201: Before You Put Anything Around Your Eyes...w/ Rachael Pontillo

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Did you know that our eyes are an extension of the brain? It's true! And in many cases, products that are safe to use on the rest of the body aren't safe for use around the eyes.

Or, listen on your favorite app: iTunes (Apple Podcasts) | Spotify | Stitcher | TuneIn | Subscribe on Android

My guest today is Rachael Pontillo, a holistic skincare innovator, author, and educator. Rachael is the bestselling author of the book Love Your Skin, Love Yourself, and co-author of The Sauce Code. She’s a functional nutrition practitioner, AADP and IAHC Board Certified International Health Coach, licensed aesthetician, and natural skincare formulator and educator.

She’s the president and co-founder of the Nutritional Aesthetics™ Alliance, the creator of the popular skincare and healthy lifestyle blog, Holistically Haute™, as well as the much-loved online course, Create Your Skincare. She’s an avid herbalist, skincare ingredient aficionado, and lifelong learner.

Rachael is also my good friend.

Join us as we talk about why certain products should never be used around the eyes, as well as ingredients to watch out for.

Have you ever experienced side effects using a product not specifically for the eye area? Tell me about it in the comments!

In this episode:

  • Why you should be wary of applying certain things around your eyes
  • Red flag ingredients to avoid in creams applied around the eyes
  • Are essential oils safe for use in the eye area (even in products)?
  • Surprising Information about safety testing


“Essential oils are something that really are not meant to be around the eye area.” [12:53]

“Synthetic fragrances are the number one cause of skin, eye, and respiratory irritant and allergic reactions.” [17:56]


Find Rachael online

Nutritional Aesthetics

Interested in trying Rachael's online classes to create your own skincare? Click HERE!

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Follow Rachael on Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | Instagram

Before You Put Anything Around Your Eyes…w/ Rachael Pontillo FULL TRANSCRIPT

Jennifer: Welcome back to the show, Rachael. I am super excited to have you here, especially today because this topic is something that is so… Oh my gosh, I get so many questions, and it's not a topic that I felt comfortable answering questions about, which is why I originally reached out to you when I've had clients or potential customers who are interested in purchasing my Quell Skincare line-

Rachael: Yeah.

Jennifer: And they're asking me about applying the products around the eyes. And I was like, “Whoa, hold on a second. I don't have any testing that says it's safe.” That made me a little nervous that people might go and apply the product around their eyes.

Jennifer: And so, to give you guys a little bit of context, my father was an ophthalmologist and ophthalmic surgeon, and I worked in his office for 12 years with his patients, so I have some actual experience around this. And one thing that my dad had shared with me is that you have to be really careful about applying anything around the eye. And so, when it comes to skincare, now I'm getting these questions about applying skincare creams that I didn't necessarily intend to go around the eye to be used in that way.

Jennifer: So, all right, if someone was to ask you, “Hey, I noticed that this one product says, “Do not use around the eye area, or this is safe to be used around the eye area.” What's the deal with that from your perspective of being an expert in formulation and in helping people actually create their own skincare lines?

Rachael: Yeah. Well, first of all, it is not a question that gets asked as often as it should. I think that because your dad was an ophthalmologist and you had that background, that was something that was fresh in your mind because I can't tell you how many people would get questions like that about their products and just be like, “Oh yeah, it's fine. There's nothing in there that would be bad around the eyes,” and just make that assumption.

Rachael: So there are a couple of things… a couple of layers to the answer to this question because there is a lot that is said on cosmetic labels about testing, and there are certain messages like hypoallergenic or dermatologist tested, ophthalmologist tested, whatnot, that are not always completely true. And even if they are true, here in the United States, the FDA and the FTC, while they require that any claims made are truthful, they don't necessarily have standards listed that requirements to substantiate that.

