Beauty might be more than skin deep, but it's our skin that faces the world. Our largest organ, skin is a living, breathing...

Beauty might be more than skin deep, but it's our skin that faces the world. Our largest organ, skin is a living, breathing, blood-circulating part of every person's body, and considered the third lung in Chinese medicine.

All the more reason to treat it with respect. However, every day we voluntarily expose our skin and bodies to chemicals that can cause irritation and even disease—simply by slathering on toxic skin care products and cosmetics.

"It's a mistaken notion that things don't penetrate the skin," says Dr. Ellen Heinitz, N.D., of the Naturopathic Medical Clinic in Grants Pass. "If we apply something topically, it might absorb even better than when introduced to the digestive tracts—think of dermal patches like nicotine and birth control. The same thing happens with synthetic skin care products."

The link between cosmetic chemicals and toxicity stepped into the spotlight a few years ago when scientists discovered that parabens (a common preservative often listed as methylparaben or propylparaben) may be related to a higher risk of breast cancer in women.

Although the disclosure made parabens the poster child of toxic skin care ingredients, little has been done to limit the chemical's widespread use. This oversight isn't unusual, says Dr. Cory Tichauer, N.D., at Bear Creek Naturopathic Clinic in Medford.

"One extensive study by the Environmental Working Group found that the average American adult uses nine personal care products a day containing 126 unique chemical ingredients," he says. "What's even more astounding is they found that 12.2 million adult Americans are routinely exposed to known or likely carcinogens through daily use of personal care products."

For instance, 3.4 million women are exposed every day to toxic ingredients linked to fertility impairment and fetal developmental problems, Tichauer says. And 20 percent of all adults are exposed daily to the top seven harmful ingredients: hydroquinone, ethylene, dioxide, 1.4 dioxane, formaldehyde, nitrosamines, PAHs (parabens) and acrylamide.

"It's crazy—sun screen ingredients can actually cause free radical damage—the very thing they're supposed to block, and they've linked aluminum found in antiperspirants to Alzheimer's," says Tricia Acheatel, licensed esthetician and owner of Alchemy Botanicals and Artemisia Botanical Skin Care Spa in Ashland.

"And synthetic perfumes found in cleansers, toners, moisturizers, sun screens, [and] even cosmetic products like foundation and facial powders, can cause chemical sensitivity and skin irritation like redness and rashes."

One dermal dose of any synthetic skin care product probably won't cause irreparable harm, but repeated use can.

"They bioaccumulate in our tissues," Dr. Tichauer says. "The reactions to these toxins aren't always straightforward, often manifesting in neurological symptoms like headaches, dizziness, anxiety, irritability and loss of balance."

How to protect yourself and your family? Learn to recognize healthy and risky ingredients and be aware of marketing ploys that play on a consumer's lack of knowledge. For a product to be labeled "organic," for instance, it only legally requires at least 70 percent organic ingredients, leaving the rest open for chemicals.

"Labels also trick the public by saying in parentheses that an ingredient is derived from so-and-so as though it's natural, but if you do the research you'll find it's far from it," says Monica Moeckel, assistant manager at Alchemy Botanicals.

When faced with a mysterious label, refer to a cosmetic ingredient dictionary for the ingredient's true source and toxicity. A good place to start is A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, Sixth Edition, by Ruth Winter. (Published in 2005 by Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House and

Good ingredients to look for include pure oils, fruits, herbs, vegetables and biocomplexes of vitamins. Vitamins C, A, and E could help decrease and slow the aging process, as might green tea extract, anti-oxidants and phospholipids like those found in lecithin.

"When you're giving your skin something that has lots of phyto, plant-based hormones and estrogens, nutrients and vitamins, it's like the difference between eating a salad and eating fast food," says Acheatel. "It's very active and your skin will have better blood circulation and will look more alive."

Don't let the process intimidate you, advises Dr. Heinitz. "You don't have to overhaul everything at once," she says. "Start slow by looking at the products you use on the body's biggest areas like body lotion and soap."

Bottom line: Inspect every label carefully. If you don't recognize or can't pronounce an ingredient, or if the ingredient includes numbers, look for a better choice.