Meet the 8 ‘grim reaper’ ingredients of skincare products according to a skin scientist

Australian skin scientist and cosmetic chemist, Terri Vinson reveals the eight most commonly skincare ingredients that could be damaging your overall health.

Our skin is the largest organ of our body, providing a vital barrier to those outside nasties like pollution, damaging solar radiation and even tiny (and possibly dubious) chemicals from our daily personal care products.

As an Australian skin scientist and cosmetic chemist, I have made it my mission to help educate people on the science of skincare and the ingredients that I deem as questionable.

Choosing personal care products, whether it be sunscreens, body moisturisers, facial serums or mineral makeup, can be overwhelming as the marketplace has never been more abundant with choice.

Many of these products contain additives that I would not choose to formulate with. THEN add the plethora of accompanying marketing messages that are often unsubstantiated or overloaded with hype and beauty mythology.

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Choose ‘clean science’ ingredients

Every year, people can absorb over two kilograms of questionable ingredients from the skincare products they put on their faces and bodies. Note, I use the term ‘questionable’ and not ‘toxic’ as I am not in the business of fear mongering. Whilst most dubious ingredients will not harm many healthy individuals, even with long term exposure, why take a risk? There is evidence that some of the chemical additives could be harmful to the body’s cells when allowed to accumulate over time. These ingredients might pose risks to overall health if applied under certain conditions, or if an individual is predisposed to certain concerns.

Listed below are eight ingredients that won’t be included in my formulations, as I believe there are safer and cleaner alternatives.

Paraben preservatives

Parabens are common and inexpensive preservatives used in almost all categories of beauty products. You need to decipher labels and look for the ingredients including butylparaben, propylparaben and methylparaben. Whilst the evidence is not conclusive, parabens may be linked to estrogen-mimicking hormone imbalances. There is also a 2017 study from the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology that highlights the widespread occurrence of parabens from consumer products in fish, sea grasses and marine algae.

Phthalates

Pronounced ‘tha-lates’, these chemical additives are solvents and fragrance carriers in personal care products to help the scent last longer. They are often not even listed on labels as you are only required to list ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’, and not the individual components of a fragrance.

They have been linked to various concerns, including hormonal disruption, and there has been some evidence that excessive exposure to phthalates during pregnancy can affect male fertility. However, more studies need to be carried out in this area to provide conclusive results. I would recommend avoiding phthalates in personal care products and opt for fragrance-free or low-dose essential oils.

Chemical absorbing sunscreen

Also known as ‘organic sunscreen’ ingredients, these work by absorbing UV rays (UVA or UVB) inside the skin. Chemical sunscreen ingredients differ to mineral sunscreens (physical or inorganic) that differ by not penetrating the skin when applied topically.

Mineral sunscreens containing zinc oxide – my outright favourite sunscreen ingredient as they are an excellent physical block to help prevent solar damage. This wonder mineral acts like tiny mirrors to reflect and scatter damaging UVA and UVB rays from the skin’s surface, and it can even be used to reduce skin sensitivities. Win-win!

On the other hand, oxybenzone is a chemical-absorbing sunscreen that is currently creating controversy, regarding possible hormonal disruption to cells, and its negative effects on marine life and coral reef infertility. Oxybenzone is now banned as a chemical sunscreen in Hawaii for this reason.

Chemical sunscreens are always linked with more skin irritation versus their mineral counterparts. When weighing up the immediate risk of chemical sunscreen toxicity and sun damage, I would always say that any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen, but if you have the choice, think zinc! There may be some new chemical sunscreens on the horizon offering great protection and minimal risk, but until then my lab will only use minerals like zinc oxide for skin care.

Artificial colour (FD&C dyes)

Synthetic colour is often referred to as ‘D&C’ or ‘FD&C’ dyes, with the letterings standing for Food, Drug and Cosmetics. These ingredients are used for appearance only, providing colour to personal care products. Derived from coal tar, a by-product of petroleum, they offer absolutely no benefit to the skin. Due to the small size of the pigment particles, along with possible lead and heavy metal content, FD&C dyes may be irritating to the skin and cause sensitivity reactions. Opt for products that offer natural minerals such as coloured micas, iron oxides or plant derived colours – a much safer, natural option.

Artificial fragrance

A strong memory for me is one when I walked past a store selling soaps and bath bombs. That sickly-sweet perfume I inhaled was overwhelming and I immediately knew it was artificial fragrance. So many beauty products contain artificial fragrance and these ingredients can contain over 200 synthetic chemicals. Artificial fragrance is the primary cause of skin irritation and allergic reactions from personal care products. These chemicals can also affect our brain chemistry leading to headaches and even migraines. The safest option is to look for products that are either fragrance free or contain pure essential oils at low levels (this usually means it is seen at the tail-end of the ingredient list). Label readers should look for words and symbols such as ‘Fragrance +/- number’ or ‘Parfum +/- number’ – and chances are they are artificial.

Sodium laurel sulphate (SLS) and other foaming sulphates

SLS causes products to lather and foam and are found in so many products from hand wash to cheap baby shampoo. These cleansing sulphate ingredients can cause skin irritations and allergic reactions. In fact, Sodium laurel sulphate is one of the most irritating ingredients skin care products. Thankfully, many products today are SLS free and this is stated on the label.

PEGs

PEGs are a cheap and versatile additive to skincare. There are many different types of PEGs and they are used in skincare products as emollients – ingredient penetration enhancer, and to help dissolve and stabilise other ingredients in the product. Pure PEGs themselves are not questionable in low doses, but there are other by-product ingredients involved in their manufacture that may be present, such as ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, which are known toxins. Again, the dosage of this ingredient required to create serious medical concerns are large, but there are great alternatives to PEGs, such as plant-based oils and naturally derived solubilisers.

Propylene glycol

Used as a humectant (water attracting) moisturiser, this ingredient is used to hydrate and improve the penetration of other ingredients within a product. It can also help to dissolve other ingredients in the formula. This ingredient has attracted controversy regarding its toxicity, which is always related to dosage and in general will not be toxic in most skin care products, however the link to skin irritation is a concern. Propylene Glycol is best avoided because there are other ingredients, such as glycerine, that perform the same function with a significantly lower risk.

Look for alternatives instead

Whilst there are numerous ingredients that are deemed ‘toxic’, it is usually all about the dose and the number of exposures to the chemical. It is important not to incite fear into the minds of consumers.

My goal is to minimise any risk to my customers and always look for the alternatives offering the lowest risk. Armed with information, I believe that it is up to the consumer to make their own informed decisions regarding what they apply to their bodies and the bodies of their children.

Terri Vinson (BSc. Dip Form Chem, DipEd. ASCC.) is an Australian skin scientist, speaker and managing director, formulator and cosmetic chemist at Synergie Skin and author of Skinformation.