Rachael: So when we see the word safety tested on cosmetic, and to be clear, a cosmetic is something that is intended to cleanse or improve the appearance or beautify one's appearance. It's not something that is intended to affect in any way the structure or function of the skin. So I want to be clear on that. So when we see things like safety tested, or dermatologist tested, ophthalmology [inaudible 00:03:24] allergenic. Really, there's not a lot of oversight on what that actually have to entail. So the FDA themselves, they regulate what goes on the label. And then the FTC is who oversees what goes into the advertising, the positioning, and all of that. But when it comes to these are the tests you must run in order to verify that the product is safe at all, never mind safe around the eye area. Or this is what you… this is to qualify for dermatologist-tested or ophthalmologist-tested. This is the type of testing that has to be run by this type where this many doctors, and this is the documentation that's needed. That's not a thing, unfortunately.

Jennifer: So there's-

Rachael: There's…

Jennifer: … no standards? Is what you're saying.

Rachael: There's not. There are certain tests in other countries that are required. Like the European Union has much more stringent standards than what we have here for claims, but also for testing and documentation required. Here in the United States and also in Canada, we can basically give products, and I'm not recommending people do this. I'm actually very much against making claims that I always teach my students, “Do not make claims. You do not need to make claims to sell your products. If they're good products and you understand what your client needs, what your customer needs.” But basically, I could give a bunch. I could give 20 product samples out to people and give them a questionnaire and say, “Use this product. Use it around the eyes and fill out this questionnaire.” And on that questionnaire, I can ask questions like did you notice any irritation? Did you have an allergic reaction? What was your experience? And I keep that documentation. Boom, there's my safety testing.

Jennifer: OMG. Seriously, that is a little alarming.

Rachael: It is.

Jennifer: So to clarify this, so my dad used to… he would treat all these different medical conditions.

Rachael: Yeah.

Jennifer: And so sometimes, people get eye infection. Literally, he's dealing with the eyeball, right.

Rachael: Often.

Jennifer: And so all of his creams and gels and everything said, “This product is intended for ophthalmic use.”

Rachael: Yeah.

Jennifer: And I had asked him about that. And he's like, “Everything that you put on or around the eyes, so in the orbital area will melt, and it will end up inside your eye.” And I was like, “Okay.” And he goes, “Jen, you have to remember the eye is literally an extension of your brain.” So if you want to think about how precious this area of tissue in the body is, he's like, “There are some things that we still in this day and age in terms of the eye cannot fix when things go wrong.”

Jennifer: And so we would actually get patients who had applied things around their eyes that weren't supposed to be applied around their eyes. And they would come in with a ton of irritation or almost like an inflammation of the eyes. And so that taught me from a very early point in my journey to getting to hear that you have to be careful around your eyes. And so now the fact that you're telling me that safety testing for those types of statements is literally a questionnaire that you might hand 10 or 20 people who have no… They could have like literally no medical experience, but they're-

Rachael: Correct.

Jennifer: … making a claim that because it didn't impact these 20 people, which is a very small segment [crosstalk 00:07:18]-

Rachael: And it doesn't even have to be that many, honestly.

Jennifer: Oh, goodness.

Jennifer: So this is really alarming and disturbing.

Rachael: Yeah.

Jennifer: And the other reason that I reached out to you about this is that, so for the Quell line, many people, you can see the ingredients online. And actually, I do have a statement that says they're not to be used around the eye area, just an FYI because of what my dad-

Rachael: Sure.

Jennifer: … told me. But a lot of my products have different botanicals in them. And that made me really nervous because I actually don't know if they're safe. So can we talk a little bit about ingredients that are, you have to be really careful? Like if you look at maybe a cream that you are using around your eye, are there some ingredients that you, as a formulator, know are a big no, no?

Rachael: Yeah. So a couple of things here that I do want to just clarify before we dive-

Jennifer: Please.

Rachael: … into that part of the conversation. So when it comes to claims, that have to say that are specifically for ophthalmic use or for… that would be probably a pharmaceutical product and not a cosmetic. So that has a different set of rules than cosmetics do. So I do want to make that distinction. But in cosmetics, when we see dermatologist tested, ophthalmologist tested, allergist tested some sort of claim that the product has been tested by a physician or that the claim implies that the product has been given a green light by a medical professional or for medical condition. That falls into the world of cosmeceutical claims. Cosmeceutical is a word that is a marketing word. It is not a term that is recognized by the FDA to have any meaning in terms of the efficacy of the product.

