The best way to prevent yourself and the planet from absorbing nasty chemicals is to become a label-lurker. The rules on what to avoid in cosmetics are rather simple but they may prove hard to implement. The good news is, after about a year of my quest for non-synthetic products, I learned to find good quality products without reading labels, just by their smell or texture. Before we start our label-lurking adventure, however, it is important to understand the (spoiler: fake!) dichotomy between “synthetic” and “natural” cosmetics.
Health impact versus the production method
The question over what is synthetic and what is natural has become more relevant in the last couple of years with the “natural boom”. The quest for healthier cosmetics has led many into the belief that “natural” cosmetics are superior to “synthetic” ones. This is not true as the distinction is far more complex.
Problems arise with the very definition of “natural” and “synthetic”. Most matter is technically a chemical, no matter how it is produced. Choiceful defines any ingredient that is extracted from plants by physical means and that has not been chemically modified as “natural”. We deem any lab-created ingredient “synthetic”, no matter if it is a naturally derived aloe vera extract that has been “boosted” with preservatives or hyaluronic acid that is fully lab-made.
This distinction is purely a technical one – it says nothing about the “goodness” or “badness” of the ingredients used. A friend of mine illustrated the misplacement of the “natural = good, synthetic = bad” approach by pointing out that COVID-19 is natural while the vaccine against it is synthetic (or will be, once it is created). Consumers’ assessment of whether an ingredient is “good” or “bad” should be guided by the impact the ingredient has on their body and the environment rather than how the molecules that make it up got together. This compelling list of synthetic and natural chemicals assesses them based on their health effects.
Sometimes synthetic ingredients are superior to natural ones. If a plant is extremely rare, it is more sustainable to create the needed extract in a lab than to cut the plant down for the sake of “naturalness”. However, natural ingredients have healing properties that synthetic ones lack. The use of synthetic or natural is context- and need-dependent.
The extra mile for nature
A genuine problem regarding the use of synthetic ingredients in cosmetics is the lack of proper regulation. Often producers want to lower the cost of their products at the expense of our and our planet’s health. Cheap cosmetics are filled with synthetically derived chemicals that may affect body functions negatively. What affects humans negatively is always detrimental to the environment – we are, after all, the same organic matter. Besides, unregulated production of synthetic chemicals often pollutes the water or the air. The perfect cosmetics need to contain two ingredients: care for the body and attention to the planet.
Let us face it: producing or making natural cosmetics is a hassle, an expensive one. Natural ingredients need to be extracted with more care, they are harder to preserve, and need very specific storage conditions to last. All the additional care that natural cosmetic producers need to put into their products increases the chance – although it is not a guarantee – that the cosmetic will not have negative consequences on the body and the planet. Usually, brands that decide on going natural have high ethical standards. It is related to the founders’ mindset and the vision they lay out in their branding.
Apart from the issue of synthetic chemicals, the cosmetic industry also faces the problem of plastic packaging. In many products, such as shampoos, shower gels or liquid soaps, almost 80% of the content is… water. The solid form of cosmetics in bars makes them last longer and allows for abandoning plastic packaging.
How to choose cosmetics consciously
Rule number one: the simpler, the better. Try to choose products with ingredients that you understand – and are actually able to pronounce. When in doubt, always remember this rule.
Rule number two: choose oil-based, rather than water-based, products. While water makes creams and lotions more pumpable, it also requires additional preservatives to prevent bacteria or mould to form on the product. Oil is self-preserving so oil-based products have a shorter ingredients list.
Rule number three: avoid products with “fragrance” or “perfume” in their ingredient list. Fragrance or perfume is not a single ingredient but it can be made up of approximately 3,000 chemicals. Some of them have not been tested for toxicity, others cause allergic reactions. Only the most-allergenic ingredients, such as limonene, citronellol, or cinnamal, are required to be listed by name.
The lack of regulation on those terms is often used by cosmetic companies to smuggle preservatives. “Unscented” or “fragrance-free” products can also contain fragrance, alongside a masking agent to stop the brain from smelling the odour.
Greenwashing is real
Rule number four: beware of “organic”, “eco-friendly”, or “natural” labels! The cosmetic industry has no regulations over the use of these terms, so they have been heavily greenwashed. The companies have no requirement to practice what they preach – and green sells well. The issue with the word “organic” is more complex: a product may contain genuinely organic plant extracts… next to parabens or petroleum-based additives. Do not let the etiquette trick you – always remember to lurk into the label!
The International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI), created in 1997 by the European Commission, obliges producers to provide a list where the ingredients follow an order from the most-used to the least-used. Under INCI rules, the ingredient that constitutes the most of the product comes first. Those that constitute less than 1% can be listed at the end without an alphabetical order.
