Raise your hand if you or someone you know has had eczema, dry skin, itchy skin, a rash, or some form of dermatitis in the last year. The number of people with sensitive skin is rising precipitously, and I have a theory about why it’s happening. One ingredient has caused more trouble in the last 80 years than any other, and most of you are still using it in your daily lives. If you’re interested in learning how skincare has evolved over time to create this sensitive skin epidemic, and what simple changes you can make to support optimal skin health, then read the rest of this article. If you just want to shop for products to help your sensitive skin, click here to start soothing.
Ancient Egyptians and Greeks relied on things like honey, milk, olive oil, yogurt, and clay to nourish and brighten their skin. Because they didn’t have many options from the non-natural world, they tapped into the antibacterial properties of honey, the mineral boost of clay, the skin-strengthening power of olives, and the naturally exfoliating acids found in dairy products. The Medieval beauty gurus took things up a creative notch, incorporating the soothing action of aloe and cucumber, and the astringent, toning properties of vinegar. So far, it sounds like a perfect green beauty skincare routine, right?
The Renaissance ladies pushed things to the next level by using white lead masks, borax, and sulfur to whiten their skin, lest anyone think they were out doing hard labor in the sun. But it turned out that applying those ingredients directly to your face is not so healthy, and the trends fortunately died out along with those who created them.
In the late 1800s, larger chemical companies launched Vaseline, Chapstick, and baby powder (which probably should never have been used on babies or any other animals). Soon after came sunscreen, Carmex, and—the ingredient that I think has caused a sensitive skin epidemic—sodium lauryl sulfate.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) was originally used as an engine decreaser in WWII. The cosmetic industry must have decided that if it was powerful enough to degrease an engine, it might also be able to remove makeup? Over the next fifty years, SLS found its way into everything that foams: toothpaste, shampoo, face wash, body wash, laundry detergent, hand soap, shaving cream, mouthwash, and bubble bath. Initially, it was derived from petroleum, but coconut and palm-based versions are now available, and present in many brands—even natural ones. (Note: sodium cocosulfate is a similar, although larger, molecule and is not much better in terms of skin irritation. Sodium laureth sulfate is an ethoxylated version of SLS, said to be gentler on the skin, but it may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, so it’s not a great alternative.)
At some point, people began to question whether this engine degreaser was actually safe for human skin, which behaves differently than, um, engines. A 1983 study in the International Journal of Toxicology determined that “Both Sodium and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate appear to be safe in formulations designed for discontinuous, brief use followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin.”
(Am I the only one raising an eyebrow here? You could probably write the same sentence about motor oil, cream of chicken soup, or mouse poop, but does that mean any of those things are GOOD for your skin?)
Interestingly, despite the “acceptable” safety profile, SLS has been used regularly in medical studies for many years to create the skin irritation required for testing soothing agents. In fact, studies often show significant skin irritation and reduced moisture retention using SLS concentrations well below the recommended level (1%) for “leave on” products, which doesn’t bode well for the higher concentrations found in rinse-off and household products.
My theory—it remains unproven thus far—is that decades of cumulative exposure to SLS and its cousin SLES (sodium laureth sulfate) have left many of us in a state of long-term, low-level irritation, with diminished thresholds for conditions like eczema and dermatitis. In fact, it turns out that about half of people with eczema and dermatitis have an allergy to SLS, leading to a vicious cycle of chronic irritation and inflammation when continuing to use products containing SLS. Ultimately, exposure to SLS in our daily routines results in a serious reduction of the skin’s barrier function and its innate ability to heal itself.
So, what can you do to help a sensitive skin situation? Wait for it…
Get rid of SLS!
To do this, you need to examine everything foaming product in your life by reading your labels very carefully. Since I am a sensitive sort, I’ll list a few of my favorite SLS-free products:
- Jason Seafresh toothpaste
- Molly’s Suds Laundry Detergent
- Common Good dishwashing liquid
- Supernatural house cleaning products
- Haircare by Josh Rosebrook, Innersense, or Just Nutritive
In addition to eliminating SLS, I recommend avoiding synthetic fragrance—often a skin irritant, as well. If your skin is substantially inflamed, you might consider using only unscented products for a few weeks, before slowly adding in products that contain skin-safe essential oils if you’re craving scent. The photo at the top of the page shows our four, unscented body products, perfect for helping sensitive skin find its happy place again.
Oh So Soap is my take on castile soap, made with very gentle organic ingredients like olive oil, mango butter, and buttermilk powder.
Oh So Detox is a vegan version of the same, with shea butter and activated bamboo charcoal for a purifying cleanse.
Naked Body Oil is a blend of 11 botanical oils that sinks into wet skin and leaves it velvety soft for hours.
And Naked Body Mousse is our newest addition. We got so many requests for our divine whipped body mousse in an unscented version that we had to make the dream into reality. Mix this with your Naked Body Oil or apply separately to damp skin to seal in moisture and smooth away rough patches.
Here’s the great news for sensitive skin: changing your routine doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself of the good things in life. Our sensitive skin products are luxurious, effective, and delightful to use in your daily routines. In fact, you might find that once you go Naked, you never go back to anything else.
With love and fewer rashes from us to you,