Rachael: It's still a cosmetic that cannot affect the structure-function of the skin legally. However, we start to see grey areas here when it comes to the claims where people start to say, “Okay, but it's tested by a doctor.” Even if they're not saying specifically that it's to prevent or treat a certain disease of the skin like acne, or like ocular rosacea, per se. If you had an eye product that first of all, if it's an eye product, then it implies that it's for use around the eyes. And one would think that some testing has been done for that. And then if you say-

Jennifer: So like an eye cream.

Rachael: Yes.

Jennifer: An actual…

Rachael: Or an eye gel or…

Jennifer: Okay.

Rachael: … something like that. And then it also says, “Ophthalmologist tested.” Well, that implies something very specific that is not quite for the purposes of cleansing or beautifying the eye area. Not always. It implies that there might be some sort of structure and function thing here.

Rachael: So that's where we get into this kind of shady area of labeling, where there's not always truthfulness. And I will say that the FTC and the FDA are starting to pay attention to these. So it's not something that I think is going to last forever. I think that people overall want more transparency. But that being said. To answer your question about specific ingredients that really should not be used around the eye. So first of all, you mentioned anything inside that orbital area, that orbital bone, which is, if we're tracing the eyebrow and just the top of the cheekbone, that kind of socket, that's that orbital area. Cosmetics, even eye products are not intended to be applied there. Even an eye cream is meant to be dotted just kind of along that orbital bone. It's not supposed to go inside that orbital bone.

Rachael: That's something we learned in aesthetic school, but it's not really something that you see in the usage instructions all the time on eye products. And I also do want to clarify that when it comes to color additives, so these are things that you would see in eye makeup. Anything that adds a pigment to a product, those are regulated differently by the FDA. They have a different set of rules for what types of testing they have to have. And I can tell you specifically that there are certain pigments, natural or not, that are not allowed to be used around the eye area. So if you do see something that says ophthalmologist tested or [inaudible 00:11:59] safe for the eye area on an eye product, that is a color cosmetic, or if it has a colorant in it, there is some regulation that's separate from typical cosmetic regulation that has to have happened.

Rachael: In terms of the testing for that. Unfortunately, it's still not as stringent and not as overseen as what we would want, but there is something to it. So definitely anything. If you were to buy an eye cream, even if it's something you buy at the store, I'm not even saying like at the farmer's market or something somebody made you and it has color in it. That's something that, for me, would be a red flag unless it is specifically something that they can verify that it has been tested. And it is labeled correctly in alignment with that color additive labeling. Essential oils are something that really are not meant to be around the eye area. And the reason for that is because they're a very, very small minute molecular size. They absorb into the skin very, very quickly to the point that I've had stories and I've experienced this myself that I will apply an essential oil, even diluted.

Rachael: I'm not even talking about straight, which, that's another conversation, but a properly diluted, essential oil. I would apply to the bottom of my foot, and I can taste it in my mouth seconds later. That is how fast they absorb into skin. They do have the ability to pass through the blood-brain barrier, many of them. So because of that, we really want to be careful because these essential oils are volatile compounds that also have the potential to cause serious sensitization, irritation, and the eye area, like you said, it's wide open. That epithelial tissue is just so delicate and so sensitive. Those oils wouldn't even have to [inaudible 00:14:03] in. Just having those fumes around the eye area could cause a lot of damage. So for that reason, many aromatherapists don't even advise using essential oils in facial skincare. And even if you do, you would have to use it at very specific dosage.

Jennifer: And Rachael, just so someone could find an essential… Does it have to say essential oil? So like calendula essential oil, or…

Rachael: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jennifer: What if it just says in the ingredients like calendula or rosemary? Well, usually it's rosemary extract. But like any type of plant material in a product, would that necessarily be coming from an essential oil, even though it's not. Maybe essential oil isn't in the name.

Rachael: That's a great, so this is another place where labeling gets a little funny because, in the United States, the type of labeling differs from in the other parts of the world. The best rule of thumb. So there's a couple of ways that botanicals show up on labels. You typically would see the Latin botanical, whether it's in parentheses, or you would see just the common… or you would see the Latin first and common name in parenthesis. But here in the United States, it's not always required. So if you see something that says lavender oil, that can mean a lot of things. It can mean lavender essential oil. It can mean a carrier oil that's been infused with lavender flowers, which is not going to be nearly as strong. It's still going to be aromatic, but it's not going to be as strong. That might be something that is safe to use around the eye, depending on the quantity used and how strong that extract is.

