Like food labels, the ingredients list found on your favourite beauty products can seem like it’s written in a foreign language. However, while it’s safe to follow the “don’t touch it if you can’t pronounce it” rule with edible goodies, cosmetics are a little trickier – would you guess methylsulfonylmethane is natural?
Deciphering the innocuous from the harmful seems next to impossible for anyone who isn’t a pharmacist. But lucky for us, we’ve sourced the expertise of the next best thing: founder of natural-beauty retailer, Orli, and experienced ingredient decoder, Jo Lam.
“Today most people are still unaware (or more to the point, unconvinced) that the chemicals lurking in their favourite makeup and skin care products are having a devastating impact on their health long term,” says Lam.
“We are weakening our bodies overall defence mechanisms by slathering our skin with synthetic chemicals every day. So just as you would clean out your pantry and spring clean your wardrobe, I’m here to help you cleanse your beauty cupboard.”
Below, Jo Lam names and shames some of the toxic ingredients found in mainstream beauty and skin care products.
“SLS is used in products such as garage floor cleaner and car wash soaps. It’s also used for clinical testing as a skin irritant, so researchers can then test healing agents to see how effective they are on irritated skin,” says Lam. So while it may make your skin feel ‘squeaky clean’, it also strips it of its natural oils and should be avoided.
Most commonly found in: shampoo, body wash, mascara, and acne treatment.
Probably not what you were expecting to find on the dirty (not quite) dozen list, ‘fragrance’ is a common household term. However, it is also used on labels to describe undisclosed scent chemicals, and chances are it won’t have ‘synthetic’ in front of it either. According to Lam, “These chemicals have been associated with allergies, dermatitis and respiratory distress. They have also been known to disrupt hormone function and interfere with reproductive systems.” But not all fragrance is cause for alarm. And since we all like things that smell lovely, just look for products that specifically state their fragrances are the natural kind.
Most commonly found in: perfume, cologne, candles, conditioner, shampoo, body wash and moisturisers.
Parabens are synthetic preservatives that many cosmetic companies use to extend the shelf life of their products. “[They] can cause allergic reactions and are easily absorbed into the body. Studies suggest that parabens have an estrogenic effect, which may act as a trigger for cancer,” says Lam. She suggests avoiding any ingredients that end in the term paraben (Methyl-, Propyl-, Butyl- and Ethyl-) or search out paraben-free products.
Most commonly found in: makeup, body washes, deodorants, shampoos, and facial cleansers.
“Made from petroleum and coal tar, this toxic force is found in synthetic fragrances and can be detrimental to the skin and immune system. There is concern that chronic exposure in adults may be linked to anaemia, liver and kidney damage,” says Lam.
Most commonly found in: nail polish and treatments, and hair colour and bleaching products.
Petrolatum is also known as petroleum jelly and is found in a number of popular cosmetics including the widely popular Paw Paw cream. According to Lam, “petrolatum interferes with the body’s natural moisturising mechanism, leading to dryness and chapping. [It] coats the skin like plastic and clogs pores.” She suggests steering clear of this ingredient.
Most commonly found in: lipsticks, balms, hair care products, moisturisers, and deodorant.
Lam warns that Propylene Glycol can cause skin irritation. She says there is concern that it may be linked to kidney and liver problems, cell mutations, and reproductive issues. It is widely used in cosmetics as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture-carriers.
Most commonly found in: moisturisers, sunscreen, makeup products, conditioners, shampoos and hair sprays.
“Formaldehyde is a toxic impurity released by a number of cosmetic preservatives, including Diazolidinyl Urea, Quaternium -15, Polyoxymethylene Urea, and Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate,” says Lam. She recommends avoiding any product that contains formaldehyde or formaldehyde-producing ingredients.
Most commonly found in: nail polish, body washes, conditioners, shampoos, cleansers, eye shadows, and nail polish treatments.”