"If modern, processed food was messing with the health of my body, was modern, processed skin care messing with the health of my skin?"

Jessica DeFino
Sep 25, 2020 @ 6:48 pm
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What is clean beauty? And—for that matter—green beauty, eco-friendly beauty, and natural beauty? In Clean, Green, And In Between, beauty expert Jessica DeFino explores the ins and outs of these buzzy terms, reports on the products and ingredients to look out for, and answers all of your most pressing questions.

Two and a half million years ago, in the Paleolithic age, the earliest humans roamed the earth. They were guided by nothing but their animal instinct and intuition. They were immersed in nature—hunting, gathering, bathing in natural hot springs. There was no pollution and no processed food. There were no pre-bottled beauty products filled with barrier-stripping sulfates and irritating acids. Honestly, sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong era.

I’m not the only one nostalgic for the simplicity of the Old Stone Age; just ask anyone who follows the Paleo diet. It argues that the modern phenomenon of highly processed food is largely responsible for chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and even acne. Human genetics haven’t evolved as quickly as the human diet, it hypothesizes, and the body still responds best to a Paleo-era menu: mostly vegetables; some fruits, nuts and seeds; a little meat; and maybe dairy. These are “the foods you were designed to eat,” says a 2020 scientific paper, which describes the Paleo diet as “reverting back to what our prehistoric ancestors ate and rejecting modern-day, processed diet in order to improve our healthcare outcomes.” 

Something about this stuck with me on an almost spiritual level—that my body was designed to be well, that ancient wisdom had already figured this out, that instinct and intuition held the answers. Eventually I started thinking: If modern, processed food was messing with the health of my body, was modern, processed skin care messing with the health of my skin? And if my body thrived on Paleo-era ingredients, would my skin do the same?

“Paleo skincare” isn’t really a thing. Yet.

Credit: Unsplash

This is not a popular theory so much as a pet theory of mine, based on common sense and some scientific evidence. Hear me out: Despite the fact that we have more access to skincare technology, medications, and products than ever before, more and more people in their 20s, 30s, and beyond are presenting with adult acne, sensitivity, and chronic issues like eczema and psoriasis. There are multiple factors at play here, including pollution, diet, and stress—but there’s an argument to be made that the aforementioned proliferation of skincare technology, medications, and products is a sizable part of the problem. 

As The New York Times reported, skincare products can have the counterintuitive effect of making our skin worse. We’ve come to rely on sulfates that strip the skin’s natural moisture barrier, exfoliators that compromise the skin’s natural protective layer, and silicones that provide an unnatural environment for the skin’s microbiome. We use “penetration enhancers” that make it easier for ingredients to sink into our pores—pores that are meant to be outgoing channels for sweat and sebum. We think we need seven layers of skincare products, applied morning and night, to keep our complexions clear. 

Maybe it’s just me, but I refuse to believe that humans entered this world with a protective coating (skin!) whose health depended on products that wouldn’t be invented for literal millennia. Does that make any sense to anyone?

I know this theory will inspire some serious eye rolling (skincare lovers love to hate on an all-natural, DIY skincare routine), but the skin is an organ just like any other. If science shows that a non-processed, plant-heavy lifestyle—one that’s as free from pesticides, antibiotics, and added hormones as possible—is advisable for all the other organs in the body, why is it so radical to suggest the same for the skin? (Perhaps because it’d be nearly impossible to find a beauty brand or pharmaceutical company willing to fund a study proving that the skin doesn’t need synthetic skin care—considering scientific studies require significant financial investment and natural ingredients can’t be patented and therefore can’t be capitalized on in a way that justifies said financial investment. Ah, but that’s a story for another article.)

For not-at-all-scientifically-valid proof of my personal Paleo skincare theory, I like to look to the world’s few remaining hunter-gatherer societies. Scientists have studied “primitive” civilizations, like the people of Kitava Island in Papua New Guinea, and found that many modern health problems simply don’t exist in these communities. No strokes. No cardiovascular disease. No acne! That mostly can be attributed to the fact that the Kitavans aren’t downing sourdough bread and Sour Patch Kids, sure—but they’re not filling retinol prescriptions and slathering on $200 serums, either.