Rachael: It might be extract, which could be an oil extract. It could be a water infusion, an aqueous extract, which would be water that would also probably have some kind of preservative in it if it has water. And then it could also be some sort of an extract, like a glycerite where glycerin is used as a solvent or glycols, butylene glycols sometimes used as a solvent. It's always going to have to have a solvent to extract the nutrients out of the plant that you would want. And those are used at very small percentages. They vary, but typically your total amount of extract in a product is not going to be more than about 5%. So essential oils, though some of them have to be used at less than half a percent or even lower than that to be safe, even for dermal limits. So I would say it would be really important to know what kind of botanical ingredient that is.

Rachael: And sometimes, if it's not clear on the label, you do need to contact the seller of that product and say, “Hey, what's in this? What do you have here?” But I also want to say that it could be a synthetic fragrance. So if you see the word lavender fragrance or even lavender oil, it could be a synthetic lavender fragrance, which has possibly a thousand ingredients in there that you will never know what they are due to trade secret laws. And the fact that that would be a very long cosmetic label. But the problem is is that the majority of those ingredients, well, not the majority, but many of those ingredients that make up synthetic fragrances are known carcinogens, known endocrine disruptors, known as skin and eye irritants.

Rachael: And that's problematic. Many of them also are the synthetic counterparts to some of the natural volatile compounds that occur in essential oils. So any eye product at all, whether it's a color cosmetics and eye cream or medication, there should not be any fragrance in there whatsoever, whether it's natural or not, because that is something that's going to be extremely irritant. Synthetic fragrances are the number one cause of skin, eye, and respiratory irritant and allergic reactions.

Jennifer: Wow. Wow. That's a little alarming because now this is making me think too of these products that I see at maybe even whole foods or online where they look really green and clean.

Rachael: Yeah.

Jennifer: But if you don't know if they have safety testing and it may, like you said, just has ophthalmologist or dermatologist approved. What does that really mean? So would it be unreasonable for anyone listening here if they are using some sort of cream on their face and especially around the eyes to go back to the manufacturer, the company that they purchase it from, and ask that question? Is there any actual safety data on this, and how many… I mean, could I ask a company how many people was this tested on? I don't know if they'll tell me.

Rachael: You can try. I will say that if it's a big corporation, good luck with that. I mean, you'll be hard-pressed to even get someone on the phone that would even know how to answer that question. I will say that some of the bigger companies that do make these claims, obviously they have legal teams that are alerting them with these concerns [inaudible 00:19:13] to be compliant. Not all of them are compliant, but some of them are. And your big corporations, they have the money to invest in toxicology testing for things like ocular irritation, dermal sensitization, dermal irritation, [inaudible 00:19:30], what is it called corrosivity so basically-

Jennifer: Oh, goodness.

Rachael: … will eat away at your skin.

Jennifer: Wait, that's a thing?

Rachael: Sadly. And even if you think about, there are some ingredients that are too acidic or too alkaline for the skin that repeated use could technically cause chemical burns. So these are things that could be tested for, pH testing obviously is something that we can do really easily. But so, the large companies, they can afford this testing. If you're having your products mass produced by a cosmetic lab, they usually include some sort of that testing. Not all of the labs include toxicology testing. I will tell you that but just about any lab that you would work with would include at least microbe and stability testing. And I actually do want to talk about microbial testing because…

Jennifer: Let's do that because I think too, again, this is your brain, right. Your eyeball is part, I don't know, maybe doctors wouldn't, but that's what my dad always said he was really-

Rachael: Yeah.

Jennifer: … interested. He did a lot of research, and he did cataract surgery and glaucoma surgery, and all sorts of stuff. And he had said to me, always think of your eyeball as an extension of your brain. So what you put on or around your eye is going to end up on this very delicate tissue. So let's talk about that whole microbial component.

