Structure & Function

Skin is the largest organ of the body, composed of water, lipids, proteins, minerals, and chemicals.  A protective shield for the body, skin, has three layers:  the epidermis, the dermis, and the fat layer under the dermis (subcutaneous) called the hypodermis.

The epidermis outer layer of the skin is formed from translucent cells that produce keratin, a protein that protects against the environment.  Skin cells also produce melanin, the substance that gives skin its color.  The epidermis controls the appearance of the skin and helps to retain water.  This layer is also the one that is the most vulnerable to environmental damage including UV light. 

The second layer, dermis, contains elastin and collagen, two proteins that contribute to the skin's strength and texture and keep the skin from wrinkling and sagging.  Over time, the production of elastin and collagen breaks down, causing aging.  The dermis is also home to nerves, blood vessels, hair follicles, and sweat glands, and importantly hyaluronic acid, a glucose-based substance key to holding moisture and providing suppleness in the skin, among other functions.

The subcutaneous, hypodermis layer is made of fat and collagen cells.  This layer helps to retain heat, absorb shock, and protects internal organs from injury.  When tissue in this layer begins to deteriorate, skin starts to sag.

At a minimum, the skin needs these five things to maintain health:

  1. Cleansing - Removes dirt, pollutants, and pore-clogging oil from the epidermis.  Facial cleansers should be free of soap.
  2. Hydration – Water is lost daily from the body, so it must be replaced to maintain healthy skin.  Some experts recommend consuming two liters of water each day.
  3. Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) – EFAs, particularly Omega-6 and Omega-3 helps build up lipid-based cell membranes that hold in water and nutrients.  In the case of skin, those lipids also form an oil barrier that protects the skin from UV damage and pollutants.  Some experts also recommend consuming gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), found mostly in plant oils, for its anti-inflammatory effects.
  4. Sun protection – Full spectrum UV protection with SPF no less than 15 and no more than 30 are needed to protect skin against cancer-causing damage.
  5. Antioxidants – Antioxidants' ability to destroy free-radicals helps keep skin healthy by eliminating molecules that damage skin.  Vitamin C, for example, works with collagen to produce plumper, tighter skin.  Vitamin E also protects skin cells and boosts nutrients in the skin that fight off UV damage.  Other antioxidants good for healthy skin include flavonoids, selenium, thiamine, beta-carotene, zinc, CoQ10, lipoic acid, cysteine, and methionine.

Why this matters:

Most of the products found in the body care department are applied to the skin.  Deodorant, face and hand care products, lip care, toothpaste, cosmetics, sunscreens, insect repellants, and topical remedies for muscle and pain relief all touch the skin.  Since ingredients from these products can be both absorbed into the skin and also washed into the environment, the more store staff understands the risks and benefits of these products and their ingredients, the better they will be in helping customers choose products that will meet their requirements for safe, more natural or organic products that work.

Skin Cleansing & Maintenance

A recommended facial skincare routine includes washing/cleansing, toning (optional depending on skin type), moisturizing, and applying sun protection.  Exfoliation is recommended no more than once or twice a week.  This basic routine is typically adjusted to the skin type, season, diet, and age.  The universally recognized skin types are normal, oily, combination, dry, and sensitive.  In the summer, skin tends to retain more oil than the winter and is usually drier in the winter.  Menopause frequently creates changes in the skin and shifts in diets can also change the nature of the skin.  For instance, shifting a diet from low fat to a diet rich in certain healthy fats, especially EFAs, can help dry skin become more normal.

Cleansers vary by the amount and types of detergents, moisturizers, emollients, and other ingredients. Cleansers should be selected based on skin type. Most toners contain alcohol and/or witch hazel, both of which are drying and can be irritating to very dry or sensitive skin.  Natural toners free of alcohol or witch hazel are often recommended, especially those with the calming Chamomile herb.  There are different types of moisturizers, but regardless of the type, more and more moisturizer formulas carry active ingredients intended to prevent or reduce the symptoms of aging. 

