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The Sensitive Skin Epidemic


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. (Literally all hands go up.) 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.

 

HOW HAS SKINCARE EVOLVED?

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. 

WHAT IS SODIUM LAURYL/LAURETH SULFATE?

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) was allegedly used as an engine degreaser in WWII. Some cosmetic industry executive must have decided that if it was powerful enough to degrease an engine, it might also be able to remove his wife's makeup? Over the next fifty years, sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate 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 molecule, but slightly larger and therefore a bit 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.) 

IS SODIUM LAURYL/LAURETH SULFATE SAFE TO USE ON SKIN?

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 moose 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.

WHO IS SENSITIVE TO SODIUM LAURYL/LAURETH SULFATE?

My theory—it remains unproven thus far—is that decades of cumulative exposure to SLS and its icky little cousin SLES (sodium laureth sulfate) have left many of us in a state of long-term, low-level irritation, with increased susceptibility to 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, especially if you're using it in your shampoo, your body wash, and your laundry detergent!

 

HOW DO I GET RID OF SODIUM LAURYL/LAURETH SULFATE?

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’ve created this easy guide to getting rid of sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate in your whole house!

    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 and your skin doesn't mind.

    WHICH OSMIA PRODUCTS ARE BEST FOR SENSITIVE SKIN?

    Oh So Soap is my take on castile soap, made with very gentle organic ingredients like olive oil, mango butter, and buttermilk powder, and no essential oils. 

    Oh So Detox is a vegan version of the same, with shea butter and activated bamboo charcoal for a purifying cleanse without essential oils. 

    Naked Body Oil is an unscented blend of 11 botanical oils that sinks into wet skin and leaves it velvety soft for hours. 

    And Naked Body Mousse is our divine whipped body mousse in an unscented version. 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 WAY fewer rashes from us to you,