, "Anti-bacterial" claims on products usually mean some form of alcohol which also can dry out your skin. This is also pretty easily available in cheap forms, so it does get added to products easily.
Artificial fragrances, colors, and pretty much anything you can't pronounce - Lots of pretty things can be created in a lab, and once again, just because something is labeled as "natural" doesn't mean it doesn't have foreign stuff in it to make it look or smell nice. Research is only just starting to figure out what these lab-created substances' long-term effects are, so avoid if possible
(About those ingredients you can't pronounce) - now, some products have stuff you can't pronounce that is in there for a reason, and that is to make the products shelf-stable; meaning that they can sit on a shelf or in a cabinet for an extended period of time without the product separating, or allowing the ingredients to get rancid or grow bacteria, as could happen with natural ingredients in products. Some are more harmless than others, so if your labels have any of those ingredients you can't pronounce, google them to see just what they are, why they are there, and what they are for before deciding if you need to avoid them.
What you do want in a skin product:
Basically, a very short ingredient list. The less "stuff" the better, especially when it comes to extra stuff like fragrances, colors, and stabilizers. Many products that are good for your skin can also be found in your kitchen. Pretty much if it is safe to eat, you can probably safely use it on your skin.
For moisture - Oils such as olive oil, almond oil, grapeseed oil, or coconut oil all have great moisturizing properties and are safe on the skin. Look for products with these ingredients, or in a pinch, use them straight from your pantry. (Do be careful about oils if there is any kind of allergy present. Many products, including massage products contain almond oil which should not be used on anyone who has an allergy to nuts or nut products.Watch those labels!)
For thickness - butters such as shea butter, cocoa butter, or aloe butter. Butters are heavy fats from the seeds or pulp of fruits and plants. They usually are high in good fats and are thick, so they can be added to oils to create that luscious thick creamy-ness that also has vitamins and the other benefits of the plants themselves.
Additional Ingredients - Natural Beeswax is frequently used to make products more thick and stable. This is also natural and has great properties for the skin. Some products also contain Vitamin E which is good for the skin and it also acts as a preservative that keeps products stable and inhibits bacterial growth.
For good smell - Essential Oils. Also plant-derived, and therefore containing the good benefits of the plants themselves, essential oils are available in a wide variety of scents, both on their own and as blends. Lately, many essential oils have also fallen into the trap of commercialism, and many companies produce products with "watered down" versions of essential oils, so that is where reading labels comes in handy again - you'd want something labeled with "Lavender essential oil" rather than "Lavender fragrance oil". Pay attention - pretty marketing can be tricky!
Now after all of this label-reading and ingredient-shaming, my final word on what to put on your skin is this - it is really up to you. If you have a commercially-available lotion that you can easily grab off the shelf while grocery shopping and you feel like it works for you, by all means, I'm not telling you to toss it and boycott the grocery store. I often fall victim to the seasonal specialty lotions at a certain shop in the mall, because I like how they smell (for use at home, not at work). My point is, if you have a lotion that you love, stick with it. If you find that your body lotions are lacking in what they are supposed to be doing, or your skin is not reacting the way it should to a product you are using, take a look at your labels, and see if it is anything in those products that you might want to replace to get the desired results. Natural products are usually always better than something created artificially, so give them a try and see if they make a difference.
Natural based products with small ingredient lists are actually pretty easy to make on your own, but if you aren't crafty or don't have the time to mess up your kitchen (and yes, it can get messy), search out small local shops and businesses that hand make lotions and body products. More than likely, they can tell you every single ingredient in their products and why they are there, and even better recommend which product with which ingredients will meet your needs. Overall, lotions and oils are great to use on your skin to make it feel better, just be aware of what exactly you are using to determine if it is actually doing what you want it to do.