Top Ten Cosmetic Ingredients To Avoid – How To Read Cosmetic Labels!

Clinical Herbalist Reviewed on January 20, 2010 by Paulina Nelega, RH
Posted in Blog

I want to be beautiful, sexy, clean, fresh, gorgeous… just like all the rest of us! I am a self-professed product junkie, and my products have to not only be effective and deliver results, but look hot in my bathroom too. I am dedicated to making the very best out of what Mother Nature has given me, by taking great care of my body inside and out – with the most finely crafted and indulgent personal care created. What really gets me excited are the new naturally-derived alternatives to conventional personal care products, most of all because ourselves react so well to them!

4 Step Beautiful Skin Ritual

At home, I invest a few minutes every morning and night to pamper myself. I incorporate the 4 golden rules of skincare: cleanse, tone, moisturize and protect with a natural sunscreen, my customized beauty ritual designed by moi! I exfoliate my body every day with a dry brush, and apply a nourishing body butter to keep my skin supple and smooth. Bonus: the extra massage and attention boosts my circulation, helping me keep bumps and jiggly bits at bay… My haircare is just as seriously luxe: shampooing and conditioning with essential oil infused products – they bring my mood up as high as the shine it imparts! And my final touch is very persona:: my all-natural wildly seductive organic fragrance, which blends with my natural chemistry to create a sent that is scentually all my own. I’m a wild flower, not a wall flower!

Shopping for all natural beauty is simple, and I take it seriously! I look for brands that not only use natural and organic ingredients as much as possible, but fabulously attractive packaging – and most importantly, effectiveness. And I read my labels!

Conventional products are manufactured with cheap synthetic ingredients, which in the short-term can deliver some surface results, but in the long-term can cause and aggravate conditions like rashes, acne, dry skin, eczema, and sometimes even illness. And pregnant mommies beware: conventional chemicals can not only penetrate your body, but your baby’s as well! Check out what my friend Robin has to say about that.

Natural products, on the other well-manicured hand, not only deliver often immediate results but long-term treatment as well. Add to that the obvious environmental impact our eco-luxe picks have on our Earth (no chemical waste, no animal testing, recycled and biodegradable/compostable packaging), and we feel great inside: we smile, and we’re even more gorgeous.

It is estimated that humans absorb up to 60% of what we put on our skin. We literally are what we eat! The Environmental Working Group (a consumer watch-dog agency) notes that on average, adults apply 126 unique ingredients on their skin daily and nearly 90% of personal care product ingredients have not been evaluated for safety by any publicly accountable institution.

To illustrate my point, I’ve compiled a list of top ten ingredients that none of us ever want in our products, and their 10 amazing alternatives. I rest my case!

Top Ten Cosmetic Ingredients To Avoid, And Their Alternatives!

1. SODIUM LAURYL/LAURETH SULFATE: One of the first ingredients to make nono news, this chemical is used in the auto industry as an engine degreaser. Derived from petroleum (more on that below), and frequently disguised in pseudo-natural cosmetics with the phrase “comes from/derived from Coconuts”, it can cause eye and skin irritation, skin flaking similar to dandruff and other allergic reactions. In cosmetics, it’s used to make big bubbles: shampoo, soaps, toothpaste, bubble bath, hand soaps and body washes are the typical forms. And it can combine with other ingredients in packaging to form nitrosamines, which is released into the product (translation: formaldehyde!).


Alternative: My favourite alternative to this nasty are glucosides: naturally-derived surfectants from sugar. They are safe and highly effective, and while the bubbles are way smaller, they are super effective at removing surface oils without leaving behind residue.

2. PROPYLENE GLYCOL: The main ingredient in anti-freeze, since it creates a slippery feeling – hence its use in cosmetics to give a velvety, hydrated feeling to the skin. Often listed as PEG (polyethylene glycol) or PPG (polypropylene glycol) . It is a known neurotoxin (gasp!) and can cause contact dermatitis, skin rashes, drying skin. It also penetrates below the surface, so it can deliver other nasties to deeper into the skin and into the bloodstream.

Alternative: Since we all want super velvety soft, hydrated skin, we look to natural oils to bring moisture and protect. Vegetable glycerin, jojoba oil, and nut oils like coconut and hazelnut are superb bases for the good lube.

3. ARTIFICIAL COLORS AND FRAGRANCES: Also listed as FD&C; colors / fragrances. Coal Tar by-products, sold on the cheap to manufacturers to mimic naturally occurring colors and scents. Have been known to cause contact dermatitis, allergic reactions, asthma, and even cancer in young children, totally not good in our books! That hot new fragrance could very well make your man sweat, all right – with an allergic reaction.

