You’ve become a pro at thoroughly inspecting the ingredient labels on food, but beauty product labels are a different story. For starters, the majority of beauty ingredients don’t even look like English. Plus, the “don’t touch it if you can’t pronounce it” philosophy that keeps you eating clean doesn’t always carry over to cosmetics. Sometimes, a scary-sounding ingredient can actually be a beneficial vitamin or mineral, and other times, an ingredient that looks like it’s in a different language can turn out to be a toxic chemical (one you certainly don’t want to put on your face). Sorting out the innocuous from the harmful seems like a job for a master chemist or Marissa Waller, founder of the non-toxic beauty retailer BeaTeaBar.com, and longtime ingredient label decoder. Even if memorizing a science textbook is not high on your priorities list, there are a few classes of ingredients you should be familiar with.
Keep reading for a lesson in ingredient list translation!
Synthetic fragrances will be labeled as fragrance or parfum. Waller recommends avoiding them because they tend to be allergens or sometimes worse. The other issue with seeing “fragrance” or “parfum” on a label is that those words do not accurately describe what the ingredient is. “Due to trade secret laws, companies do not need to disclose the chemical ingredients that make up the fragrance ingredient, so it’s often just a code word for chemicals,” Waller says. But not all fragrance is cause for alarm. Just look for products that specifically state their fragrance is sourced from natural ingredients.
“Parabens are synthetic preservatives that many cosmetic companies use to extend the shelf life of their products,” Waller says. They’ve been linked to hormone disruption, DNA damage, increased skin aging, and even some cancers. Waller recommends seeking out products that are labeled “paraben-free,” but when in doubt check the ingredients list. Avoid anything ending in paraben (methylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben) and any variations of hydroxybenzoic acid, hydroxybenzoate, or ester.
Alcohol is not as straightforward as the paraben discussion. You might assume that any product containing alcohol is drying, but did you know that vitamin A and vitamin E are both alcohols? The reality is all alcohols affect your skin differently. They can be humectants, solvents, emulsifiers, surfactants, and antioxidants. Retinol (a vitamin A derivative), tocopherol (vitamin E), cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, and propylene glycol are all alcohols that benefit your skin. But there are a few alcohols that will dry out your skin, so avoid SD alcohol 40, denatured alcohol, ethanol, and isopropyl alcohol.
Waller says it’s best to steer clear of any product that lists formaldehyde on the label because it’s known to cause skin irritation (in some cases very extreme irritation) and has been linked to cancer. You should also avoid DD hydatoin, diazolidinyl urea, methanamin, and quarterium-15, as these ingredients release formaldehyde and are just as damaging.
Sulfates are detergents that are commonly used in cleaning agents. Among your beauty collection, you’ll often see them in face wash (mainly gel and foaming cleansers because sulfates generate lather). But while many cosmetic companies think sulfates are effective in cleaning skin, they’re actually surfactants that cut oil from your skin. They’re just too strong and lead to surface dehydration. The good news is they’re easy to spot, so look out for anything that ends in sulfate: ammonium lauryl sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, and sodium lauryl sulfate.
Phthalates can be found in everything from paint to water bottles. Beauty-wise, they turn up in lotion, hairspray, and fragrance. The issue with this is phthalates are chemicals that have been linked to cancer and fertility issues. Studies on phthalates are ongoing, but to be safe avoid DBP, DEHP, DMP, DEP, dibutyl/diethyl ester, and 2-benzenedicarboxylate. Also remember that a lot of the time, synthetic fragrances are made up of phthalates.
Do you pay attention to ingredient lists on your beauty products?