As promised, here are the cosmetic ingredients that can do more damage than they work on your skin.
I don’t claim to be an aesthetician or a dermatologist, and my skin is a million light years away from flawless, but this is just me going rigorous lengths to dig deep on what’s really going into my own skin, and I know that the things I’ve learned will be useful for you too.
Rule of thumb
As you may already know, I’ve set myself a rule over the past year or so that as long as any of the 9 ingredients below are listed as the first 5 ingredients on a product, I will not buy it. As you will learn in this post, the presence of them alone is harmful enough, much less if they’re the most concentrated ingredient in a product.
So why, then, do I still allow more room and not go completely 100% chemical-free? 2 simple reasons: 1) It’s difficult/expensive to find 100% certified-organic skincare lines in the Big Durian, and 2) These ingredients are everywhere, it’s frankly quite impossible to avoid them altogether.
Another before we jump in to the ingredients: A lot of people have been telling me that I write a bit too expansively for a single post on the blog, and fact is, not everyone will read everything, mostly because the human attention span is getting shorter by the minute.
Well, in this case, I don’t want you to just jot down the names of these harmful substances lurking within the stuff you use everyday – I want you to understand why they’re harmful in the first place, so that when you do talk about it and verbally share the information with others, you’ll be able to answer their questions and tell them your personal experience after actually avoiding these ingredients yourself.
Without further ado, here are the toxic stuff you might want to avoid before making a purchase:
These are the most widespread preservatives in skincare products1. Fact is, they easily penetrate your skin and throughout your body,2 and what makes it worse is that it’s one serious endocrine disruptor and highly linked with breast cancer. Let me repurpose the section on parabens from my review of Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Formula Gentle Exfoliating Facial Scrub:
Parabens are inexpensive preservatives widespread across cosmetic products, and their main job is to prevent bacteria growth during storage. It’s effective to prevent microbes from growing on the tubes, especially when you keep your products in moist, warm environments. Three most common types of parabens that keep appearing on the ingredients label of your products are butylparaben, propylparaben, and methylparaben, three of which are present in this exfoliator.
Since the early ’90s, researchers have speculated that parabens might be a culprit to the global rising rates of women developing breast cancer. Parabens mimic estrogen when in contact with the human body, and this effect disrupts the natural levels of the female hormone, a symptom linked to reproductive concerns and developmental defects.
In the scientific literature, long-term estrogen exposure has been linked to breast cancer development for decades. University of Reading researcher Philippa Darbre, Ph.D, made quite a stir in the beauty industry when one of her studies discovered that parabens are ubiquitous in malignant breast tumors. In response, cosmetic manufacturers start reproducing (and repackaging) their products and labelled them “paraben-free” due to consumers’ concern.
But the fact remains that Darbre’s study did not prove any causal effect of parabens on breast tumors, as she didn’t have samples of paraben levels in noncancerous tissue. It was merely shown that 19 out of 20 biopsies from breast tumors contain parabens.
Though researchers are still unsure whether the human skin can absorb and eventually store these chemicals through topical contact, plenty other contradicting studies found that parabens do mimic estrogen, but does so weakly.
For this reason, I understand that we can’t quickly assume it has a direct effect on health problems, but still, what gets absorbed through your skin gets absorbed through the body and can affect your internal system. The European Union has taken action to restrict the concentration of parabens in cosmetics last year, and hopefully, others will see this it as a golden standard in the international beauty industry.
These are synthetics that exist in virtually everything soft and flexible, from toys to leather goods to plastic bags. The usuals suspects in cosmetics are dibutyl phthalate, diethyl phthalate, and dimethyl phthalate, and they’re potentially toxic for developmental and reproductive growth in both male and female. Though phthalates don’t mimic estrogen activity, they’re very much like parabens in the way they disrupt the endocrine system, causing developmental defects (think abnormal testes and prostate, reduced sperm count, early puberty in girls, etc), hormonal imbalances, and associated with male infertility as well as an increased risk of breast cancer. To learn more, here’s a more comprehensive report on the toxicity of dibutyl phthalate, the most common type in nail polish, from the European Chemicals Agency.
