I wasn’t planning to make another skin care post so soon
or ever, but recently skin care has come onto focus for me once again. This is because Germany is growing cold. Rocket science, I know. Let’s have some reference: the latitude where I live (52°N) is roughly the same as Quebec, Wales and Inner Mongolia. That means long summer days and especially cold and dreary winter nights. My small mountain community ensures plenty of fresh air, but also those biting hillside winds. Right around this time of year is when my skin and blood circulation lets me know how little my half-tropical-island physiology likes the seasonal drop in temperature and humidity. Every part of my body from face to feet begins to shrivel like a prune and even crack and bleed if I don’t keep a strict daily ritual of maintenance involving a lot of rubbed grease and ingested tea.
Keeping myself fit (note that I’m using the word “fit” so loosely here the NIH would weep) helps a bit with poor circulation, but usually suffering though these long winters of extremely dry skin is a literal pain. At one point in time, my dry, chapped skin made me turn to Beautypedia to find a spreadable solution that could actually do something besides irritate my skin even more. And so I met Paula Begoun.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Paula Begoun. I think she’s done a lot to educate people about the basics of good skin care amidst the morass of fake science that cosmetic companies have always and still continue to try to sell to us, attempting to convince us that aging is a process that can be stopped with the right chemical complex. Also, as anyone who has gotten more in-depth with DiY skin care may know, some of her products are extremely affordable, particularly those which you simply can’t find over the counter or easily make on your own. (Mostly I’m talking about chemical peeling here – AHA, BHA and retinol – although I could also include sunblock in that list too.)
For the longest time I soaked up everything Beautypedia had to offer, and asked my family and friends in the US for care packages of skin care, notably CeraVe PM lotion and a myriad of Olay face washes, sunblock and serums. There were plenty of choices in the EU too, of course, but the vetted ones seemed so terribly expensive compared to US drugstore products. And the reasonably priced European drugstore products here were full of the confusing fake-science jargon of the industry hucksters, and even worse, Paula had never heard of them!
I’ve learned since then, both of the German equivalents of Consumer-Reportish rating agencies (and their pitfalls), as well as educated myself vaguely on the basics of good skin care. Today, I usually turn to local German companies for my skin care. This is mostly because I like supporting local business from both an ethical and environmental standpoint. But it’s also because I’ve grown a little skeptical of some of the things Paula Begoun’s company has to tell us these days. So what changed since then, besides that Paula now hocks her own personal “Choice” above any of her other reviews?
These days, it seems like a lot of people are taking her advice as a Bible of skin care, of sorts. And even extending that judgement to makeup, which is so highly personal and subjective that you can’t possibly begin to rate products by the colours the company offers them in. In other words, I had Doubts. These sorts of doubts always crop up when supposedly independent review sites – even other bloggers – start to get sponsored. In this particular case, sponsored by Paula Begoun’s very own “always 5-stars!” skin care line. The conflict of interest is blindingly clear there.
Those doubts began to magnify when I caught wind of the debate between Paula Begoun and the Futurederm blog over the safety of alcohol in skin care products. This wouldn’t have even been on my radar if so many people weren’t referencing it hand-in-hand with the “parabens give you cancer!” arguments that make their usual cycles around the skin care web. And for the record, I do think Paula Begoun has it right on the paraben argument. But the whole argument – and in my opinion, Begoun’s unprofessional response to the debate – made me re-examine my blind faith in Beautypedia’s review system. Further research dug up a pretty neat summary of my Doubts in one place, eOpinions. While Mashimaru makes a whole lot of valid points, for me the biggest one is the lack of scientific background in Paula Begoun’s analysis of products, which was a surprise to me. Life experience does count for a lot, but an actual scientific education in your field counts for a whole lot too, especially concerning matters of chemistry. And as someone who judges the safety of cosmetic ingredients and furthermore literally sells that judgement to other people, having some first-person experience with academic chemistry seems almost like it should be a prerequisite.
Of course, my own personal experience is also a reason I have some bones to pick with Paula Begoun. One of the big ones is the panning of products in the Beautypedia review section if they are formulated “too simply.” DiYers will probably cringe at that, but yes, not only does she takes points off for having irritants in an ingredient list, but she also takes points off for not putting in fancy pants skin extras. Simplicity is the key to non-reactive skin care. This isn’t even science, it’s basic logic – when you have an allergic reaction to an unknown agent, you eliminate all possible sources and test one by one until you find the agent. It bothers me that simply formulated, effective products are docked because they don’t contain any “exciting” antioxidants.