For some, regular skin maintenance includes masks, makeup, eye creams, firming agents, fillers, specialized topicals with a variety of active ingredients, laser and light treatments, radiofrequency treatments, and more.  But the vast majority of experts advise a balance between topical solutions and nutrition from within the body.  The basic building blocks of skin require dozens of nutrients and metabolites, many of which come from food.  In cases where those nutrients are deficient in the diet and the body, supplementation can be beneficial.

Body & Hand Soaps

For centuries soaps were made by boiling meat scraps and lye.  The chemical reaction called saponification occurred which produced an alkaline soap.  The same essential chemical process still applies to modern-day soaps.  To cleanse the skin, soap must penetrate the protective top layer of skin called the acid mantle.  The skin has a natural pH level between 4.5 and 5.5, soap ranges from 7 to 9.5.   Natural bar or cake soaps are closer to a pH of 7.   Bar soaps are typically much less expensive than liquid or gel soaps, last longer, have less environmentally damaging packaging, and are still preferred by men.  Liquid soaps, on the other hand, have rapidly grown in popularity, especially among women, and offer equal cleansing attributes, faster speed, and the benefits of added ingredients, especially essential oils.

Liquid Soaps and Shower Gels

Natural shower gels more closely resemble the natural oils in the skin than standard bar soaps and can contain either synthetic antimicrobial agents or natural bacteria inhibiting agents such as rosemary extract, tea tree oil, and/or grape seed extract.  These gels can also include soothing herbs such as lavender, helichrysum, and myrtle which help psoriasis, eczema, and overexposure to the sun, or stimulating herbs such lemon verbena, rose and mint, or calming herbs including chamomile, Melissa, and orange blossom.  Aloe is a frequent active ingredient in natural liquid soaps and gels for its healing properties.

Hand Sanitizers

Most hand sanitizers are 60% alcohol, the amount necessary to actually kill germs.  However, their reputation for killing germs is over-rated according to FDA tests, and the alcohol content in the formulas can be damaging to the skin.  These alcohol-based hand sanitizers are recommended only when there is no water available and only used by children with the supervision of an adult.  The long term use of these sanitizers are creating a risk of alcohol poisoning in children and may even lower children’s immunity.  Instead, frequent hand washing with regular soap and water should provide sufficient protection against the spread of bacteria or viruses.  


UV stands for ultraviolet radiation. It is a form of energy that comes from the sun and is also emitted from tanning lamps and tanning beds.  Overexposure to certain UV rays causes damage to the skin including aging, wrinkles, dark patches sometimes called age spots or liver spots, loss of skin elasticity, and pre-cancerous skin changes such as dry, scaly, rough patches called actinic keratosis. UV can also increase the risk of cataracts and certain other eye problems and can suppress the skin's immune system. 

Ultimately too much exposure to UV will cause skin cancer.  More than 2 million Americans develop skin cancer each year.  Over the past 35 years, the rate of new melanoma cases among American adults has tripled, from 7.89 per 100,000 people in 1975 to 23.57 in 2010.  The melanoma death rate for white American men, the highest risk group, has escalated sharply, from 2.64 deaths per 100,000 in 1975 to 4.10 in 2010. 

There are three types of UV rays:

  • UVA rays age skin cells and can damage their DNA. These rays are linked to long-term skin damage such as wrinkles, but they are also thought to play a role in some skin cancers. Most tanning beds give off large amounts of UVA, which has been found to increase skin cancer risk.
  • UVB rays can directly damage skin cells’ DNA and are the main rays that cause sunburns. They are also thought to cause most skin cancers.
  • UVC rays don’t get through our atmosphere and are not in sunlight. They are not normally a cause of skin cancer.

The amount of UV exposure a person gets depends on the strength of the rays, the length of time the skin is exposed, and whether the skin is protected with clothing or sunscreen.   Sunscreens are products combining several ingredients that help prevent the sun's UV rays from reaching the skin.  There are two different types of sunscreens - physical and chemical.  

