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Understanding which ingredients may be harmful and toxic in your skincare products

lots of scientific glass containers containing different coloured chemical liquids

Natural Skin Care

In my Guide to Clean Beauty I explained all about natural skin care and green washing, the concept of clean beauty and how products are certified, how to read a skincare product ingredient list and how to move to a natural skin care regime.

In this article I'll be looking at the main ingredients to avoid. There are a lot of synthetic chemicals out there that you should avoid putting on your skin but I have a hit list of the top 15 ingredients to avoid in skincare products, as these are the ones that can cause the most reactions.

Skin care for sensitive skin

I have to be very careful about what I put on my face. After having high dose chemotherapy and a range of other treatments for an aggressive blood cancer I was left with super sensitive skin, particularly on my face.

Over the years I have found that if I use natural skin care products on my face all is well and my skin and complexion are great. But now and again I succumb to the draw of a product that someone else is wearing. It looks so good and I want to give it a try!

I know by now that this never works out well as I usually get perioral dermatitis and so I am very careful with what goes on my face and body!

A lot of the ingredients that go in to mainstream skin care products can cause a host of skin issues such as rashes, itching, redness and even an uneven skin tone. It was only when I started using natural skin care that my skin actually started to improve and look really good.

If you have dry, tight or uncomfortable skin or redness, irritation, puffiness or a blotchy uneven skin tone, then have a look at the following list of ingredients to avoid in your skin care. These ingredients are known to cause problems even in people without sensitive skin, and some of the issues go further than just skin sensitivity.

15 Ingredients to avoid in skincare products

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) - this is a detergent and will be found in many products such as soaps, shampoos, shower gels, foaming cleansers and moisturisers. It is also used in industry as a de-greaser. It has the potential to cause a wide range of skin issues including dryness and is associated with eczema. It is a good idea to avoid this if you already suffer to some extent with skin allergies, dry skin or sensitivity issues. It can also be a frequent cause of contact dermatitis.

  • Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES) and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS) - these two ingredients are often regarded as being milder than SLS (and are frequently marketed as much) but their effects can be similar with skin irritation and dryness, especially on young or sensitive skin. ALS can also cause respiratory tract irritation.

  • Mineral Oil/Petrolatum/Paraffinum Liquidum - this is widely used in the cosmetic industry as a lubricant and protective ingredient and it appears everywhere. It's in petroleum jelly (vaseline), lipsticks and lip balms, baby lotions, hand creams, body moisturisers, facial moisturisers and make-up. Derived from petroleum it is just a cheap filler ingredient, colourless, odourless and tasteless. On initial application it might feel like your skin is nicely moisturised but it sits on top of the skin clogging it and stopping it from breathing and performing natural functions. It has been reported that constant use can actually stop skin producing normal oils so that it becomes dependent upon the mineral oil product. Basically the more you use a product the more you seem to need it. I had this happen many years ago when I used lip balms containing these ingredients. The more I used them the drier my lips became, I just could not understand it, plus I was eating a shedload of it off my lips! After I changed to a natural lip product the problem went away. It is also a known skin irritant and particularly bad for skin prone to acne.

  • Parabens – methyl, propyl, butyl or ethyl parabens - these are cheap preservatives used to control bacterial growth in products with a water content. Widely used in many beauty products such a creams, lotions and ointments. Evidence has shown them to be highly toxic and suggests that they can mimic oestrogen and there have been several potential links to breast cancer. They are also a disrupter of the hormone system. Using a preservative in water based products is important to stop bacterial growth but there are other preservatives available. The number of paraben free products is increasing due to consumer concern. All parabens have the potential to cause skin allergies.

  • Phthalates – diethyl, dimethyl, dibutyl - these are widely used in the cosmetics and beauty industry and are irritating to mucous membranes. They are thought to be mutagenic (may change genetic material) and carcinogenic (cancer causing). Dibutyl phthalate has been linked to testicular cancer and may create a male reproductive hormonal imbalance. There are also concerns over issues with the liver, kidneys and nerves. Many companies are taking phthalates out of their products.

  • PEG’s (polyethylene glycol) - used widely as a plasticiser and softener. Some also work as skin penetration enhancers which further increases the exposure to other ingredients of concern. They are known skin irritants and a cause of allergic reactions.

  • Aluminium - used in make-up and lipsticks (aluminium salts are used in some anti-perspirants). It can cause contact dermatitis and has been linked to male and female reproductive issues. It has also been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease and researchers found that aluminium binds to oestrogen receptors in the breast mimicking the effects of oestrogens.

  • Lanolin - from sheep wool fat. Argument rages over whether this constitutes a ‘natural’ product but it is likely to be contaminated with small amounts of pesticides from sheep dip which can be absorbed by the skin and enter the blood stream. It can cause allergic dermatitis and acne. There is a higher incidence of lanolin allergies among people with eczema. There is also medical grade lanolin which has been 'purified' of environmental pollutants but that just seems like a dea product and quite honestly I'd rather have beeswax! Other waxes are available for those who require vegan products too.