So what exactly do we need to watch out for in labels? The EU has far stricter regulations on the use of certain substances than the US. Since we are based in the Netherlands, we will focus on the ingredients that pass the EU’s regulations while still being toxic. For a list that includes ingredients allowed in the US, check out the Dirty Dozen.
Parabens are mostly used to prevent bacteria and mould from growing. They are one of the most widespread preservatives, present in hair products, shaving products, or make-up. They interfere with the body’s hormone balance and have been detected in breast cancer tissue.
• sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)
• sodium lauryl sulfate
• polyethylene glycol (PEG) & derivatives
Sulfates are what makes your shampoo or shower gel foam while PEG and its derivatives make the skin more permeable. Both groups of compounds can irritate skin and eyes, are often contaminated with carcinogens, and are toxic to aquatic organisms. The compounds are also often made of petroleum and contaminate surface waters when they go down our shower drains.
- Paraffinum Liquidum
- Isoparaffin (Microcrystalline) wax
- Mineral Oil Petrolatum Cera
- Microcristallina Ceresin Ozokerite
Petroleum is one of the most common ingredients in cosmetics. It either acts as a greasy component or as a base material for other ingredients. Crude oil is the devil of the environmental pollution, besides, petroleum in cosmetics is detrimental for the skin. It closes the pores so the skin cannot breathe and gets damaged. This is especially important as petroleum-based ingredients often make up “moisturizing” cosmetics such as creams or lotions. While petroleum-based fats are mentioned on labels as the list above, petroleum as a basis for other ingredients is rarely mentioned, which makes it difficult to identify and avoid.
• diethyl phthalate (DEP)
• dibutyl phthalate (DBP)
• any ingredient that ends in ~phthalate
Phthalates are plasticisers with a wide use ranging from toys to wrappings. In cosmetics, they may be added to soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, or nail polish. While some have been banned in the EU, there are so many types of them that it will take a long time before they are all banned. Phthalates are linked to asthma and cancer, among others.
Formaldehyde & formaldehyde-releasing preservatives
• DMDM hydantoin
• Imidazolidinyl urea
• Diazolidinyl urea
• Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol )
Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, can be absorbed through the skin. Although small amounts of this compound are not extremely dangerous, consistent exposure is. The above-listed preservatives either contain formaldehyde or release formaldehyde gas, and can be found in nail polish, nail polish remover, hair products, and some baby care products.
- Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamat
- Isoamyl Methoxycinnamate
- Octyl Methoxycinnamate,
- 4-Methylbenzylidene Camphor
- Butyl Methoxydibenzolmenthane
- Ethylhexyl Dimethyl PABA
Many synthetic UV filters are suspected of disrupting hormonal balance, causing allergies and being carcinogenic. From an environmental point of view, the synthetic chemicals in UV filters may damage coral reefs if washed into the sea.
The (un)easy change
Finding out which cosmetics to use to avoid harmful substances can be overwhelming. If you do not want to spend hours on label-lurking, try some readymade lists of organic cosmetic shops, like this one (we cannot promise its reliability – we learned toxic-free beauty on our own). You can also look for natural cosmetics certificates, such as NSF, COSMOS, NATRUE, NPA, EWG, or Ecocert. Interestingly enough, none of them requires a product to be 100% natural but the certifications help avoid applying harmful substances on our bodies. Parabens, PEG & derivatives, or petroleum-based polymers are not allowed in certified natural cosmetics. It gets more complicated with fragrance – even the most allergenic ones are often allowed in natural cosmetics. Despite that, official certifications are a good start to embark on a journey of fair, healthy labels. If you happen to live in Germany, you are lucky to be able to download CodeCheck: a phone app that scans labels and checks the ingredients’ safety for you. I hope it reaches the Netherlands soon!
Sources & additional resources
Glamour Magazine explains the difference between natural and synthetic ingredients: https://www.glamourmagazine.co.uk/article/difference-between-natural-and-synthetic-skincare
This great course on clean beauty helped me get into the basics of natural skincare: https://www.onecommune.com/clean-beauty-with-dr-joy-reese-and-sophie-jaffe
Paula’s Choice has the most extensive ingredient list to date: https://www.paulaschoice.com/ingredient-dictionary
Some natural cosmetics companies provide their customers with natural ingredients lists:
Skinny & Co:
Kjaer Weis: https://kjaerweis.com/pages/ingredients
Skinny & Co and Utopia explain what to look for in labels in mutually complementing lists:
For the US, David Suzuki prepared a list of the Dirty Dozen and a shopper’s guide: https://davidsuzuki.org/queen-of-green/dirty-dozen-cosmetic-chemicals-avoid/