Physical Sunscreens

Physical sunscreens protect skin from the sun by deflecting or blocking the sun's rays, behaving like little mirrors that sit on the skin.  Modern versions are micronized and often tinted so they will blend into the skin.  These are the least likely to produce rashes or other allergic reactions and are often recommended for people with sensitive skin.    These sunscreens are sometimes called sunblock or inorganic sunscreen.   The key ingredients for this type of sunscreen are Titanium dioxide (TiO2) and Zinc oxide (ZnO).

Chemical Sunscreens

Sometimes called “organic” sunscreens, chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun's rays.  Don’t be confused by the name organic.  Chemical sunscreens are produced in the lab and contain a plethora of chemicals that are absorbed into the skin to prevent the skin from absorbing the UV rays.  While the skin naturally produces free-radicals, chemical sunscreens can amplify the production of free-radicals resulting in damage as if there were no sunscreen applied at all.  As a result, there are numerous concerns about the safety and effectiveness of chemical sunscreens.  The various chemicals used in chemical formulas include:









Mexoryl SX and XL

Tinosorb S and M

Uvinul T 150

Uvinul A Plus

SPF – Sun Protection Factor

Sunscreen and many other skincare products have a sun protection factor (SPF) number printed on their packages.  SPF numbers were introduced in 1962 as a way to measure and communicate the effectiveness of the product against UVB rays.  These numbers start at 2 and have just recently reached 70.  But the effectiveness of sunscreen after the number 30 is diminished and no sunscreen will protect against UVA rays unless the product has broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB.

The Environmental Working Group recommends that people buy products with SPF values between 15 and 30, with either zinc oxide or avobenzone for UVA protection.  They recommend these additional sun protection guidelines:

  1. No Spray Sunscreens.  These super-popular aerosolized sunscreens pose serious inhalation risks. There is also the risk of too little or missing an area of the skin.  Even the FDA has expressed concern about the safety and efficacy of spray sunscreens.
  2. No High SPFs greater than SPF 50.  Products with high SPFs may protect against sunburn but can increase exposure to damaging UVA rays.  High-SPF products can give people a false sense of security, tempting them to stay in the sun too long, increasing the risk of other kinds of skin damage. The FDA is considering limiting SPF claims to 50+, as is done in other countries.  Sunscreen should be applied often, regardless of the SPF number.
  3. No Oxybenzone and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals.  Commonly used in sunscreens, the chemical oxybenzone penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream, and acts like estrogen in the body. It can trigger allergic reactions. Some studies have found a link between higher concentrations of oxybenzone and health harms. One study has linked oxybenzone to endometriosis in older women; another found that women with higher levels of oxybenzone during pregnancy had lower birth weight daughters.
  4. No Retinyl Palmitate.  When used in a night cream, this form of vitamin A is supposed to have anti-aging effects. But on sun-exposed skin, retinyl palmitate may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions, according to government studies. The FDA has yet to rule on the safety of retinyl palmitate in skincare products, but EWG recommends that consumers should avoid sunscreens containing this chemical.
  5. No Combined Sunscreen/Bug Repellents.  Insects are typically not a problem during the hours when UV exposure peaks. Also, sunscreen/bug repellant formulas may need to be reapplied more frequently than repellent, or vice versa. Repellents should not be applied to the face. Studies suggest that combining sunscreens and repellents leads to increased skin absorption of the repellent ingredients.
  6. No sunscreen towelettes or powders.  The FDA’s sunscreen rules bar sunscreen wipes and powders. But some towelettes and powders are still available and should be avoided. They provide dubious sun protection and inhaling loose powders can cause lung irritation or other harm.
  7. No Tanning Oils.  Tanning oils without SPF do not protect against the sun.  Even when tanning oils contain sunscreen ingredients, the levels are always very low and offer little, if any, sun protection.

Sunscreens with these chemicals should be avoided: oxybenzone, octinoxate (Octylmethoxycinnamate), homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene.


Words to Remember


The most abundant protein in animals, accounting for about 30% of the body. It is found in the fibrous tissues such as skin, ligaments, tendons, bones, blood vessels, and the cornea of the eye and in the gut. It is vital for strengthening blood vessels and giving skin its elasticity and strength. The degradation of collagen causes wrinkles and other skin issues. As a result, collagen is one of the most popular supplements among the elderly.



