Decoding The Chemicals In Your Beauty Products
Happy FRI-YAY! For those of you that don’t know – back in the day, I got my degree in biochemistry. So, for four years, I lived, ate, breathed and slept chemistry. My emphasis was on cosmetic chemistry, so in particular I studied the chemical components of hair care, skincare and hair care. When I was in school, I had the ultimate goal to work for a cosmetic company making makeup and eventually open my own cosmetic company. After graduating, it was a lot harder to find jobs in that field than I thought, and at that point I was blogging almost full time and was ready to make Blonde & Ambitious my full time job. Unfortunately, while the creative side of me was SO nurtured and I LOVE my job so much – I’ve been really missing my science background. SO. In light of wanting to really narrow down my niche and really help my brand match who I am as a person – I am going to be incorporating my chemistry background into my beauty blog posts! Today, I’m going to be sharing some of the more popular chemicals used in beauty products, helping you decipher what is in the ingredient list of your favorite products and sharing what to avoid. Let’s dive into this.
Decoding The Chemicals In Your Beauty Products
Let’s start with something basic. A lot of people choose their cosmetics based on whether or not it says “natural” or “organic” on the outside. That is a common tactic brands use to boost sales and to get those who are vegan and organic on board with their products. But I’ll let you in on a little industry secret:
- There is not formal definition of “natural cosmetics”, nor is there any legal protection for the terms “natural” or “organic”
- Cosmetic ingredients are almost ALWAYS modified (even natural oils and waxes) – even when they are marked “straight out of the plant”
- There are almost no regulations globally on what can be marketed as “organic”. The entire industry (outside of small regulation in California) relies on companies using self-regulation.
You as a consumer have to be willing to really scrutinize your ingredient labels and not just take what a big company tells you on face value. Another big point to make: The ingredients will be in descending order of quantity: but after 1%, ingredients can be randomised in any order, so an indication of content may not be fathomable towards the lower end of the ingredients list. There is nothing on the ingredient list to say exactly what percentage of something is included, so there is rarely any way to determine exactly what percentage is used and when that 1% mark starts.
SO. What are some of the most common synthetic ingredients to avoid and why?
Synthetic ingredients are man-made. That may sound scary – but many of them are honestly perfectly fine. Let’s talk about what ISN’T good for your body and what you should be actively avoiding and searching out in your ingredient list:
Preservatives (namely: parabéns): Many scientists go back and forth on parabens, but if you ask me, I say avoid it if at all possible. They have been found to mimic estrogen by binding to estrogen receptors. Parabens have been considered as a possible cause of early puberty in females, lower fertility in males, and breast cancer. Unfortunately, even though these are major concerns, the US FDA has determined that paraben preservatives are safe at currently used levels and are not currently taking steps to eliminate them from ingredient lists in the US.
Quaternium-15: This is a preservative agent that releases formaldehyde. There are chemical release concerns, irritation (particularly of skin, eyes, or lungs) and organ system toxicity (non-reproductive). It is still regularly used in many products as an antibacterial and preservative.
Glycols: these include solvents that are used as humectants (something that preserves moisture). Propylene glycol is the most popular, but it’s good to be wary of any glycol. They are derived petrochemical and they are known to cause skin irritation and rashes.
Sodium Olefin Sulphonate: A detergent made through a process called sulphonation, which is not ‘liked’ by the natural industry, and which involves petrochemicals (like the glycols above).
Cocomide DEA: This is a detergent, and sometimes perceived as natural because it is derived from coconut oil. Occasionally brands will attempt to label this as organic, but be wary because diethanol is involved in production, and it is a nitrosamine precursor (interacting with other chemicals to produce nitrosamine, which is carcinogenic).
Synthetic fragrances: These will be labeled as fragrance or parfum. I would avoid them because they tend to be allergens. The other issue with seeing “fragrance” or “parfum” on a label is that those words do not accurately describe what the ingredient is. Due to trade secret laws, companies do not need to disclose the chemical ingredients that make up the fragrance ingredient, so it’s often just a code word for chemicals, which can be misleading when you are trying to purchase naturally sourced products.
Alcohol: SD alcohol 40, denatured alcohol, ethanol, and isopropyl alcohol are all alcohols to be avoided at all costs. They dry out your skin and can cause extreme irritation. A few alcohols that are good for your skin are: Retinol (a vitamin A derivative), tocopherol (vitamin E), cetyl alcohol, and stearyl alcohol.
Sulfates: Unfortunately, while sulfates are effective in cleaning skin, they’re actually surfactants that cut oil from your skin. They’re just too strong and lead to surface dehydration, which is why your skin will often feel “tight” after washing prior to moisturizer. Look for these ingredients to avoid: ammonium lauryl sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, and sodium lauryl sulfate.
Phalates: DBP, DEHP, DMP, DEP, dibutyl/diethyl ester, and 2-benzenedicarboxylate should ALL be avoided because they’ve been linked to cancer and fertility issues. They often turn up in lotion, hairspray, and fragrance.
PIN THIS FOR LATER:
It can be so overwhelming looking at the ingredient lists in your products, trying to decide what is and isn’t something you want to put on your skin. I totally get it. Hopefully, this breakdown made it a little bit easier to digest and helps you make informed decisions when it comes to your beauty products.
Let me know what you thought of this breakdown in the comments below – and if you’d be interested in the breakdown of stamps and symbols on the outside of beauty containers next!