(I want to be clear: Acne, rosacea, eczema, and the like are not exclusively modern problems. They can stem from imbalance and inflammation inside the body or damage to the outside skin barrier, causes that are not era-sensitive. These skin issues have existed for centuries. They have not, however, existed anywhere near the rates we see today—rates that some experts attribute to modern living, modern diets, and modern skin care.)

After chewing on this Paleo skincare theory for a bit, I realized that all the ingredients that helped heal my skin from post-Accutane acne and topical steroid withdrawal years ago were totally Paleo. 

Now, I don’t use any ingredients that my Paleolithic ancestors wouldn’t be able to access. In my mind, if it wasn’t around when human skin came into this world, human skin doesn’t need it. (Or maybe even want it.) 

This means my routine is super simple, mostly plant-based, and very DIY. I rely on botanical oils, like jojoba and coconut and rosehip, for cleansing and moisturizing. Sometimes I’ll infuse these oils with dried herbs; rosebuds, chamomile, sage, and violet leaves are my favorites. I make face masks out of the same dried herbs by grinding them up with a pestle and mortar and mixing them with water. I’m a fan of flower hydrosols (for hydration) and tiny amounts of essential oils (mixed with carrier oils), too.

My Paleo lineup also includes animal byproducts like honey, goat’s milk, yogurt, and tallow—the most powerfully healing “products” my skin has ever experienced. I use them sparingly, and it’s important to me that when I do use these ingredients, I do so as ethically as possible. 

I love Flora Health Mānuka honey more than life itself. I use it as a cleanser, face mask, and spot treatment because it does it all: It’s antibacterial, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, moisture-boosting, and barrier-supporting. Even better: It’s harvested by beekeepers from New Zealand’s indigenous Maori tribes in a way that supports the dwindling bee population and prevents colony collapse. “With bees pollinating over 30 percent of all crops worldwide, we literally cannot live without them,” Thomas Greither, the president and owner of Flora, tells HelloGiggles.

Yogurt is my go-to, all-natural probiotic and lactic acid face mask (probiotics nourish the skin barrier while lactic acid gently brightens), and I use it once a week. I prefer Stonyfield organic yogurt, since the company sources from small, family-owned farms rather than large-scale corporations. Their animals are treated humanely, and their products are free from added hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides. I mask with goat’s milk occasionally, too, and use Meyenberg powdered goat milk. Goats on the Meyenberg farm are free to roam, are milked twice a day, and are very cute.

A newer addition to my Paleo lineup is tallow, in the form of Primally Pure’s Blue Tansy Beauty Cream. “Tallow is an incredibly nourishing, vitamin-rich form of pure, rendered animal fat,” explains Primally Pure founder Bethany McDaniel. “Before the influx of man-made chemicals and unnatural substances in skin care, tallow was a prominent part of skincare products developed and used by our ancestors.” Tallow is rich in vitamins A, D, E, and K and fatty acids and “is incredibly effective in improving skin cell health due to the similar makeup it has to our skin,” McDaniel says. It’s a waste product of the meat industry (no cows are ever killed specifically to harvest tallow), so the founder sees including the ingredient in skin care as a way to minimize waste and support mindful consumption. “Sustainable sourcing is a big deal for our brand, and we believe in using every part of the animal—the nose-to-tail philosophy—just as our ancestors did,” McDaniel tells HelloGiggles. Primally Pure’s tallow comes from organic, grass-fed cows that were raised outside on pasture. 

Of course, “Paleo skincare” is not a perfect offshoot of the Paleo diet—I know cavewomen weren’t double-cleansing with plant oils every night. 

The truth is, anything that comes in a bottle, whether it’s pure jojoba oil or Primally Pure’s Beauty Cream, has been processed in some way—seeds have been pressed for oil with heavy machinery, and goat’s milk has been powdered and packaged in a modern facility. There’s no way around that. (Unless we collectively decide to revert back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle...which, honestly, I’m down to do.) 

If my flawed attempt at approximating primitive skin care has taught me anything, though, it’s this: Humans evolved on this earth as part of an intricately interconnected ecosystem, and the earth provides us—and our skin—with everything we need to thrive. Can I prove this theory? Not yet. For now, I’m going on animal instinct and intuition.