A protein in connective tissues that is different from Collagen. The main function of the elastin protein is to provide elasticity, allowing tissues in the body to "snap back" to shape after being stretched or contracted. It's found in artery walls, lungs, intestines, and in the skin.



A process of removing the oldest, dead skin cells on the outermost surface (dermis). It is a procedure that has been used for thousands of years to maintain healthy skin, leaving it feeling softer and fresher after a treatment.



An essential oil made from the plants in the sunflower family. It has anti-catarrhal and anti-coagulant properties, as well as benefits for circulation and bruising. It is beneficial for skin conditioning and is considered to be a natural sunscreen.



Is a carbohydrate naturally occurring throughout the body. It binds to water in the body, giving it a stiff viscous quality similar to Jell-O. It is one of the most water-loving molecules in nature with many benefits to the body. It helps to lubricate movable parts of the body such as joints and muscles and is beneficial in skin-care products as a natural moisturizer.



A fibrous protein that is the main structural material in hair, feathers, hoofs, claws, horns, nails, and teeth, etc. The amino acids which combine to form the keratin protein have several unique properties and, depending on the levels of the various amino acids, can be inflexible and hard, like hooves, or soft, as is the case with skin.



A South American shrub with lemon-scented leaves that are used as a flavoring, especially in herbal teas, and may be used as a medicine for digestive disorders. The plant contains a substance that may kill mites and bacteria.



Another word for "fat." Lipid is defined chemically as a substance that is insoluble in water and soluble in alcohol, ether, and chloroform. Together with carbohydrates and proteins, lipids are the main constituents of plant and animal cells. Cholesterol and triglycerides are lipids. They serve as a source of fuel and are an important constituent in the structure of cells.



A pigment in the skin which determines skin color. Melanin pigment appears in different shades depending on the genetic make-up of the individual. It is also affected by exposure to UV radiation, which will cause more melanin to be produced as a protection to DNA damage.



Another name for lemon balm, a herb used for a wide variety of symptoms and illnesses. It can be found in medicinal teas and other natural remedies.



A metabolite is a substance that is used in or produced during metabolism, a chemical process that breaks down food and other chemicals into energy in every cell of the body.



An evergreen shrub that has glossy aromatic foliage and white flowers, followed by purple-black oval berries. It is native in the northern Mediterranean region and is used as medicine for lung infections and bladder conditions.



A pH number measures from 0 to 14 how acidic or alkaline a liquid is. Anything above 7 if alkaline and anything below 7 is acid. Water is neutral with a pH level of 7, meaning it has the same amount of acids and alkali's which balance each other out.



Rosemary extract is produced and distilled from rosemary leaves. It is rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents and may protect against free radical damage. It has been used for digestion, gout, coughs, headache, and high blood pressure. Rosemary oil is also used as a fragrance component in body care products.



A chemical reaction that occurs when a vegetable oil or animal fat is mixed with a strong alkali (lye). It is a process that produces soap.



The second step in a traditional three-step facial cleansing process. When used correctly, it can help remove excess oil and dead skin cells and in some cases can help other skin applications penetrate more rapidly.



A measure of UVB protection with numbers ranging from 1 to 45 or higher. Typically, the number will help determine the length of time a person can be out in the sun without burning. So if a person without sunscreen ordinarily gets a sunburn within 10 minutes, a sunscreen with a 15 number will allow that person to be out in the sun 15 times longer or, in this example, 150 minutes. A sunscreen with a number of SPF 15 filter out 92% of harmful UVB rays.



A concentrated, essential oil, made from the leaves of the native Australian tree, Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree), a member of the myrtle family. The oil has a fresh camphoraceous aroma and is used as a topical antiseptic and anti-fungal treatment.



Acronym for ultraviolet radiation.



A shrub with a fragrant yellow flower. An astringent lotion is made from the bark and leaves of the plant. Witch hazel has been taken internally, but it is much more typically used as a topical for itching, inflammation, skin injuries, minor burns, and other skin irritations. Witch hazel contains tannins which are plant phytochemicals that help reduce swelling, repair broken skin and fight bacteria.

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