These are the ingredients we don’t really want to find in a natural product. In fact, our own choice is to avoid them altogether, if at all possible. That’s because we eat organic food, live a natural lifestyle, use eco-paints – and so it goes on. It’s a free country. You may choose to avoid these ingredients, too, or you may be attracted to natural and green cosmetics not because of what they leave out, but because of what they include: active natural ingredients that will help your face, body and hair look its healthy best.
We have listed here controversial ingredients which are most widely-used – and which have question marks over them, whether from a health or an environmental point of view.
DEA (diethanolamine), TEA (triethanolamine) and MEA (monoethanolamine) You’ll find them listed on labels as, for example, Cocamide DEA or Lauramide DEA, etc. These can cause allergic reactions, irritate the eyes and dry both hair and skin. They are ‘amines’ (ammonia compounds) which can under certain circumstances react with nitrates to form carcinogens; Dr. Samuel Epstein, Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition in the US, has petitioned for labelling on cosmetics packaging which would read: ‘’Caution – this product may contain N-nitrosodi-ethabolamine, a known cancer-causing agent’.
Mineral oil This is listed as paraffinum liquidum on European labels; petrolatum is basically the same thing. It’s cheap, it’s been plentiful – but now the world’s oil supply is peaking (or has peaked, depending on who you ask), all that is changing. And some believe because mineral oil is a terrific ‘barrier’, it can tamper with the body’s own moisturising mechanism, ultimately leading to chapping and dryness – the very conditions it’s used to alleviate. Once oil’s gone, that’s it (for billions of years); other ingredients can do the same job (if not better), and be sustainably produced, crop after crop. We prefer them. It’s that simple.
Imidazolidinyl Urea and Diazolidinyl Urea Widely used preservatives; the American Academy of Dermatology has found them to be a key cause of contact dermatitis.
Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) An antibacterial agent found in antimicrobial soaps, hand soaps and a surprising number of personal care products; not only does this have the potential to cause irritation or allergic reactions, but it has also been linked with nerve damage. The quantities in cosmetics are teensy, but we avoid this ourselves, thanks.
Parabens These ingredients have been around since the 1920s and have become the most highly-contentious in the beauty world, with companies scrambling to emblazon their packaging with ‘paraben-free’. Where products listed in this book contain parabens, we say so in the product write-up. Parabens are widely-used preservatives, added to ward off bacterial growth, and are also found in food and drugs, in smaller amounts. They’re actually a ‘family’ of preservatives which includes methyl-, propyl-, butyl- and ethyl-paraben. But are they safe? It depends on who you ask. The US Food & Drug Administration points to a review of studies that says they absolutely are; certainly, they have very low irritancy potential. But according to Lisa Donofrio, a US dermatologist and advisor to Health Magazine, ‘Several studies, including one done at the University of Montpellier in France, have found that parabens act like the hormone oestrogen. This concerns me since some breast cancer cells are encouraged to grow by the presence of oestrogen in the bloodstream.’ Dr. Donofrio does not recommend paraben-based products to her patients. As the natural beauty world becomes more sophisticated, many brands are finding alternatives to these preservatives so it’s easier than ever to avoid them.
Propylene glycol This can be from a natural source – vegetable glycerine, mixed with grain alcohol – but more usually is a synthetic petrochemical mix, mixed with a water-attracting humectant; it’s been known to cause allergic reactions such as eczema.
PVP/VA Copolymer A petroleum-derived chemical common to hairsprays and styling products (the word ‘polymer’ gives a clue as to its plastic-like holding powers), it can be toxic when inhaled, and damage the lungs of sensitive individuals.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate This is hugely controversial. There is some suggestion that the huge amount of publicity knocking SLS began as an unfounded ‘whispering campaign’. The American Cancer Society actually took advertising to quash the widespread rumour that SLS causes cancer. It doesn’t. But it is highly de-greasing, drying and irritating to skin, interfering with the skin’s barrier system and making it easier for other ingredients to enter. Many natural shampoo companies now trumpet their use of ‘Laureth’ ingredients, instead, but in fact (like DEA and TEA), these can react to produce nitrosamines. The good news is that increasingly, the savvier natural beauty companies are turning to very gentle, non-irritating cleansing agents derived from corn and sugar.
Stearalkonium chloride Developed originally as a fabric softener, it’s perhaps not surprising this is also now used in hair conditioners and creams; it can cause allergic reactions. Natural cosmetics use proteins or herbal ingredients, instead.
Synthetic colours These are labelled as FD&C or D&C on the label, followed by a colour and a number (for instance FD&C Red No.6, or D&C Green No. 5). Derived from coal tar, these are potentially carcinogenic.
Triclosan According to the Environmental Working Group, this is linked to liver and inhalation toxicity, and even low levels may disrupt thyroid function. It also ends up in lakes, rivers and water sources, where it’s very toxic to aquatic life. Triclosan is very widely used in anti-bacterial products (and it’s even embedded in household items like chopping boards!), but the good news is that several different natural brands now offer Triclosan-free anti-bacterial hand gels, which do the bug-busting job efficiently when you’re on the go and can’t get to good old soap and water.
Here are some of the terms – and symbols – you’ll find on packaging, demystified for you.
Biodynamic Biodynamic farming is based on organic principles. Some people descriibe it as ‘beyond organics’ – because not only does biodynamic farming exclude the use of synthetic fertilisers and chemicals in crop production, but also requires specific measures to strengthen the life processes in soil and plants, such as planting by specific phases of the moon. (When you think that the moon has the power to move billions of gallons of water across the earth’s surface to create the tides, it makes sense to us that it has the power to affect plant growth, too.) Several ranges include Biodynamic ingredients; Weleda is the best-known
Organic The word ‘organic’, alas, is still widely abused in the beauty world. Food manufacturers can be prosecuted for using the word organic, unless they have the certification to prove your claims. Unfortunately, in Europe, organic guidelines aren’t yet covered by law, which means a lot of abuse is going on: we are still incensed, for example, to find one brand with the word ‘organic’ in its name, four mentions of the word ‘organic’ on the front of the packaging alone – but what’s inside isn’t certified, and in reality, only the essential oils and one other ingredient (of many) are from organic sources.
Above are all examples of the organic symbols that you will find on cosmetic packaging, which means that agricultural ingredients must have been grown organically (except in a handful of cases where an ingredient is not yet available organically). In addition, a long list of chemicals used elsewhere in the cosmetics industry is prohibited from use in these products.
Unfortunately, all these standards were developed in independently – the UK for the Soil Association, America for USDA, France for Ecocert. (Although the symbols can all be used on products sold in other countries.) This means that there are subtle differences in the standards – although the new European COSMOS standard seeks to bridge some of those differences. We can tell you: to reach even this point, there’s been a right tug-of-war between the different certifying bodies (Jo used to chair The Soil Association Health & Beauty Standards Committee, so she witnessed much of the argy-bargy first-hand). But the hope is that ultimately there will be a common set of standards which can be enforced in law – and we look forward to that day…
Meanwhile, the only way you can be completely sure that a product does contain the organic ingredients it claims it does is to look for an organic logo (as per those examples above).