There has been a lot of active discussion over the last few years about the organic label for food, and how the laws that enforce what is and isn't organic are so toothless that the label is meaningless.
If you thought food was the only industry affected by these kinds of meaningless rules and laws, well, you'd be sorely mistaken. Cosmetics are one of the least regulated industries with a public perception of regulation. There are all manner of different buzzwords and catch-all terms that sounds fine but might hide a dark secret. When you're putting something on your skin, the last thing you want to do is deal with side effects that can range from low-grade poisoning to cancer.
How can you take steps to protect yourself from dangerous chemicals and artificial ingredients in your skin care products?
Build the Habit of Checking Labels
The first thing you need to do if you want to protect yourself from dangerous ingredients is learn to check labels on anything you buy. This is a good practice for any product, but most especially cosmetics and food. Food, of course, allows you to know what you're putting into your body, and cosmetic labels let you know what you're putting on top of it.
This goes for everything, by the way. We're not just talking about makeup or skin crèmes here; we mean those, but also lotions, shampoos, conditioners, eyeliners, and everything else. If you buy it with the intent to use it as a cosmetic, read the label before you begin.
It's one thing to just read the label, but it's another to understand it. So how can you get the most out of reading these labels?
Remember that certain buzzwords are basically meaningless. Anything that claims to be natural or organic, for example, might not have the reality to back up that claim. A lot of things are organic chemicals when they aren't helpful chemicals. A lot of natural ingredients can be deadly. Instead of the keywords and brand labels, look at the ingredients list.
Remember that just because an ingredient looks scary, doesn't mean it is. Cosmetic labels generally follow the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients guidelines, or INCI. This means ingredients can be listed by their scientific names rather than by their common names, and may not be clarified. Here are some common examples:
- Cetyl Alcohol. You may have heard that alcohol is bad in cosmetics because it dries the skin, but "alcohol" is a wide variety of chemicals, and cetyl alcohol in specific is a stabilizing agent for emulsions and is not nearly as drying as standard ethanol.
- Citric Acid. You may be wary of anything labeled an acid, but citric acid is in a load of natural and healthy substances. It's what makes citrus sour.
- Tocopherol. This is a prime example of a scientific name that sounds a lot scarier than it is. What even is a tocopherol? Well, it's just the scientific name for Vitamin E.
Pay attention to ingredient order. Typically you will see a list of ingredients, and then a flag that says "and less than 1% of" other ingredients. The order of ingredients matters; the first ingredient is the majority of the product, and each subsequent ingredient is present in lesser amounts. The exception is that everything after the "less than 1%" flag can be listed in any order.
Take a look at your ingredients list. If there's something important to your cosmetic, like a vitamin it claims to have, look where it falls on the list. Is it even present enough to be noteworthy?
Check for listed allergens. Most cosmetics will list common allergens if they include them. For example, if a chemical or compound is derived from nuts, it will be listed as a nut product. Different products will flag this in different ways, so make sure to figure out how they label it.
Always check the product directly. Any certified product is required to list all of its ingredients on the product packaging itself. However, websites are not required to list every ingredient. Don't buy something online if you can't see a full list of ingredients; you don't know what else is in it.
Look for symbols. Other than the ingredients list, cosmetics will often have a selection of symbols on the packaging somewhere. These symbols all have meaning, and learning what those meanings are can help you identify what's in a product. This article has a good guide for the most common symbols about half-way down.
Possibly the most important thing about symbols is recognizing which ones are legitimate and which ones are created specifically by that brand or for that product. Limited-creation symbols don't necessarily mean they aren't true, but they might not be widely recognized as legitimate. After all, anyone can create a symbol for their product.
Learn the Names of Dangerous Ingredients
As mentioned above, ingredient lists generally follow an international standard of nomenclature, or rather, a standard set of names. This generally applies to everything mass produced, but very small producers, foreign imports, and the occasional hand-made products will have labels with more casual or different names on them.
Here are the names of most ingredients you should avoid.
- Parabens. Parabens are preservatives that help prevent mold and bacteria from growing in cosmetics. There is also the possibility that parabens may increase the risk of breast cancer. The FDA does not currently have research to suggest they are dangerous when used appropriately, but that relies on trusting your cosmetic producer to use them appropriately.
- Colors. Many cosmetics – and many foods – include artificial colors. You'll often see labels like "Blue #4" or "Red #27" on the labels, low down on the list. It doesn't take much color to dye a batch of cosmetics, but that colored chemical can be dangerous. Some dyes are probably safe, but some have been shown to be carcinogenic, can cause allergic reactions, or may have other issues associated with them.
