Before looking in more detail at what people formerly used for skin health, it would be good to examine sound versus unsound principles of skin care and why many ingredients of commercial skin care products, including those found in health food stores, can be harmful.
Regarding the principles of what we should put on our skin, common sense and reason can aid us in discovering where to look and where not to look. Never mind that modern-day conventional thinking considers this way of proceeding as "unscientific". In reality, right reason and true science never contradict but rather support each other.
We know that the skin is the largest organ of the body and readily absorbs much of what is applied to it, good and bad. (That is why so many drugs can be administered through the use of transdermal patches.) Therefore, it is an excellent principle and wise precaution not to apply substances to our skin that we would not readily take internally or, in a word, eat. It would be ideal if what we used on our skin were edible, and yet more, a whole food, in which case it would also have the potential of actually nourishing the skin and helping it to heal itself.
Another sound principle of health is to give the body what it needs to maintain and heal itself, since only the body itself can do that job. The modern mentality often seeks to improve on nature or even to supplant nature, which is impossible to do as well as presumptuous and foolhardy to attempt. In the case of skin care, this mentality seeks to manipulate the chemistry of the skin to produce relief or enhancement. It seems logical that such an approach would likely only produce short-term results, if any, and, what is worse, could result in toxicity with possible long-term negative effects on the skin and on the health of the whole body. Therefore, it is no wonder that modern skin care products have to be re-applied, possibly more and more frequently, to maintain their effect, and we can never know all the other harmful effects that their unnatural ingredients may be having on our health.
But what are "unnatural" ingredients? Again, reason comes to our rescue. Ultimately and in the beginning, everything comes from nature, even the most unnatural substances, which is why the word "natural" is one of the most overused and abused of words. The further removed a substance is from its original and native form, the more unnatural it is. The more a substance from nature is manipulated, modified, and refined, the more it should probably be avoided. This is where reading the ingredients on labels becomes important, even on products in the health food store.
Keep in mind that not all ingredients are necessarily disclosed on the label, and the chemical processes used to produce these ingredients are certainly not disclosed there. And such processes certainly leave residues, which are also not shown on the label. In the practical order, however, what is actually printed on the label is often all you need to know. In other words, if it sounds like a chemical, it is a chemical. It does not matter if it is claimed to be "plant-derived". If it has a chemical name and not the name of something in nature, it must already be too far removed from its original and native source to be healthful. We know that plant substances that are extracted and isolated (and, worse, synthesized) can be toxic whereas the original plant was not. After all, many pharmaceutical drugs, by definition toxic, were derived from plants.
Also keep in mind that just because a chemical has not yet been shown to be toxic does not necessarily mean that it is not. How often do we later hear of toxic effects that were previously unknown or even concealed? Furthermore, chemicals are never tested for their interactions with all the other chemicals around; that would be an impossible task.
Based on the above principles, it would seem superfluous as well as overwhelming to examine the substances that are actually found in many commercial products. Nevertheless, we should take a brief look at some of these ingredients. Again, remember that just because a man-made ingredient is not yet on someone's list of health-damaging substances does not mean that it is safe. And, as we will see, just because a product is in the health food store or even labeled "organic" does not mean that it has no chemical ingredients, even ones already known to be harmful.