Rachael: Yeah. So cosmetics are not sterile. They are not pharmaceuticals. They are not sterile. They're not required to be created in a sterile environment. They should have a low microbe count. That's why, when we're using natural ingredients, you have food-grade ingredients that you might use [inaudible 00:21:17] products. And then you have cosmetic grade and many cosmetic ingredients, things like [inaudible 00:21:25] or honey that would typically have a high microbe count. They've been cleaned. They've had [inaudible 00:21:30] so that they are more appropriate for use in a cosmetic where it would have naturally a lower microbe count. So you're never going to get [inaudible 00:21:43] free cosmetic, whether it's synthetic or natural. That's not how they're made. I will say that we do know that products that are not adequately preserved if they contain water are known to cause pretty serious eye infections. Now, I've heard rumors, I've read rumors online that there've been cases of even blindness associated with infections caused by microbes and cosmetics. I have not…

Jennifer: That is a thing, by the way.

Rachael: Okay. Well…

Jennifer: I just know that from working in my dad's office years ago.

Rachael: Okay.

Jennifer: That is a thing for sure. You can definitely if you get certain infections and depending on how some people think, “Oh, well just use some like the eye drops” [crosstalk 00:22:30]-

Rachael: Visine.

Jennifer: Right. Visine or some other teardrop. And a lot of times too-

Rachael: Right.

Jennifer: … people only go to their primary care doctor, and they think it's just an irritation. And sometime… or they are given an antibiotic, but it's not the appropriate one for their particular issue.

Rachael: Right.

Jennifer: And the eye infection gets worse and worse. You can absolutely go blind, unfortunately.

Rachael: Yeah. So it is… Thank you for clarifying that because I actually, when I saw that I looked for studies about it. I was not able to find studies about it. But I mean, logically, if somebody has an infection that they continue putting the source of the infection, obviously it doesn't matter if you put an antibiotic, even if it's the right one if you continue to put the infection back in your eye. So you know I teach people how to make skincare, and I consult with brands. And many of my people don't like preservatives because there's been a lot of negativity and backlash about preservatives and a lot of misinformation. But the fact of the matter is if the water contain… if the water contains. If the product contains water, it absolutely must have a preservative because we need to inhibit the growth of gram-positive and gram-negative mold and yeast. Any and all of those can cause infections.

Rachael: And while we can say certain natural ingredients have maybe prebiotic benefits or this and that. And maybe there might be beneficial microbes growing in there. We can't really always predict what's going to happen when we put something in a bottle and close it up for a while. So it's really important that we adequately preserve any product containing water, whether it's synthetic or natural, there are now thankfully a lot of different ways we can do that. But I always tell people, and if you're using a product, even if it's a skincare product that was made professionally in a lab, if it's a big brand, if you're using it for a while, and even if the expiration date hasn't come up yet, and you start to get eye irritation, or you start to note, you get pink eye, or you get runny eyes, or discharge from your eyes, there's a very good chance that product has become contaminated and that your cosmetic is the source of that problem.

Rachael: So it's not always an improperly preserved product. Even properly preserved products can get contaminated from, unfortunately, end-user error. So I always recommend to customers, make sure you follow the instructions for usage and storage on any product that goes anywhere near the eyes. And then, if you are someone who has a skincare brand, make sure you're very clear on your usage instructions and storage instructions and thinking about your packaging. If it's something that's going to be used around the eye, maybe a jar that's constantly opened and closed where particles or moisture can get in might not be the best idea. You might want to consider something like an airless pump so that at least you can protect it from that type of contamination.

Rachael: So that's something that I really wanted to make sure people understood that it's not always the ingredients themselves, it's sometimes the product has either not been professionally preserved properly. It hasn't been tested adequately for preservation because, unfortunately, in the United States, it's not required. It's implied that a manufacturer or distributor of a skincare product a cosmetic they have to ensure the safety of their products. But they don't have to fill out a form or submit reports or anything like that. It's completely voluntary here in the United States at this time.

Jennifer: Yeah. And that was one reason why I actually chose to put the statement on the Quell Skincare that it's not meant for the eye use, because-

Rachael: That's smart.

