Some skincare ingredients do penetrate the skin and find their way into the bloodstream and other body tissues.
Consider this: If you would think twice about eating a certain ingredient, you should definitely stop before rubbing it all over your skin, which is the body’s largest organ.
Put simply: What goes on your body goes in your body – fast.
Skincare ingredient lists are governed by INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) standards, which establish the same scientific labelling names for over 16,000 ingredients across all countries, including the United States, the European Union, China and Japan. INCI’s intention is to ensure transparency and allow consumers to easily cross-reference ingredients between products. For example, coconut oil will always be listed as cocos nucifera – no matter what the product, brand or country of origin.
Recently, skincare companies have been adding the common name of the ingredient in brackets after the INCI term as a way of fostering further transparency and trust in the natural bias of their products. So, Butyrospermum Parkii is usually followed in brackets by the explanation (Shea Butter). This should draw our attention to those ingredients that do not have a comforting, recognisable explanation in brackets after their INCI term.
Many of us focus solely on the marketing claims of skincare products and ignore the often-unintelligible contents of the ingredients list.
However, it is in the ingredients list that the most toxic components might well be hiding, so which ingredients should be ringing alarm bells?
If we can all identify the most obvious offenders such as parabens (linked to breast cancer), talc (a carcinogen often contaminated with asbestos), lead acetate (a neurotoxin and a carcinogen) and coal tar (a carcinogen that increases skin sensitivity), what else should be on our black list?
The following ten ingredients are ones to avoid (and some of them might surprise you):
1. PHTHALATES (check the label for: polyethylene, polythene, PE, polybutylane terephthalate, diethyl phthalate, dimethicone copolyol phthalate, butyl benzyl phthalate….). These chemicals are plasticisers used to give a product better consistency and pourability. They have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive issues. They are especially sneaky as they can hide within the seemingly innocuous term fragrance (see point 8).
2. TRICLOSAN An antibacterial chemical, triclosan has been linked to thyroid and reproductive issues and hormonal disruption. As a member of the chlorophenol class of chemicals, it is also a known carcinogen. Levels of triclosan in skincare products are usually below toxicity levels, but continued exposure can allow it to accumulate in body tissues and increase its toxic potential.
3. SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (Sodium caprylic sulphate, Sodium capric sulphate, Sodium oleic sulphate, Sodium stearyl sulphate, Sodium myreth sulphate, Sodium dodecanesulfate, Sodium monododecyl sulphate) are used as surfactants or foaming agents in skincare products. They react with other chemicals to form carcinogens, and yes, this is still the case even if “from coconut oil”. In a British Journal of Dermatology (2010) study, scientists found that a widely prescribed cream for eczema containing sodium lauryl sulphate actually thinned the skin by more than 10% over a four-week period and increased water loss by 20%, considerably worsening the condition in patients.
4. PEGs (polyethylene glycol) Used to dissolve grease, this ingredient can strip the skin of its protective sebum and render it more vulnerable to irritation, allergies and pathogens. This synthetic polymer may contain potentially toxic manufacturing impurities such as 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen that penetrates the skin very easily.
5. PETROLEUM DERIVATIVES (mineral oil, eg. Baby oil, petrolatum, propylene glycol, liquid paraffin, petroleum jelly, eg. Vaseline, propanediol, isopropyl alcohol, toluene and methylbenzene). These chemicals coat the skin like cling film and prevent it from absorbing and eliminating. The aim is to trap water in the skin in order to achieve improved hydration. However, by the same mechanism they prevent the skin from eliminating and clog pores. Due to a high incidence of contaminants, they may also contain carcinogens, affect the respiratory system, cause nausea and irritate skin.
6. FORMALDEHYDE Formaldehyde is the preservative morticians use to conserve corpses. It is considered a carcinogen and is linked to low immunity, allergies, chest pain, chronic fatigue and asthma. The following ingredients are derived from formaldehyde, may release formaldehyde or may break down into formaldehyde: 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1, 3-diol, Diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Quaternium 15, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate.
7. DEA (Diethanolamine), MEA (Monoethanolamine), TEA (Triethanolamine). Principally used as emulsifiers, these ingredients make a product creamier and adjust the pH for use on the skin. They are irritants and potentially hormone-disrupting. They have been linked to organ toxicity (mainly liver and kidney) and can provoke allergies and respiratory issues. They can also react with nitrites in products to form nitrosamines, which are potentially carcinogenic.
8. FRAGRANCE This one entry can refer to almost 4,000 different ingredients many of which are toxic. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory issues and potential effects on the reproductive system.
Although companies are required by law to list the ingredients that make up their products, the “Fragrance” is considered a trade secret, and so companies are not legally bound to disclose the chemicals it contains.
9. VITAMIN A COMPOUNDS These include retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate and retinol. Vitamin A is an essential nutrient, but its use on the skin may not be advisable – it is an irritant and can provoke inflammation. Exposure to sunlight breaks down these compounds and increases their toxicity. When applied to sun-exposed skin these compounds can increase skin sensitivity. Furthermore sunlight breaks down vitamin A to produce toxic free radicals that can damage DNA and hasten ageing, skin lesions and abnormalities.
10. CHEMICAL SUNSCREENS (oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, benzophenone, PABA, homosalate, ethoxycinnmate and octinoxate). These chemicals because of their use (applied all over the body several times a day during the summer) expose us to higher levels of toxicity. They are known to penetrate into body tissues and cause cellular damage, cancer and hormonal disruption.
Tailor your level of scrutiny to the level of exposure the product will get. If it is a body lotion that you rub all over your body that stays on your skin all day, you are getting more exposure to the ingredients it contains than if they were in a facial cleanser that you rinse off immediately, so you will want to be extra vigilant that it does not contain any of the nasties listed above.
If you are buying online, you should still be able to access the ingredients list of a product. Boycott any site that does not give you a full ingredients list and buy from one that offers full disclosure and transparency to clients.
For further information on the safety of ingredients in skincare products, EWG has compiled an electronic database of ingredients and their known toxicity. They’re also currently giving away a free guide to safer sunscreens – which is an essential at this time of year.
Be aware, however, that a low toxicity score for any ingredient may not imply safety, but may simply imply that there is no scientific data yet on that particular ingredient.