Almost all skin care products contain chemicals with various degrees of toxicity that can give you an allergic reaction or worse. Restrictions and regulations regarding toxic ingredients vary from country to country and from standard to standard, so depending on where you live, you might be more or less protected by the law. As a general rule, Europe skin care production is more strictly regulated than America for example, and organic products produced in Europe (and especially in France) are subject to the most rules of exclusion when it comes to harmful ingredients and their concentrations. Yet, with the explosion of the internet shops today, your ordered skin care products might contain more than you bargained for. Still, if you are careful with your choices, you may reduce the risk yourself.
So, what should you look out for NOT to be in a product that you apply on your skin? While we could not compile a comprehensive list with all questionable ingredients out there, here are some of them.
They help with keeping the formulations unchanged so they are preservatives extensively used in cosmetic products. They are noted as propylparaben, methylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben and isopropylparaben and you will find them in almost any beauty product that has water (a.k.a. ‘aqua’) added to it. Parabens have been shown to not only disrupt hormones, but also to potentially cause cancer and most have been phased out in the EU. Certified organic cosmetics use no parabens, so, if you want to avoid them for sure, look for the organic certification.
Also used as a preservative, Phenoxyethanol is used in cosmetic products for adults but also for baby care. Today, regulations require not to exceed the dose of 1% of phenoxyethanol regardless of the user. However, it is a toxic ingredient for toddlers, considered an endocrine disruptor, therefore not recommended for women while pregnant or breastfeeding.
It is most commonly found in deodorants, (for that antiperspirants use aluminum salts to block your apocrine sweat glands from stimulating underarm sweat), but also in other cosmetics. In mild cases, aluminum can be a source of skin irritations, itching or tingling sensations but some scientists have suggested that the aluminum-based compounds may contribute to the development of breast cancer. In addition, it has been suggested that aluminum may have direct activity in breast tissue. Following these findings, many companies have started to offer aluminum free products, so better check the ingredient list if the front label does not mention the lack of it.
In cosmetics, silicone-based ingredients act as emulsifiers, as they help to combine other substances in the cosmetic. Due to their emollient properties, they help to soften or smooth the skin surface and as a surfactant, they give better distribution or application of the product when used.
Both properties give the customers a fake perception of quality because of the smooth texture of the cream and the softer skin after application, so they are very popular among manufacturers. Unfortunately, they could be also clogging your pores, but manifesting as dryness and dullness instead of acne. Silicones prevent additional moisture from getting in, they can dehydrate your pores and throw your skin’s natural regulatory processes off-balance.
Derived from petroleum, you will find it on the label as Petrolatum, Petroleum Jelly, Paraffin Oil, Mineral Oil and White Petrolatum (refined and safe for use), and it is an ingredient often used in lotions and cream as a moisturizing agent. When properly refined, petrolatum has no known health concerns. However, with an incomplete refining history, petrolatum could potentially be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. There is no way to confirm proper refinement unless a complete refining history is provided so, if your product is cheap, you can reasonably suspect a cutting-corners approach in production too.
The primary concern with petrolatum is the potential contamination with PAHs, which are reasonably anticipated carcinogens agents. An US study on Long Island, NY, found that those women with high levels of PAH-DNA adducts had a 50 percent greater risk of breast cancer.
You will find it as a very common ingredient in many tonic lotions and other cosmetics, especially in those formulated for oily skin. Alcohol helps other ingredients like vitamins and retinol penetrate the skin but, used in large quantities, ethanol destroys the skin’s sebum layer. It has hygroscopic properties, which means that it can be overly drying in high enough concentrations, which can lead to peeling and irritations. When used in high concentrations alcohols deteriorate your skin’s protective barrier which means your skin is no longer effective at keeping moisture in. It also stimulates oil production which could lead to breakouts if your skin makes too much oil.
Found in almost all cosmetic products, especially the mainstream ones, perfume is a chemically manufactured scent that gives products a pleasant smell. In a skin care product, perfume has no other functional role than to trigger an emotional reaction and make you feel good about that specific product. While there’s nothing wrong with making a sensorial experience out of your beauty ritual, most fragrances are very common allergens. They may lead to allergic reactions ranging from mild forms of irritation and redness, to burning, itching and swelling, to dermatitis and hives. Synthetic fragrance can irritate skin, have toxic hormonal effects, and may even cause cancer. This is why most organic cosmetics use only plant based, chemical free fragrances or none at all.