by Laura Pilati and Madeleine Hawks
As promised last week, we’re here to give you a run-down on all that we know to be true and trusty about reading ingredient lists on your purchased and prospective cosmetics/personal care products (from here on out, PCPs). Whew–try to say that five times fast!
As we’ve said before (and doubtless will say at least 100x again), you are your best advocate. That means you, not anyone else (like that awkward hand in your back pocket? hm.), make the best decisions for yourself! So we hope that learning how to read your products’ ingredient labels will help you make PCP decisions that reflect your values (and hopefully figure out what’s in your
wallet bottle and what it’s doing there). Let’s delve right into the basics, shall we?
There are many categories of ingredients (classified by what they do for the product) that appear in your average commercial PCPs–whether they be shampoos, toothpastes, skin cleansers, or eye shadows–but here are a few of the most common:
- Emollients. An emollient is a liquid substance that is included in a product to prevent water loss from the skin. Emollients, like many ingredients, can be naturally or synthetically derived. Examples include natural oils (coconut oil, sunflower seed oil, olive oil, etc.) and waxes and synthetics like silicones (dimethicone), lipids, and many alcohols (cetyl alcohol).
- Surfactants or detergents. Ingredients under this heading are exactly what they sound like–substances that clean a surface through their affinity for both water and oil. Examples include many natural oils but also many synthetics derived from natural chemicals and petrochemicals. A very common synthetic example is Sodium Lauryl (or Laureth) Sulfate, which we’ll talk about more later.
- Extenders and solvents. Every solution needs a solvent for all the solutes–in other words, a liquid in which to dissolve all of the other ingredients. This is typically plain ol’ H2O. However, other chemicals are sometimes used for this purpose, including acetic acid, isopropyl alcohol, acetone, and glycerine.
- Thickeners and stabilizers. Just what it sounds like–an ingredient included to thicken a liquid solution. This is usually done just for looks or psychological marketing effects (the average consumer tends to think a thicker product feels or works better), but sometimes it helps to keep a product’s other ingredients from separating, sort of like what you might see with a salad dressing (think balsamic vinaigrette). Clays and acacia gum are natural examples; cocamide DEA/MEA and xanthan gum are synthetic examples.
- Emulsifiers. As inferred in the last category, it’s common for a product to contain both oils and water-based ingredients, which will naturally separate. Emulsifiers are the peacekeepers, of sorts — allowing those water- and oil-based ingredients to coexist. Examples: lecithin (natural), PEG-100 stearate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, TEA, and emulsifying wax (all synthetic).
- Colorants. Any ingredient added to change the color of the product is a colorant. There are lots of natural, vibrant colorants, like beets, blueberries, raspberries, saffron, and paprika that cosmetic DIY-ers typically use. But in many commercial products, the synthetic colorants–like the D&C colors, FD&C colors, titanium dioxide, iron oxides, and zinc oxide–are cheaper and win out.
- Fragrances. We talked about fragrances in a post a few weeks ago, so I won’t go into a lot of depth here. But you know now that there are many natural as well as thousands upon thousands of synthetic fragrance compounds in existance.
- Preservatives. Any substance added to prolong the life of a product is a preservative, since many substances in PCPs attract bacteria, mold, fungi, etc. There are plenty of natural as well as synthetic chemicals in common use for this purpose: salt, sugar, vinegar, essential oils, honey, herbal extracts (all natural), BHT/BHA, isopropyl alcohol, urea, sorbic acid, salicylic acid, methyl paraben, and ascorbic acid (all synthetic).
As mentioned, we’ve really brushed over the most common examples and categories, but there are of course countless more of both. If you’re interested in getting a longer list, this website details (I mean really details) the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) and this website provides a basic, organized run down of the most common ingredients and categories and was my primary source for this portion of the post.
Now, after reading through that list (hopefully you made it through), you might be thinking: “Girls, this is all very interesting, but what does it mean for me? Are these ingredients really going to hurt me? I can’t possibly come into contact with enough of these ingredients for them to be harmful.” And I would say to you–those are very good questions! And I have some information that may help you answer those questions…read on!
Though there is relatively little research available on personal care products and the ingredients they contain (when compared with the hundreds of thousands of synthetic and natural ingredients out there), many scientists and natural beauty enthusiasts are in accords about a few things. However, it is important to note that, especially when limited research is available on an ingredient, you should be skeptical, remain vigilant, and ultimately make the call based on what you feel to be reasonable. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you that synthetic fragrance may be linked to cancer…If you don’t feel comfortable putting it on your body, don’t!
Ingredients that have been suspected of/linked directly to harmful effects in the body and/or the environment:
- Parabens: This grouping describes a particular class of chemicals that have been linked to increased rates of breast cancer. They are quite frequently found in products ranging from shampoos to toothpastes for their preservative properties.
- SLS and other Sulfates: SLS, or Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (also found as Laureth Sulfate), and other sulfates found in PCPs have been noted as skin irritants. As with other chemicals, one person’s sensitivity to SLS may be completely different from another’s–some individuals have reported terrible scalp rashes, while others experience a mild case of dandruff or nothing at all.
- Lead and other heavy metals: Strange, but true. Lead is toxic to humans and bioaccumulates. As we recently discussed, a to-be-published FDA study found lead in nearly all tested commercial lipsticks.
- Synthetic Fragrance: As we’ve mentioned, synthetic fragrances are perhaps the most secret and untested of all cosmetic (and household) products. However, research has found that these chemicals have effects ranging from respiratory irritation to reproductive issues.
- Petrochemicals: Many petroleum-derived products and ingredients (such as phthalates and dioxin) are confirmed hormonal disruptors, carcinogens, and neurological inhibitors. And that could be just the start of it. The same is true of many synthetic colorants and preservatives.
- Misleading ingredients: silicones are a common emollient specifically distrusted by many natural beauty enthusiasts as a result of their powerful emollient properties; they coat the hair follicle, making the hair feel soft and smooth after application. However, this may promote a false sense of follicle health, as the coating effect can cover up hair damage that is the result of harsh hair treatments, sun damage, and everyday physical distress.
Quiz time! Can you guess what all of the ingredients in this product do?
Many people wonder how cosmetic ingredients could cause damage to their bodies and/or the environment when it seems that we encounter so little of them at a time. However, the truth is that the skin and many other internal surfaces of the body are porous; they absorb what we put on and into our body and accumulate toxins over time from the air we breathe, the food and water we ingest–and the personal care products we use on our skin. Some ingredients have been tested for direct effects, but most have not–and none have been studied for their bioaccumulative or synergistic affects within the body. So it’s important to think critically about the products you buy and always take note of any skin or hair reactions you may have to a new PCP–it’s probably the product, not you!