You may already know that so-called liquid "detox diets"—espoused by celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow—are not recommended by most doctors and nutritionists, who say they're worthless at best and may cause health problems at worst. But the entire concept of "detoxification" has made its way to products for your skin and body, too, from facial masks to bath soaks to foot pads. Are those products any more worthwhile?
The problem with any topical product that says it can "detox" is that the term doesn't really mean anything, says Perry Romanowski, an independent cosmetic industry scientist and one of the bloggers at thebeautybrains.com. "It's a vague enough claim so that you're not really making a medical claim," he says. "Cosmetic marketers are clever enough to find a word like this and use it."
The toxins that products claim to remove range from vague "impurities" to more specific things that may or may not be affected by a skin product. "Certainly it's possible to apply products and ingredients to the skin that are protective against exposures," says John Bailey, chief scientist at the Personal Care Products Council, which represents the cosmetic and personal care industry. Sunscreen, for example, protects against harmful UV rays.
Dennis Gross, a dermatologist whose MD Skincare line includes several products advertised to remove toxins, says in his case he's referring to environmental pollutants like the heavy metals and chlorine in tap water. Ingredients that neutralize or remove those substances can reduce the chance of skin irritation like eczema or damage, he says. "I won't go so far as to say they're helping [the entire body], but they clearly can make the skin better," he says.
Some detox products, including some of Gross's, also include antioxidants, substances that sop up the free radicals that are implicated in aging and skin damage. And topical antioxidants have been shown to reduce the impact of those ills, at least in the test tube. (That said, free radicals are not "toxins" and cannot be eliminated by the body.) It's less clear whether topical antioxidants will reduce wrinkles caused by sun exposure or the aging process, or provide any other visible benefit, and it's also unknown what dosage and for how long they must be applied to see any potential benefit, says Paula Begoun, author of Don ' t Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me. (After years of reviewing products, Begoun now has her own line of personal care products, some containing antioxidants.)
If you're looking for antioxidant-containing products, it's better to look for that specific word on the label or packaging, says Leslie Baumann, a dermatologist who directs the University of Miami's Cosmetic Medicine and Research Institute. Some ingredients to seek out: ascorbic acid (vitamin C), green tea, idebenone, coffeeberry, and coenzyme Q10.
Protecting against external damage is one thing; whether putting something on your skin can actually suck out harmful substances from your skin or elsewhere in your body is another question. "The question it poses is, if there are toxins lurking in the skin, what are they?" says Begoun. "What's poisoning our skin? Pesticides? Which ones and how do you get them out and measure the effects?" she says. "I don't know of any toxins lurking in the skin. It's a pretty dynamic organ and turns itself over every three to six weeks and every two to three months when you get older." She says "toxin" is so vague it could mean anything.
Even if there are undesirable substances floating around the body, it would be tough to get them out via the skin, says Romanowski. The skin is generally not permeable and few chemicals can pass through it. It's instead the liver, kidneys, and digestive system that generally remove waste and toxins from the body. That's one of the chief reasons he and other experts dismissed the claims that last year's trendy detox foot pads can somehow remove toxins through the soles of your feet as you sleep.
Better than attempting to remove unwanted things from your body via your skin is not exposing your body to those things in the first place. That means avoiding excess sun exposure, anything more than moderate drinking, and smoking, says Baumann. And improve your diet, adds Begoun: The traditional Mediterranean diet—centered around fruits and veggies, whole grains, fish, and "good" fats—includes omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants in their natural state, and may help improve the structure of the skin, according to studies.
Nothing you put on your skin can make up for a hard night out. But if detox skin products aren't the miracle workers some of the ads make them out to be, nor are they likely to be harmful, Baumann says. That was a relief for one of her patients, who worried a new facial cream would nullify the active ingredient in one of her other beauty mainstays. Says Baumann, "She was worried it would detox her Botox."