A mask that pulls out toxins. A cleanser that detoxifies. A deodorant that purges chemicals. Chances are, you have a product in your bathroom that promises to reboot your skin by ridding it of all the big, bad, scary things that have built up in your pores. After all, whether it takes the form of a juice cleanse, sweat lodge, or scrub, consumers love the promise of a detox. But for all the products on the market claiming to draw out toxins, few, if any, actually go into what the hell qualifies as one. According to Merriam-Webster, a toxin is "a poisonous substance that is a specific product of the metabolic activities of a living organism and is usually very unstable, notably toxic when introduced into the tissues, and typically capable of inducing antibody formation." So...snake venom. Or ricin from the castor oil plant. But those toxins aren't in your body — and if they are, good luck getting 'em out with a face wash. Then there are environmental toxins, which are cancer-causing chemicals and endocrine disruptors, both human-made and naturally occurring. Those include — but are far from limited to — lead, fluoride, and other heavy metals in tap water (low levels of which are relatively harmless; high levels of which lead to the Flint, MI crisis); parabens and phthalates found in cosmetics; and high-risk dangers, like asbestos. Is our $10 charcoal cleanser really powerful enough to suck these poisons out? Smells like BS, so we reached out to cosmetic chemist Ni'Kita Wilson; dermatologist Francesca Fusco, MD; and Barbara Sturm, MD, physician and founder of her eponymous skin-care line, to find out whether there's science behind the marketing.
According to Dr. Fusco, there is no formal definition for the term "toxin" in the cosmeceutical world. "Products use it [in relation to] a variety of things, including the removal of dry skin (dry brushes, soaks, scrubs), the decongestion of skin that has become clogged, and the reinforcement of the barrier of the skin to protect against invasion (antioxidant serums)," she says. Wilson and Dr. Sturm echo the sentiment that, in beauty-speak, "detoxifying" usually refers to fighting free radicals with antioxidants. "Of course, almost every cream has antioxidants," says Dr. Sturm, who adds that she personally considers "any ingredient that makes the skin react with redness, irritation, or pores breaking out" to be a toxin. In case you forgot what free radicals are, they're unstable, highly reactive atoms that form as a result of a number of factors (like air pollutants, sunlight, drugs), are everywhere in our environment, and can lead to hyperpigmentation, inflammation, early signs of aging (like fine lines and wrinkles), and even cancer. So yes, they're bad, but we already know that — that's why we wear sunscreen and look for vitamin-rich serums and creams that target our specific skin concerns. But if they're toxins, how are products pulling them out? Well, they're technically not. "When brands refer to pulling out toxins, they're being misleading," says Wilson. Skin-care brands, she explains, tend to take the touted benefits of supplements, which remove toxins from the walls of the intestines as they pass through, and apply them to beauty products, but the ingredients are not nearly as effective when applied topically. "The claims take what's happening internally and try to apply it externally. The claims are real, but how they're selling them to the customer is not quite accurate," says Wilson. What is coming out when you use a bentonite clay mask or an activated charcoal product (two common chelating agents associated with the idea of detoxification)? Dirt, sebum, dead skin cells, and accumulated particulate matter (i.e., cigarette smoke, pollution fumes, pollen) — all of which is indeed important to get off if you want clear, healthy, bright skin. But while these chelating agents can help bind heavy metals, they're not going into the blood stream or deep in the pores, says Wilson: "They don't work like a magnet on the skin." At the end of the day, "you can't turn back time and make skin as perfect as it was before the accumulation of damage," says Wilson. "Detoxification basically just means neutralizing the toxins and repairing the damage." (In other words: what just about every skin care product aims to do.) But the crux of the confusion lies in the fact that there is still no consensus on what defines a toxin. Is a blackhead one because it might have been exposed to harmful particles in the atmosphere? Depends on whom you ask. But it's important to realize that unless you move in with Bubble Boy, exposure to chemicals is unavoidable and your face isn't a toxic hazard. Invest in a good sunscreen, a moisturizer with antioxidants, and, sure, a clay mask for when your pores feel congested — then relax and let your liver take care of the rest.