It’s all in the labelThere is really only one reliable way to see if the product claims in bold or even gold-foiled letters on the beautiful skincare packaging can come true – it’s to read the product label.
It’s a common habit that when buying a product you look at the front of the product packaging. Now let’s change this habit and go straight to the ingredient list (also called INCI list) – which every manufacturer is legally required to provide with every product they sell. It is located either on the product itself or next to it (for example, inside the product box).
The ingredients listed on the packaging in most cases look like words just fell out of a chemistry encyclopedia – which can be quite intimidating. Don’t worry: skincare products typically use common ingredients and once you know a few of them it will be easier to scan the label. There are also plenty of helpful online resources, such as https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ and https://www.cosmeticsinfo.org/, where you can look up cosmetic ingredients and get them explained. If you are a nerd like me, you might even find it fun!
The good guys
Some natural skincare manufacturers boldly state that if you can’t pronounce the ingredient name, avoid it. Well, that is simply misleading as most words on the product ingredients list (INCI) are hard to say as they are written in their scientific names.
Here is a list of 5 commonly used ingredients from cosmetic labels that are really good for your skin:
Tocopherol, commonly known as Vitamin EWhat it does: One of the most well-known antioxidants (keeps skin younger for longer) for the body and for skin. Vitamin E occurs naturally in human skin, but sun radiation reduces its amount over time. Nearly all skincare products with oils would have Vitamin E as it prevents oils from going rancid.
Carrageenan, commonly known as seaweed gumWhat it does: Naturally occurring starch-like ingredient extracted from red seaweed. Used to thicken solutions and to create gel-like textures.
Niacinamide, commonly known as Vitamin B3
What it does: Niacinamide is a very effective skin-restoring ingredient great for aging and blemish-prone skin. One of the best skincare ingredients.
Coco-glucoside, a common natural cleansing agent
What it does: Mild plant-based cleansing agent extracted from coconut and glucose. Used in face washes and shampoos.
Illite, a common type of clay
What it does: Mineral-sourced natural thickener that has a strong ability to calm irritated skin and is great in masks.
The bad guys
And here are 5 commonly used cosmetic ingredients that you should keep away from your skin and hair:
Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS)
Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) is one of the most common ingredients used in skin care (especially in shampoos, body and hand washes) as it is one of the cheapest and strongest surfactants. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most irritating/sensitising. SLS is even used as a benchmark substance for measuring the skin sensitisation of other ingredients. Critical amounts considered irritating for most people are concentrations of 2% to 5%, so if you see this ingredient listed closer to the start of the ingredient list, it is likely to be in high enough percentages to be possibly irritating.
Despite much online information about SLS possibly leading to cancer, this rumour has not been supported by facts – read here for more information.
Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) has an ability to remove stratum corneum (the top layer of the skin) lipids meaning it penetrates the skin deeper into the viable layers.
Polyethylene glycols (PEGs) or Polysorbates
Easy to spot on a label, polyethylene glycols (PEGs) are usually listed as ingredients starting with PEG, for example PEG-100 Stearate, PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil. But often they are also “hidden” as Polysorbates, for example, Polysorbate 20 or Polysorbate 80 etc, where the number indicates how many PEG molecules it contains.
What are PEGs? Polyethylene glycols are petroleum-based ingredients and have many functions in cosmetics, including surfactants, binding agents, stabilizers and emollients. Commonly used PEGs are the thickening and emulsifying agent PEG-100 Stearate or PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, which works as an emollients or binding agent.
The key concern about PEGs is that they have a high risk of being contaminated with potentially toxic impurities such as 1,4-dioxane. 1,4-dioxane is a highly hazardous cancerogen (a chemical causing the development or increasing the incidence of cancer), which according to EWG/Skindeep is present in around 46% of all cosmetic products. Exposures to this impurity are linked to tumours of the liver, gallbladder, nasal cavity, lung, skin, and breast. Presence of 1,4-dioxane in cosmetics is of special concern, since it can be absorbed through the skin in toxic amounts. This hazardous substance may also be irritating to eyes, skin and respiratory organs. Read more about 1,4-dioxane here.
Given such a toxic nature of 1,4-dioxane, it is safer to avoid PEGs/Polysorbates altogether.
Parabens are preservatives, widely used in food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical manufacturing. The common parabens are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, heptylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben and benzylparaben. As you can see, all parabens end with -paraben.
The problem with parabens is that they mimic estrogen, the primary female reproductive hormone, and can disrupt our hormone (endocrine) system, potentially leading to female reproductive health problems.
Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) are common preservatives found in cosmetics, usually in lotions, creams, hair conditioners, shampoos, deodorants and make up products.
FRPs can be found in ingredient listings as Formaldehyde, Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Diazolidinyl urea, Polyoxymethylene urea, Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) and glyoxal.
Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas and the mentioned formaldehyde-releasing preservatives release small amounts of formaldehyde over time. EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database ranks formaldehyde at level 10, the highest level of toxicity. The reasons: formaldehyde is considered a known human carcinogen and has been linked to leukemia.
In skincare products formaldehyde can cause skin reactions and rashes in some people, especially those with formaldehyde sensitivities (around 11% of the population). Formaldehyde sensitivity may also develop over time from repeated low-level exposures to formaldehyde.
Amazing scents can be uplifting, refreshing, sensual and calming. These fantastic scents are also very often the main reason why a cosmetic product is purchased. However, often the chemicals creating the aroma are often listed as simply ‘fragrance’, ‘aroma’ or ‘parfum’. Unfortunately many fragrances, natural and synthetic alike, can be allergens and may cause skin irritation. Certain aromatic chemicals may also cause skin discoloration when exposed to sunlight.
Instead of risking an allergic reaction or a headache, opt for skincare products that are lightly scented with natural and gentle essential oils.
And finally, a small piece of advice – if you shop online and you can’t find the full – aka “chemistry encyclopedia” style – ingredients list, handle this product with caution.
Love, Aly XO