  • Triclosan - an antimicrobial ingredient found in soaps, toothpaste, mouthwash and other personal care products. It's very toxic to aquatic animals and algae and has been identified in breast milk. It can cause allergies and contact dermatitis as well as skin, eye and respiratory irritation. Some studies have raised concerns that it may be encouraging the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria. It is also a hormone disruptor.

  • Methylisothiazolinone, also known as Kathon CG and MI - used as a preservative. A potent skin sensitiser and irritant and a frequent cause of contact dermatitis. MI was previously mixed with another chemical called MCI but concerns were raised about MCI causing allergies so some manufacturers started to use MI on its own at a much higher concentration. Since MI has been used alone there has been a massive increase in the number of cases of allergic contact dermatitis and experts are calling for the use of MI to be urgently reviewed.

  • Talc (magnesium silicate) - used in make-up, baby and adult powders. Linked to ovarian and testicular cancers. Prolonged inhalation can cause lung problems. It can cause coughing, vomiting and pneumonia when used carelessly and inhaled by babies. On Tuesday 4 April 2023 Johnson and Johnson released a statement saying that they have agreed to pay about $8.9 billion to tens of thousands of people who claimed that their talcum powder had caused cancer (particularly gynecological ones) and well as mesothelioma (a form of lung cancer).

  • Formaldehyde - used in nail hardener treatments and nail polishes, styling gels, soaps and other cosmetic products. It's a suspected carcinogen and common skin and eye irritant and very toxic when absorbed through the skin. It is banned for use in cosmetic products in Sweden and Japan.

  • Fragrance/Parfum - a synthetic chemical blend of fragrance which can cause headaches, skin irritations and rashes.

  • Artificial colours - used to colour cosmetics and creams. They appear on a label with the prefix of FD & C and a number. Some have been linked to the risk of cancer but there is still a great deal of confusion on colours and inconsistencies with the safety data but it is better to avoid them if possible.

  • Diethanolamine and Triethanolamine (DEA and TEA) - used as detergents and moisturisers. Can cause allergic reactions and be irritating to skin and mucous membranes. TEA is the most frequent skin sensitiser among the common emulsifiers used in cosmetics.

It makes sense to avoid these ingredients in your makeup and skin care products, especially if you have sensitive skin or rosacea. As I said in my Guide to Clean Beauty there are many natural and organic products out there that work extremely well. True, some of the mainstream synthetic products are cheaper but certainly not all.

How to have healthy skin

People spend a huge amount of time looking after the skin on their face but often neglect the rest of their body. It is important to remember that your skin is a living, breathing organ and you need to treat it with respect. As we age skin is more at risk of injury as it becomes drier and thinner and we also lose some of the protective fat layer too. Often, injuries to skin on the legs takes longer to heal as we age so it is important to keep it healthy. Healthy skin has a good protective barrier (the skin mantle), is supple and well moisturised and has some flexibility and elasticity.

Making time to nurture ourselves not only makes us feel good but promotes self confidence too.

Tips for healthy skin

  • make sure you are eating enough healthy fats such as avocados, nuts, seeds and oily fish such as salmon

  • use olive oil or coconut to cook with and drizzle over salads and vegetables

  • make sure you drink enough water on a daily basis

  • use a body exfoliator once a week or use a pair of exfoliating gloves

  • moisturise daily, with the bare minimum being your face, legs and arms. As you age, pay particular attention to the area below the knee where the skin can dry out and thin quicker.

  • If you smoke or vape, stop. Smoking as vaping deprives the skin of oxygen.

  • If your skin mantle has been disrupted, try using a probiotic skincare product to restore your skin - Aurelia London do a fantastic probiotic facial skin serum called The Probiotic Concentrate to protect, restore and balance your skin.

If you are interested in learning more about what is in your makeup and skin care products, or want to go much deeper into cleaning up the chemical load in your life then grab a copy of A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winter MS.

So if you have now read my Guide to Clean Beauty you should know a bit more about clean beauty v mainstream brands, labels on products, ingredients, green washing, the benefits of moving to a natural skin care regime. You are also now armed with a list of ingredients to start avoiding in the products that you use on a daily basis, and that includes shampoos and conditioners as well!

Why not try making some of your own skincare products? Check out the DIY Skincare Recipes.

If you arr really passionate about natural skincare, have you thought about setting up your own business? Why not check out Running a Natural Skincare Business from Home or the FREE online Skincare Business Course and get some ideas flowing!

Did you know that most mainstream hair products contain silicone which trashes the hair over time, leaving it weak and fragile? Check out the article Is silicone bad for your hair if you want to know how to improve the condition and volume of your hair.

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