The quest to look good is not something recent. Cosmetics used to enhance one’s looks or to camouflage one’s short-comings have been around since the early ages. Our skin, after years of exposure to the ravages of the environment, depending on the type and extent of exposure, can look like a battle-field. With the increasing pressure of the media that one has to have beautiful skin to look good, it is little wonder that the cosmetic industry is one of the largest and most rapidly growing one.
The skin is the largest organ of the body. It is divided into 3 main layers, namely
- Subcutaneous fat
The epidermis can be divided into several layers. The outermost layer is composed of a relatively thin, but rough, protective top layer of dead skin cells, the stratum corneum. The remainder of the epidermis is made up of cells called keratinocytes as well as melanocytes, which are pigment cells responsible for skin pigmentation.
Within the dermis are found supporting and elastic tissue, nerves, oil glands, sweat glands, blood vessels and hair roots.
The subcutaneous fat is composed of fat cells, which forms a cushioning layer between the skin and the deeper muscles and also serves as an energy store.
What does your skin do?
The skin provides several important functions.
- Barrier function – the skin protects the internal structures of our body against injuries, and yet allows exchange of fluids and gases between the body and the environment.
- Temperature regulation – alteration of the rates of skin blood flow and sweating helps maintain our skin and body temperature.
- Protection against harmful effects of ultraviolet light through our pigment cells.
- Sensory organ – through the specialized nerve endings in the skin, the body is able to perceive various sensations evoked by external agents.
- Metabolism – Vitamin D is produced through the interaction of ultraviolet light on precursors of vitamin D present in our skin.
- Immune function – the skin cells present in the epidermis protect the body against external agents.
What do cosmetics contain?
Cosmetics may be defined as any substance applied externally to the body to enhance beauty. They are made up of many different chemicals eg. the active ingredient, fragrances, animal, vegetable or synthetic oils/ fats, colouring agents, preservatives and others, some of which are closely guarded “secret ingredients”. Some of the ingredients can cause skin problems on the areas applied while others eg. resins in nail products can cause skin conditions in areas other than the areas applied eg. the face.
What are hypoallergenic products, can they cause skin problems?
Many claims have been made by cosmetic companies. As long as a chemical is used on the skin, there is a potential for skin problems to occur. Many hypoallergenic products do not contain lanolin (which comes from the waxes of wool) and fragrances as it has been found that these two compounds not uncommonly cause skin problems. However they must contain preservatives to increase the shelf-life and these can cause allergy.
What are non-comedogenic products?
The term non-comedogen, on a product means that the manufacturer has tried to eliminate the chemicals that have been known or tested in a laboratory model to cause comedones (white heads). Although in theory it sounds good but the substances are tested on a rabbit ear model and unless our skin behaves like a rabbit’s, the results may not be totally predictable.
What are the common substances in cosmetics that cause skin problems?
Before we answer that question, we have to know that there are normally 2 types of reactions that one may encounter with the use of cosmetics. One is due to the irritant nature of the product. This depends on the chemicals used, how often and under what condition it is used and the condition of the person’s skin. Another reaction is due to a, allergy to the compound and this is not as common. This depends on how allergenic the compound is and the ability of the person to develop the allergy.
The common substances that cause irritation on the skin are volatile chemicals like alcohols., chemicals with excessively high or low pH or abrasive substances like facial scrubs. The common allergens on the other hand are lanolin or its derivatives, perfume chemicals, preservatives and sunscreen substances.