Jennifer: … I knew that… I have a lot of folks in my community, and people do struggle with rashes around their eyes, all over the face and the ears, everywhere. And I wanted to make that clear. Obviously, I can't what someone chooses to do, but I have had people email me and ask my customer support. “Hey, I saw this statement, but I was wondering, is that like a hard no?” And I've had to come back with this, “Listen, I don't have any safety testing to back this up. And so from my perspective, no, it's not safe simply because I just don't know.” And that's being entirely transparent. So if you are using products around your eyes, so in the orbital area, even if it probably says ophthalmologist safe. You may want to go back to the company and actually check with them to find out if it's safe.

Jennifer: Have they tested it and ask some questions? Because at the end of the day, like I said, I just want everyone to be really careful in my experience from working for years with my dad and seeing especially women, it's mostly women where we're putting a lot of different things on our face at-

Rachael: Yeah.

Jennifer: … night, during the day, make up all sorts of stuff. You can end up with severe irritation. You can end up with infections. You can end up with all sorts of problems, and depending on what's going on and how severe it becomes. I just don't want to see anybody end up in some type of boat where whatever has transpired becomes permanent. Because I think I personally value sight, especially, having worked in a ophthalmologist office and getting to know people…

Rachael: Well, that's the thing. It's your eyes. If you-

Jennifer: It's your eyes.

Rachael: … screw up your eyes. You don't get another pair.

Jennifer: No, and there's no… that's why my dad always said, “Listen, I know it's the… we are where we are, but there's still a lot of things that we cannot fix. It's very delicate tissue. We are learning more, but we can replace the heart. We can do kidney transplants. We can do certain things with other organs, but the eyes are very delicate. You get one pair.” And I just don't want to see anybody end up in a serious situation that they're like, “Oh my gosh, I wish I knew.” So I thought this would be a great conversation to have here at the Healthy Skin Show. And Rachael, I really appreciate you being here and sharing this yet again because I know that you have so much knowledge and experience helping people. Not just on figuring out what may be their own personal skincare should be, but more so in working with brands that are looking for that type of expertise to help them sort through a lot of these concerns so that they really are doing their best and doing what's right by their customers.

Rachael: Absolutely.

Jennifer: And being really transparent.

Jennifer: So tell everyone how they can reach you. I mean, I know you've been on the show a ton, and everybody knows you already. But if someone is just tuning in for the first time, how can they find you?

Rachael: Well, my website is createyourskincare.com. So go there because I have hundreds and hundreds of blog posts that are all different skin wellness topics, whether it is kind of more the holistic skincare side of things or making skincare, where if you have a skincare business, I have some business and marketing tips there as well. I'm also on Instagram @rachaelpontillo and on Clubhouse @rachaelpontillo.

Jennifer: Well, thank you so much for being generous with your time. I deeply appreciate it, especially all of the wisdom and knowledge that you've imparted and shared with me because you've been a huge mentor for me. And especially in helping me actually create the Quell Skincare line. So if anybody's wondering how that happened, Rachael was a huge integral part of it. She knows a ton, and that's why we thought this conversation would be so, so vital to every single one of you because we want to protect your eyes and your skin.

Rachael: Yeah.

Jennifer: And make sure that you understand what you're purchasing and that certain labels might not be as regulated as you would think they are. So [crosstalk 00:30:33]-

Rachael: Yeah. And look, I don't want to be making anybody fearful. I mean, I really do think that most of the cosmetic companies out there have good intentions, and they are doing good things. But there are just some concerns, especially because we have a lot of new makers entering the market and new indie brands making the market that might not have the funding for some of these bigger tests.

Jennifer: Yeah.

Rachael: So yeah.

Jennifer: Perfectly stated, Rachael. I appreciate it. And I hope to have you back sometime. Thank you so much.

Rachael: Would love to.

Jennifer: Thank you so much-

Rachael: Thank you.

Jennifer: … for being here.

“Synthetic fragrances are the number one cause of skin, eye, and respiratory irritant and allergic reactions.”

Jennifer Fugo, MS, CNS

Jennifer Fugo, MS, CNS is an integrative Clinical Nutritionist and the founder of Skinterrupt. She works with women who are fed up with chronic gut and skin rash issues discover the root causes and create a plan to get them back to a fuller, richer life.

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