You’d be forgiven for thinking that the ingredients in your skincare products are rigorously tested for safety, right? Surely no toxic or harmful personal care products could make it on to your bathroom shelf? Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Here are some of the most toxic ingredients to look out for in your skincare products.
Parabens are a type of preservative used in beauty and hair products. They were first introduced in the 1950’s, to prolong the shelf life of cosmetics. They are also used to prevent the growth of mould and bacteria.
The problem with parabens is how the penetrate the skin into our bodies. Parabens contain compounds that mimic oestrogen, which can potentially interfere with hormone function in the body. Some research has even suggested that parabens could be linked to cancerous cells in women which could be related to breast cancer.
Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate
Sulfates are cleansing agents (aka surfactants) found in a wide range of cleaning products, from face cleanser, body wash, and shampoo to toothpaste and household detergent. The most commonly found sulfates are sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate. The reason why they appear in so many products is that they’re good at creating bubbly lather, to remove grease, dirt and oils. Sounds pretty innocent, right?
The reason why people avoid sulfates is that they’re a little too good at cleansing. These sulfates can strip natural oils from the skin, causing dryness and sensitivity. This is a particular concern for the skin on your face, as harsh sulfates in face cleansers can damage your skin’s moisture barrier.
When your moisture barrier is damaged, this can lead to issues like acne, flakiness, redness, itchiness, inflammation, and all-over irritation. For your hair, it can mean dry, brittle locks and a flaky, dehydrated scalp. Alternatively, your scalp can also over-produce oil to combat dehydration, leading to greasy hair.
You’ll find alcohol creeping up a lot in acne products, because of their ability to dehydrate the skin. However, dehydrating your skin can actually worsen your acne, as the skin will produce more oil to make up for the lack of moisture. So while they might dry out your pimple in the short term, they’re actually making your acne worse in the long term.
When it comes to alcohol in skincare products, not all alcohols are created equal. Fatty alcohols act as emollients and thickening agents, and can help the skin retain moisture.
Popular fatty alcohols
- Cetyl alcohol
- Stearyl alcohol
- Cetearyl alcohol
- Lauryl alcohol
Popular drying alcohols
- Alcohol denat (or denatured alcohol)
- Benzyl alcohol
- Isopropyl alcohol
If you’re acne prone, avoid drying alcohols and use ingredients like salicylic acid and willow bark extract in your skincare products. These ingredients effectively treat pimples by cleaning your pores from the inside out, without dehydrating the skin.
Phthalates (pronounced ‘thah-lates’) are a group of chemicals widely used in plastics. They are also used in cosmetics for their ability to keep materials flexible, acting as lubricants.
Why are phthalates harmful? Research shows that phthalates could be linked to some serious health risks to your personal care. The United States’ National Toxicology Program have even named certain phthalates as potential carcinogens. Other studies show that using phthalates can affect human hormones, in particular testosterone. A 2014 study even linked phthalates to type 2 diabetes.
To avoid phthalates, look for cosmetics and other products that specifically say ‘no phthalates’ or ‘phthalate free’. You can also check ingredients lists for some of the most commonly used phthalates, like DBP (dibutyl phthalate), DiNP (diisononyl phthalate), DNOP (di-n-octyl phthalate), DEP (diethyl phthalate) and BBzP (benzyl butyl phthalate).
While lots of skincare ingredients are perfectly safe and beneficial for skin, they don’t smell particularly appealing. So, companies add artificial fragrance to cosmetics and skincare products to enhance the scent of products.
Unfortunately, artificial fragrance can be particularly irritating to the skin. Even if you don’t have sensitive skin, artificial fragrance can sensitize your skin and lead to irritation like acne, inflammation and flaking skin. If you see ‘fragrance’ (aka parfum, perfume, or ‘aroma’) listed high on a product list, perhaps you should reconsider buying it. It's usually better if companies add essential oils to their products as they are usually safer.
Skincare ingredients to avoid if you’re pregnant
While lots of skincare ingredients are perfectly safe and beneficial for your skin, they can’t be used during pregnancy. Exhibit A: Retinoids.
Retinoids and retinol are one of the most important skincare ingredients to avoid while pregnant, as excessive amounts of vitamin A during pregnancy can lead to birth defects. Most research focuses on oral vitamin A, such as Accutane. However, to err on the side of caution, doctors recommend not using retinol or retinoids during pregnancy.
Salicylic Acid & Willow Bark Extract
Although these two pore-cleaners are perfectly safe for skin, doctors recommend avoiding them if you're pregnant. This is because salicylic acid is derived from aspirin. Research shows that aspirin may cause intracranial bleeding in fetuses when taken orally during pregnancy. Willow bark extract is salicylic acid’s ‘natural’ cousin and contains the same active ingredient - salicin.
While topical salicylic acid isn’t as likely to pose the same risk, doctors recommend discontinuing use while pregnant. Thankfully, AHAs like lactic acid and glycolic acid are perfectly safe to use, so you don’t have to forego exfoliation completely.
So if you're interested in buying personal care products make sure they are the cosmetic products that have no harmful ingredients. Make sure the anti-ageing products you buy don't have skin care ingredients that may harm your immune system.
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