Alternative: Pure essential oils derived from plants and flowers, vegetable/fruit pigments and earth minerals make the best fragrances and colors: vibrant, headily sensual, and totally non-toxic. Bonus: natural fragrances have the added aromatherapeutic benefit of being mood altering (hello, love potions!), and mineral pigments can offer natural SPF protection.

4. STERALKONIUM CHLORIDE: Used as a fabric softener in the clothing industry, and found in hair care like conditioners to impart a soft feeling. Long term usage can make hair extremely dull, dry and life-less, totally the opposite of what it’s used for in the short term! Not to mention conditions like dandruff and contact dermatitis. Again, not sexy.

Alternative: Natural softeners and defrizzers like avocado and shea butter add immense moisture, and shine, without weighing hair down. Hair is unbelievably bouncy babysitter-ish, and c’mon, don’t we all want that?

5. PTHALATES: Used to soften plastics and create fragrances. These difficult to pronounce chemicals are toxic and regulated under environmental law. They interfere with the male reproductive organs by blocking androgens – male hormones – and are known to damage sperm, reduce fertility, and are especially dangerous to developing fetuses. Pregnant women should avoid dibutyl phthalate in nail polish. Phthalates are frequently components of fragrance, which often contain dozens of chemicals – the entire mixture simply appears as “fragrance” on the ingredient list. So reading labels cannot assure there are no phthalates in a product.Often listed as: Fra
grance, Dibutyl Phthalate(s), Diethyl Phthalate, 1,2-Benzenedicaroxylic Acid, Dibutyl Ester, Dibutyl 1,2-Benzenedicarboxylate, Dibutyl Ester1,2- Benzenedicaroxylic Acid, DBP, and DI-N-Butylphthalate. Pthalates have been banned across Europe, and some large American manufacturers have recently removed the chemical from their nailpolishes.

Alternative: When it comes to fragrances, we know we love the essentials: the oils and infusions provided by Mother Nature herself, using pure, unadulterated scents created with only natural oils guarantees us a phthalate free product. And while it’s not possible to create a completely chemical-free nail polish, we love a good brand that uses water-based technology instead of plastics. The polish doesn’t last as long, but then it gives us yet another excuse to go get manicured!

6. PETROLEUM BY-PRODUCTS: Also known as petroleum jelly, petrolatum, liquid paraffin, mineral oil. It’s another super cheap by-product of an industry – this time oil – used in cosmetics because it gives a feeling of moisture. The truth is that petroleum by-products can interfere with the body’s own natural moisturizing mechanism, creating dry skin and chapping, which of course makes the consumer want to use more product! More product, more dryness… What a vicious circle.

Alternative: Natural waxes like beeswax combine with soothing oils like sweet almond oil, and can create a “jelly” similar to petroleum; as well, the combination can blend to create amazingly nourishing lotions and butters. The difference from its chemical counterpart: truly smoothed, healed skin. We mentioned we’re really well-manicured, right? Right.

7. HYDROQUINONE SKIN LIGHTENER: A skin bleaching chemical that can cause mercury poisoning, adrenal gland problems, and ochronosis: a disfiguring and irreversible skin disease. Also listed as: 1,4-Benzenediol, 1,4-Dihydroxybenzene, P-Dioxybenzene, 4-Hydroxyphenol, and, P-Hydroxyphenol. It can be found in some skin lighteners. Also potentially dangerous to the liver. Hmmm… Sounds like it makes a serious mountain out of a little brown spot, to me.

Alternative: Vitamins A and C, Kojic-acid from rice wine production, and Turmeric are all potent scar and age-spot lighteners. We also love rose hip seed oil, for its ability to assist in skin cell turnover. They may take a little longer to work, but they are incredibly effective AND gentle. Just make sure the turmeric is a color–ess form, otherwise you’ll be orange!

8. PARABENS AND FORMALDEHYDE: Are widely used preservatives in cosmetics, used to inhibit bacteria growth in a product. They can be found in the form of methylparaben , ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, benzylparaben and their sodium salts. They are potential allergens, creating skin irritations and contact dermatitis, and are considered to be hormone-disrupting and estrogenic (they were linked in a small study to breast cancer, fueling the consumer demand for removal in personal care). Parabens can be found in almost any product containing water/oil, and I’ve seen products list ingredients with more than one (sometimes 5!) forms of parabens. That seems really unecessary to me!