The European Union has already banned all phthlates in children’s toys as well as in cosmetics (except diethyl phthalate, which has been assessed twice). However, Health Canada has only banned 6 phthalates in soft vinyl toys and other childcare articles, and not yet in cosmetics. Moreover, not every cosmetic company discloses the presence of these toxicants in their products, as most of them are hidden under the fragrances/parfum ingredient. This is why it’s wise to avoid the artificial fragrances entirely …
As long as this ingredient is on your product, you’ll never truly know what you’re putting on your skin. It’s often a mask of some hundreds and thousands of synthetic chemicals that are kept secret due to trade laws.
According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics database, these concoctions of chemical mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, conditions surrounding the respiratory system (think coughing, vomiting, and asthma), and potentially ones that distress the reproductive system. Most of these synthetics, such as the phthalates, poses a wide variety of health hazards on humans as well as the environment, and they’re notoriously neurotoxic (bad for the brain) and even carcinogenic (causes cancer), and worst of all, even products labelled as “unscented” or “fragrance-free” sometimes still contain the fragrance/parfum ingredient.
4. Polyethylene glycol (PEGs)
A petrolium derivative, PEGs are ubiquitous in cream-based cosmetic products and are used as thickeners, solvents, and softeners. It’s best to avoid these compounds as we don’t know from just skimming through the label whether they still contain ethylene oxide and/or 1,4-dioxane from the manufacturing process, a known carcinogenic contaminant and a possible human carcinogen respectively. Ethylene oxide is neurotoxic and officially a developmental toxicant (harmful for human development). Also, 1,4-dioxane is quite persistent – 46 out of 100 uncertified organic products analyzed in this study still contains the contaminant in them.
High concentrations of the PEG compounds themselves are also shown to be genotoxic (damaging DNA cells, causing cell mutation, may lead to cancer), and what’s worse: Because PEGs are used to increase permeability of your skin, the contaminants and harmful molecules of these PEG compounds can penetrate easily and are greatly absorbed through the skin.
5. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) + Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
This is the stuff that makes your soaps, cleansers, shampoos and shower gels really foamy and cause redness to severe irritation when they’re near your eyes (AND skin, lungs, liver, brain, and heart). Sulfates in general denatures proteins in cell membranes (learn more about the denaturation process), including the skin-firming collagen and the protective keratin, and this may lead to premature aging of the skin. SLS, also a comedogenic ingredient, is present in 90% of personal care products, and just like the PEGs, the major concern surrounding SLS is whether the carcinogenic contaminants ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane are still present. Have the 2 ingredients in one product, and in the long run it’s so easy for them to damage your nervous system altogether.
6. Diethanolamine (DEA) + Monoethanolamine (MEA) + Triethanolamine (TEA)
These pH-adjusting compounds are usually found in cleansers, moisturizers, and sunscreens as a thick, creamy, emulsifying agent. But what companies won’t tell you is that they’re very likely to cause dermatitis upon contact on your already allergic skin, as well as reacting with nitrites in the product (if any) to form nitrosamines – substances that the IARC classifies as possible human carcinogen.
Just inhaling it can irritate the nose and throat (and it smells like ammonia) – imagine what it does to your skin when you apply it topically. Dr. Samuel Epstein of University of Illinois also said that with repeated applications of DEA-based detergents, there’s a major increase in incidence of liver and kidney cancer3, and with increased exposure to these chemicals (for up to 14-weeks), lab rats develop liver cancer, and the skin and thyroid of these rats experienced changes that are conducive to cancer.
7. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) + butylated hydroxytoluene) BHT
These synthetic preservatives are normally found in moisturizers and lipsticks, and I guarantee you’ll find both or either one of them in a regular bag of chips as well. They may induce drying skin and allergic reactions (rashes and stuff), and, like SLS and parabens, may have estrogenic effects. Avoiding foods containing BHA and BHT has been shown to reduce skin rashes in patients suffering from chronic urticaria, and high concentration BHA in foods, already reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen, has been shown to cause a slight increase in stomach cancer risk. On the other hand, long-term exposure of BHT, also noted as a tumor promoter, causes liver, thyroid, and kidney problems ((EPA report.)). Because BHA and BHT are like PEGs in the way that they increase permeability of the skin, it becomes easier for these carcinogenic compounds to enter your bloodstream. To learn more about the butylated compounds, see the whole truth from Truth in Aging.
In the U.S., the state of California has required manufacturers to include warning labels on their products that contain BHA to note consumers that the ingredient may cause cancer. In Europe, however, BHA is absolutely prohibited as a fragrance ingredient in cosmetics.
8. Propylene glycol
I briefly mentioned about this synthetic liquid4 when I did my review on Kiehl’s Rare Earth Deep Pore Cleansing Masque (it’s not in the product!). It’s basically a skin-conditioning agent that absorbs water (it’s hygroscopic), and cosmetic companies tend to use it as a base for their products so that your skin is adapted to retain moisture.
Though labelled as “generally safe”5, those with sensitive skin might want to watch out for it – propylene glycol has been associated with causing dermatitis (conditions such as burning, rashes, eczema, and other types of inflammation). This reaction show up even in concentrations of the liquid that are as low as 2%, making it a potential irritant and allergen for those who are already suffering from inflammation of the skin.
They usually end with “anol”, namely: benzyl alcohol/benzanol, isopropyl alcohol/isopropanol, methyl alcohol/methanol, butyl alcohol/butanol, ethyl alcohol/ethanol. Manufacturers mainly use alcohols as a solvent and vehicle for other ingredients in the product to penetrate faster into your skin. However, the fluid is also a dehydrator (ever feel like you wanna drink more even when you’re already wasted?).
It basically strips the skin off its moisture and breaking the skin’s natural protective barrier (think lipids, enzymes, antioxidants), making you more susceptible to molds, viruses, and bacteria, and eventually causing premature aging of the skin. Once absorbed through the bloodstream, alcohols can be toxic for the kidneys, the brain, as well as the entire respiratory system, potentially causing headaches, flushing, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, depression, narcosis, anesthesia, and coma6. I mean, just 3% alcohol increases cell death by 26% within 2 days! Imagine how dull your complexion can get if you continue to use products with ethanol for the rest of your life, because generally, skincare products contain amounts ranging from 5% to 60%.
Despite all the damage, there is one type of alcohol that is actually good for dry skin – the cetyl alcohol, sometimes enlisted as the stearyl alcohol. It’s a type of fatty alcohol that doesn’t irritate and are normally used as emollients and thickeners in skincare products.
Not all natural skincare lines are free from these ingredients, and certainly not all the products that have worked for me are free from them, not even those from all 9 of my trusted brands (Balance Me and Estelle & Thild are your best bet). But I think every woman deserves the right to know the hundreds of chemicals they’re putting on themselves everyday and if possible, avoid them all entirely.
The average woman uses 10 beauty products a day, exposing her to 126 chemicals, many of which are linked to health risks such as diabetes, cancer, or reproductive harm, said Campaign for Safe Cosmetics director Lisa Archer to Everyday Health. My hope is for you to bring awareness to your health and, if you haven’t already, start checking the product labels before you regret buying something you will regret.
Over to you: Are you ready to make a commitment and limit your exposure to these harmful chemicals?
- An estimated range of 75% to 90% of cosmetics contain parabens, according to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winter, M.S. [↩]
- See summary of the chemicals from CDC. [↩]
- Health Report. [↩]
- Here’s a profile of the substance courtesy of ATSDR. [↩]
- FDA said so. [↩]
- According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients. [↩]