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Once you know the ugly truth behind the ingredients of beauty products, you will put back most of them on the shelves right after reading the ingredient list. Let’s see what you should avoid by all means!
The first thing you will notice after reading a few ingredient lists, is that the promoted ingredient, that has a picture and big capitals on the packaging, is usually listed last, if listed at all. In some cases you will only find it in the form of a synthetic fragrance, right after components that you can’t even pronounce.
Before learning more about the ingredients, you should know upfront, that this is a very controversial topic, with lots of debates. Tons of beauty bloggers youtubers and NGO-s are discussing the problem, and sometimes even they will provide contradictory information. This is a common problem in ecological and health conscious decision making, and as always, the Precautionary Principle can help navigating through the jungle of scientific research. When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm to human health or to the environment that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm. In other words: "if in doubt, do without". In terms of your health, it is better to be safe than sorry!
As most beauty products claim to be moisturizing, they contain something that is either a humectant or an occlusive agent. A humectant is an ingredient that draws water molecules out of its environment towards itself: from the dermis or from the air into the epidermis. They typically use glycerine for this purpose, which is great in small quantities, but using it in big proportions can lead to the opposite effect, so watch out if there is more than 5-8% in an emulsion. Occlusive agents are the ingredients in skincare that form a film on the skin and prevent water loss through the skin. Why? Because the hydrolipidic layer of the skin can get thinner due to stress, environmental and other impacts, and this layer has to be substituted. 95% of cosmetics use mineral oil (Paraffinum Liquidum), a derivative of crude oil for this purpose. A best case scenario would be using natural oils, but those are more expensive than mineral oil. When using cosmetic products, the skin detects the oil, and reduces its natural sebum production. If used regularly this causes an addiction to mineral oil, because the skin stops restructuring the lipid layer. Mineral oil has large molecules which are unable to penetrate the skin, therefore it acts a non-absorbent oily film, said to 'lock in moisture'. Initially, the skin will feel smooth, as you might expect. However, this layer of mineral oil smothers your skin like cling film, preventing it from breathing naturally. This in turn enables sweat and bacteria to become trapped beneath the layer of oil, causing irritation or acne for a lot of people.
Body or facial scrubs and exfoliating shower gels are very popular nowadays to remove dead skin cells from the skin. But would you use them if you knew that they contain plastic microbeads? Microbeads are microscopic plastic particles used in exfoliants, age-defying makeup and even in toothpastes. They are way cheaper than natural exfoliants and they are less effective so you can use them every day, which means you will buy more. The problem is that they go down the drain, and they are so small that most water treatment plants can’t capture them. These tiny bits of plastics act like sponges soaking up the toxics around them. Microbeads get into the natural waters, where they get eaten by fish, which eventually we will eat.
Triclosan is an antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and preservative compound that harms your health even in small quantities which is why it is banned in the EU to use in food contact materials. However it is still common in personal hygiene products such as antibacterial soaps, deodorants, foot care products, and even toothpastes. It is shocking how widely used it is by popular toothpaste and mouthwash brands, because washing your teeth with it can kill good bacteria in the mouth and in the gut. Its common usage can help the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, it can irritate the lungs, eyes and skin, and disrupt the endocrine system. Some research says it promotes liver damage, developmental and reproductive abnormalities, and even cancer. Japan and Canada have already banned triclosan in consumer products, and the EU has classified it as a dangerous irritant that persists in the environment.
Parabens are widely used preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria, mold and yeast in cosmetic products. Which sounds great, but they do more than that. Parabens possess estrogen-mimicking properties. These chemicals are absorbed through the skin and have been identified in biopsy samples from breast tumors. They can lead to early puberty and decreased sperm levels. They can be found in makeup, body washes, deodorants, shampoos and facial cleansers. Some European countries are initiating bans, and certain producers voluntarily stopped using them, but until there is no complete prohibition many manufacturers still use it, even in baby products.
Phthalates are plasticizers banned in the EU to use in children’s toys, but present in many fragrances, perfumes, deodorants, lotions, nail polishes and hair sprays. They are linked to endocrine disruption, early breast development in girls, reproductive birth defects in males and females, liver/kidney/lung damage, and cancer. Even worse, they are commonly hidden on ingredient labels under the term “fragrance”, so it is very hard to spot them out. Researchers report an association between phthalate exposure and asthma and allergic disease in children.
Most commonly used detergents in foaming toiletries such as shower gels, shampoos and toothpastes are Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES). SLS is commonly used to make products foam and bubble, but it is a well-known irritant, so much that researchers use it to cause irritation to test anti-inflammatory compounds. Washes containing SLS are cleaning too intensely, and they solve the natural protective barrier of the skin. It can cause damage to the outer layer of skin by disrupting the function of skin proteins and causing itchy, cracked, and dry skin. In shampoos, this ingredient can increase risk of scalp irritation, stinging eyes, and tangled, split, frizzy, and dull hair. Research says it tends to damage the hair follicles by depositing on their surface, and it produces significant number of comedones (blackheads and whiteheads) on the skin. Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) is a very similar compound, but said to be more gentle and less irritant, so it becomes more and more common substituting SLS. However how they process it makes it even worse than SLS. To make it less irritating, manufacturers put it through a process called ethoxylation. Essentially, this means that they add ethylene oxide, a toxic, flammable, highly reactive gas to the mixture to modify the chemical compound. This results in a gentler surfactant, but there is a price. The problem is that ethoxylation produces a chemical called 1,4-dioxane as a byproduct. 1,4-dioxane is a known cancer causing agent that harms the airways, the kidney, and the nervous system, and it is a leading groundwater contaminant, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Adding ethylene oxide to make an ingredient milder is a cheap short cut used by companies to avoid paying for more natural, nourishing ingredients.
Emulsifiers help mixing the water and the oil phase in cosmetics to create emulsions. Polyethylene glycols (PEGs) are doing that, and they also act as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture carriers. They are often contaminated with the afore-mentioned 1,4 dioxane, and as they have penetration enhancer qualities, they even help the absorption of the harmful compound. While carcinogenic contaminants are the primary concern, PEG compounds themselves show some evidence of genotoxicity and if used on broken skin can cause irritation and systemic toxicity. Propylene glycol is a related chemical that, like PEGs, functions as a penetration enhancer and can allow harmful ingredients to be absorbed more readily through the skin. It can also cause allergic reactions.
It is important to note that while these harmful chemicals are cheaper than natural ingredients, most of the saved money lands in the hands of the producers, not the consumer. This is the reason why homemade cosmetic products are almost as cheap or cheaper than the synthetic ones. Our next article will explore all the natural and effective ingredients, so you will know what to choose when browsing in the store, or making your own healthy and eco-friendly beauty products.