Formaldehyde: This is used as a preservative in personal care products. It’s a known human carcinogen, immune system toxicant, and respiratory toxicant, and can cause surface skin irritations. Also known as Formaldehyde Solution (Formalin), Formic Aldehyde, Merthaldehyde, Methanal, Methyl Aldehyde, Oxomethane, Oxymethylene; the preservatives Diazolidinyl Urea, Imidazolidinyl Urea also release formaldehyde, and are listed in ingredients as Germall II and Germall 115. Formaldehyde can be found in facial moisturizers and cleansers, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, styling gel, sunscreens, foundations and many other products. Embalming oneself is just so not sexy!

Alternative: Phenoxyethanol is a commonly used natural alternative, derived from rose. Powerhouse antioxidants like C and E can offer preservative effects, as well as grapefruit seed extract, rosemary extract, and essential oils. They increase shelf life of a product: a moisturizer might last up to one year, instead of 1 and 1/2 like its conventional counterpart.

9. TALC: Talcum powder is a cosmetics grade powder that is identical to asbestos: a totally carcinogenic chemical. Used to absorb moisture and applied to the underarms and genital area, this ingredient clogs pores and causes skin irritation. It has also been linked to vaginal and ovarian cancers, possibly due to its use on genitalia, and respiratory problems.

Alternative: No one likes to be a Sweaty Sarah, so I look for products containing finely milled cornstarch. It’s silky, super absorbent and completely non-toxic! And of course, safe for babies.

10. ANIMAL PRODUCTS: While I don’t mind a lovely soak in a milk bath, or a suds with a goat’s milk bar, I really don’t advocate sudsing with animal fat ie. Tallow. Sodium tallowate is animal fat used to bond to oils (like attracts like), and therefore help to cleanse the skin; placenta is used in some cosmetics to impart youthful looking skin and hair. Animal products introduce extra hormones into the human body, and also come with a loaded ethical question. And I say, again, ew!

Alternative: When it comes to the suds, saponified vegetable oils like olive provide superior bubbles and a gentle, nourishing cleansing. And eating clean, healthy diets, drinking plenty of fresh water and using naturally-derived products that don’t interfere with the body’s hormones are the keys to feeling and looking younger, longer! Not to mention living with a light conscience…

New Superstar Ingredients To Look For And Why

And now, a few upcoming stars on my radar:

Rice and its 8 parts: Rice bran is rich in phytic acid, a B-complex vitamin that can help improve blood circulation and stimulate cell turnover when used topically, naturally revealing fresh, new skin;rice starch is incredibly soothing, making rice water an effective remedy for treating dry, itchy skin and exzema-like conditions. Its protein helps replace proteins lost as we age, like the proteins found in our hair (bring back that luster!), and its wax acts to help keep the skin hydrated.

Turmeric: According to recent research, turmeric applied to cultured melanocytes was found to cut melanin producing receptor modules by 60% Translation: turmeric is a super effective skin lightener!. It is now being formulated into sunscreens. Traditionally in places like India and Indonesia, it has been used as an anti-aging ingredient due to its high levels of antioxidants.

Honey: Honey is one of the sweetest ingredients to make it into the cosmeceutical industry! It is antibacterial, antimicrobial, and incredibly healing, lubricating and soothing. For thousands of years (read since recorded history!) it has been used to effectively treat wounds and burns topically; internally, it can help to soother and heal ulcers. And most recently, honey has been found to have antibacterial properties that are so strong that they can be used against antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. On skin it is amazing in treating acneic conditions: it can help pull bacteria to the surface, heal infections and
help renew the skin. When used in haircare, since honey is a humectant (which means it attracts and retains water) honey is a natural fit for a variety of moisturizing products including cleansers, creams, shampoos and conditioners.

Red Tea: Grown high in the mountains of South Africa, this red-is-the-new-green-and-black tea contains nature’s highest concentration of skin-saving antioxidants that repair collagen damage and strengthen the skin. Phew! It can calm and soothe skin that’s prone to rashes and irritations, including rosacea. And it makes a faboo red-tea latte.

I believe that well-manicured hands down, choosing to be beautifully naturally is the only way to go. After a weekend with the most glamorously, indulgent products, I can guarantee anyone a life-time sentence of true, purely beautiful beauty! Case closed.

Stay beautiful, Sage

PS Print out this list and take to the store with you!

Photo Credit: geishabot

Read also: Bad Breath?

Our Expert

Paulina Nelega, RH
Paulina Nelega, RH, has been in private practice as a Clinical Herbalist for over 15 years. She has developed and taught courses in herbal medicine, and her articles on health have appeared in numerous publications. She is very passionate about the healing power of nature. Ask Dr. Jan

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