Another thing I noticed while browsing the site was that companies which cooperated with Begoun’s “ingredient investigations” were more glowingly reviewed than companies that were less forthcoming with their ingredient list. Granted, I am sure there were companies who put less than savoury ingredients in their cosmetics products and didn’t want to be exposed. But on the other hand, I am equally sure there were companies who were simply not interested in giving away their most-likely-patented trade secrets and formulations. And formulation is a key word here – how a product is built is just important as the ingredients that are pumped into it. After all, if you give a 5-star chef and someone with no knowledge of cooking the exact same ingredients and ask them to come up with a meal, you are going to get two very different results. And thank goodness for this, or shows like “Grill den Henssler” would be dead boring for us to watch. Beautypedia doesn’t even begin to consider this as a vital step in rating products, another sore point for me.
And finally, even in the products that I like – in particular I’m speaking of the Paula’s Choice Resist 5% AHA serum, which I find to be beneficial to my dry skin and much more affordable than other similar products that I had used in the past for chemical exfoliation – I found problems. In this particular case, the instructions on the RESIST routine were to use the 5% exfoliation serum 1-2 times a day, and the 10% serum once a week. I tried with just the 5% serum twice a day, and it took me about a week to realize that if I kept that up, my skin would be paper-thin and over-sensitized in no time flat – even before the 10% weekly burn off. It doesn’t take more than a basic understanding of high school science (or hell, geography) to realize that over-exfoliating your skin over a longer term is going to do bad things to it, even if it does blast down the top layers to make your wrinkles appear finer at the onset. I’m still debating with myself on whether using this serum once a day is even too much for my skin, in fact. It’s annoying, because I can’t simply trust the directions on the tin, since I don’t trust Paula Begoun’s chemical expertise.
As for the Bible of Begoun spreading across the web – well, you can almost always tell when a skin care site is using Beautypedia as their source material. For one, sites such as COSDNA and Codecheck will be quoted liberally in search of skin irritants. Again, these are great websites that I have no problem with, but they are, like Beautypedia, only good starting points, not final conclusions. What irritates one person may be perfectly fine for another. There is also the issue of these websites possibly not being up-to-date with current research. For another, Paula’s Choice and a very specific set of Olay products will be always lauded in reviews – even in countries where those Olay products aren’t sold. In fact, the only honest and widely scientifically accepted conclusions I have ever seen regarding skin care are these:
- Good skin care is affordable.
- The least reactive skin care for MOST people – and note, there are ALWAYS exceptions – is animal fat (lard or tallow specifically), followed by mineral oil.
- Most claims of cosmetic companies have never been conclusively proven by independent, properly controlled scientific studies because no one – both the cosmetic companies and consumers buying the products – wants to know the truth about aging, which is THAT IT HAPPENS.
This has gotten to be a long rant, and it sounds a lot more hostile to the Beautypedia website than I meant it to be in fact. Although perhaps this is self-reflective, and I should reconsider my formerly-more-friendly stance. But in conclusion, I’ll share one last annoying skin care experience with you guys that goes back to the debate I mentioned earlier.While researching alcohol on the internet rather than in my evening glass of sherry, I came across a transparency in skin care website created for older women, one which sold skin care products as well. One of their articles caught my attention because they were panicking about the inclusion of alcohol in one of their favourite “all-natural” skin care lines. (And don’t get me started on the “all-natural / no chemicals” ingredient diatribe.) Their article started off winningly with a paragraph on the “dangers” of alcohol lifted word-for-word straight from Beautypedia’s website. The following analysis of the safety of alcohol in skin care included responses (paraphrased) varying from “alcohol may not problematic, but the scientific study for this was conducted by Germans, and [company name] is a German company. COINCIDENCE?” to “we worry that alcohol may cause skin cell death, and also that it may cause skin cancer.”
HEAD. DESK. HEADDESK. For anyone not understanding why there was a red palm print engraved into my forehead after that, please look up the definition of cancer. Alright, I’m done now. Feel free to comment, flame away, poke holes in my theories. I actually like hole poking because I am also not well-versed in chemistry, so this is all a learning process for me.