- "Fragrance". Many cosmetics use the simple label "fragrance" to hide what the actual chemical composition of the fragrances they use are. This is allowed because it's a way to protect trade secrets. Good cosmetics usually simply list their fragrance-granting ingredients, however.
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. This chemical and a few similar derivatives are used as a foaming agent to make your shampoos and skincare products foam up more easily even in the presence of hard water. They can also trigger allergies and are occasionally enough to cause skin irritation.
- Polyethylene Glycol. This chemical is used in cosmetics as a thickener to make your shampoo or lotion less runny, and is often found in lotions and sunscreens. On its own it's not necessarily too harmful, but it's often contaminated. It's also used as a medication to treat constipation.
- BHT. Butylated Hydroxytoluene is an ingredient often used as a preservative. It's also potentially carcinogenic and can trigger allergies.
- Microbeads. Plastic microbeads used to be more of a problem than they are now, but they've been banned in many countries. These tiny plastic beads were an additive for abrasive and exfoliative properties, but they're also hugely damaging to the environment.
You can also research specific products or specific ingredients on large databases like the Skin Deep database. These are generally more trustworthy than a simple Google search, where anyone can write anything they like about whatever ingredients they're trying to sell.
Learn the Aliases
Chemical names can get complicated, because they're often tricky compound words. If you're looking for one specific phrase and don't see it, you might conclude that your product is safe. There's a cycle, though, where one ingredient gets banned, so companies look for similar alternatives, under the assumption that a similar chemical compound will serve a similar purpose. They do, for both good and bad. A carcinogen swapped with another carcinogen is still dangerous.
This is obvious in health food; caffeine has its dangers, as we all know. That's why energy drinks often contain something like Mate or Guarana. If you look into them, though, the active ingredient in Guarana is just caffeine. Yet, since it's derived differently, they can label it differently.
The same holds true of chemicals in cosmetics. For example, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate are different compounds and can be labeled differently, but they're very similar, with the same effects and concerns.
One frequent example in cosmetics is Retinol. Retinol is also found under similar names, like retinyl acetate, retinyl palmitate, and retinoic acid. All of these are just different names for Vitamin A, which is fine in moderation but when layered in cosmetics can be detrimental, especially to pregnant women.
There's no easy way to just list all of the different chemicals and derivatives companies have found, because as quickly as they are identified, they are rotated out. Just make sure to cross-check any chemical you're not sure of in an ingredients list and make sure it's not just another name for something you've already decided you don't want to use.
Look for Natural Alternatives
We mentioned up above that the "natural" buzzword doesn't mean much, but you can easily verify how natural a product is by looking at its ingredients. Look for products that have a selection of natural ingredients, and a shorter list of ingredients.
One side effect of using natural cosmetics is that you're going to end up buying them in smaller doses, more frequently. Since a lot of the chemicals you don't want to see are preservatives, the shelf-life of natural cosmetics tends to be much shorter. To avoid spoilage, they come in smaller packages and can be used up more quickly. This may seem like a hassle, but when it's your health on the line, a little hassle is fine.
For example, instead of products that contain antiseptics like Triclosan, look for ones that contain natural antiseptics like tea tree oil. Instead of caustic chemicals, look for citric acid. Instead of the nebulous "fragrance", look for essential oils of lavender, cinnamon, or other scents you would like.
One thing to keep in mind is that pretty much all cosmetics are going to have some compound in them you generally don't like. It can be difficult to find alternatives that fit your goals. You may decide to eliminate some cosmetics from your routine, or find organic, natural alternatives.
Not all dangerous compounds are as dangerous as they seem. For example, some chemicals tested to be carcinogens are only found to be carcinogenic in rats, and only at much higher doses than what is in the cosmetics you use. As long as you're not, like, drinking a bottle of shampoo, you're likely fine.
The key is primarily to remain vigilant. Check out new brands as they hit the shelves and look at what's in them. You may also consider looking at who produces them. You might be surprised to learn just how many different brands are all simply owned by the same 2-3 major cosmetic companies.
Step one is to gather the knowledge you need to make your own decisions. Learn about the chemicals in your products you use, reference reputable sources for information about them, and figure out what alternatives you may have.
Step two is to draw your line in the sand. Which chemicals are likely not going to be of risk to you, and which ones are dangers enough you want to put them off? This equation can change depending on your situation, your principles, and even whether or not you're pregnant.
Step three is simply maintenance. Always watch the labels and make sure you know what's in the products you buy.