Reading Labels: Ingredients to Avoid in Skincare and How to Spot Them
When it comes to skincare and other personal care products, it’s safe to say that for us here at MASK CBD Skincare, the more natural the ingredients, the happier our skin.
But with so much growth and information surrounding the clean/green/natural beauty space, it can be confusing for any consumer to understand what ingredients are really “clean,” especially since that very term isn’t a regulated one.
We’re taking some of the guesswork out of reading ingredients by sharing with you some of the top ingredients to avoid in skincare, how to spot them, and where to turn if you still have questions.
First, some terminology around clean beauty
First thing’s first: We believe in the power of natural ingredients and honoring them through using organic whenever possible and sourcing them in sustainable ways.
But just as not all natural ingredients are good for skin (looking at you, poison ivy), not all synthetic ingredients are bad for skin. There have been some amazing developments in safe synthetics in recent years, and some of them have undergone extensive testing for safety and performance, and have come out with flying colors.
Second, the words “chemical free” are often used in conjunction with natural skincare. This is a misnomer, and can lead to fear-mongering. While this term may be used to denote a product being free of harmful chemicals, no skincare product is actually chemical free. After all, water is a chemical compound! A term we find both more direct and more accurate when describing products that are safe to use is non-toxic.
Lastly, we here at MASK CBD Skincare believe that knowledge is power. We believe that when you know more, you’re empowered to make wiser decisions around the products you buy and use.
So, let’s learn about some ingredients in skincare to avoid for their effects on health—and about some trusted sources where you can go to keep learning more.
5 Ingredients to Avoid in Skincare
- Synthetic Fragrance
While many of us have grown up accustomed to artificial fragrance in everything from perfumes to shower gels, soaps to shampoos, and hair products to body lotions, synthetic fragrance is a tricky beast due to the lack of regulation surrounding it. Synthetic fragrances can be made up of hundreds to thousands of different ingredients that don’t have to be disclosed to you under the guise of being a “proprietary” scent.
In fact, according to fda.gov, “If a cosmetic is marketed on a retail basis to consumers, such as in stores, on the Internet, or person-to-person, it must have a list of ingredients. In most cases, each ingredient must be listed individually.
But under U.S. regulations, fragrance and flavor ingredients can be listed simply as ‘Fragrance’ or ‘Flavor.’ Here’s why: FDA requires the list of ingredients under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). This law is not allowed to be used to force a company to tell ‘trade secrets.’ Fragrance and flavor formulas are complex mixtures of many different natural and synthetic chemical ingredients, and they are the kinds of cosmetic components that are most likely to be ‘trade secrets.’”
This lack of transparency can prove extremely frustrating for consumers with allergies or sensitivities because there is no way to determine what is actually in the fragrance so they can then avoid it. And, synthetic fragrance can be an ideal hiding place for known endocrine (hormone) disruptors. Which brings us to the next ingredient to avoid…
Phthalates are chemical compounds known endocrine disruptors which often lurk under the “fragrance” label, as well as in plastics and canned goods.
When used in synthetic fragrance, they help fragrance to “stick” to skin—that phenomenon that allows your perfume to last throughout the day. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors that may lead to health issues such as ADHD, compromised immunity, reproductive issues, and others.
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, “People may be exposed to endocrine disruptors through food and beverages consumed, pesticides applied, and cosmetics used. In essence, your contact with these chemicals may occur through diet, air, skin, and water.
Even low doses of endocrine-disrupting chemicals may be unsafe. The body’s normal endocrine functioning involves very small changes in hormone levels, yet we know even these small changes can cause significant developmental and biological effects.
This observation leads scientists to think that endocrine-disrupting chemical exposures, even at low amounts, can alter the body’s sensitive systems and lead to health problems.”
Thanks to consumer education, many brands have finally begun to phase out parabens, preservatives often used in cosmetics and personal care products that have been linked to hormone disruption.
According to Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP), “Parabens are known endocrine disruptors that can mimic estrogen in the body. Several studies have shown that parabens can affect the mechanisms of normal breast cells and potentially influence their abnormal growth, leading to increased risk for breast cancer.”
BCPP notes that when reading ingredient labels, common parabens and their synonyms include:
- propylparaben (or propyl 4-hydroxylbenzoate),
- butylparaben (or butyl 4-hydroxylbenzoate),
- ethylparaben (or ethyl 4-hydroxylbenzoate)
- heptylparaben (or heptyl 4-hydroxylbenzoate),
- methylparaben (or methyl 4-hydroxybenzoate)
“Pay particular attention to products marketed to kids,” BCPP advises. “Both the European Commission and Denmark have banned butylparaben and propylparaben from diaper creams and other leave-on products for children under three.,"
- DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (Monoethanolamine), and TEA (triethanolamine)
Known as ethanolamines or ethanolamine compounds, these clear and colorless liquids are found in soaps, cleansers, eye makeup, sunscreens, hair products and more.
According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, “The European Commission prohibits diethanolamine (DEA) in cosmetics, to reduce contamination from carcinogenic nitrosamines. When ethanolamines are used in the same product as certain preservatives that break down into nitrogen, they can form nitrosamines.
Nitrosamines are a class of more than a dozen different chemicals, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists individually as possible and known carcinogens.  The National Toxicology Program Report on Carcinogens lists 15 individual nitrosamines as reasonably anticipated human carcinogens.  In cosmetics formulations, DEA may react with other ingredients to form a carcinogen called nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA) which is absorbed through the skin.”
Propylene Glycol (PG) & Butylene Glycol
Used in their liquid states as surfactants or solvents, Propylene Glycol (PG) & Butylene Glycol
are also considered to be humectant moisturizers.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that, “Propylene glycol (PG) is a commonly used solvent for oral, intravenous, and topical pharmaceutical agents. Although PG is generally considered safe, when used in high doses or for prolonged periods, PG toxicity can occur.”
NIH continues, “Reported adverse effects from PG include central nervous system (CNS) toxicity, hyperosmolarity, hemolysis, cardiac arrhythmia, seizures, agitation, and lactic acidosis. Patients at risk for toxicity include infants, those with renal or hepatic insuficiency, epilepsy, and burn patients receiving extensive dermal applications of PG containing products.”
While these are some important ingredients to avoid in your skincare, makeup, and personal care products, the list is actually much (much) longer. But you don’t have to feel overwhelmed every time you try to read an ingredient list!
A trusted site like madesafe.org does a remarkable job breaking down ingredients to avoid, and even certifies brands and products that meet their exceedingly high standards for safety—not just for humans, but for animals and the planet, too.
Want to take some knowledge with you when you’re out and about? Download The Healthy Living app by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to search for ingredients, brands, and products at your fingertips. And as always, if you’re reaching for a natural skin care brand, seeing ingredients that you recognize is often a good indicator of what’s inside.
The more you know as a consumer, the more power you have!