So how do you know that the product you’re about to put on your face isn’t just perfumed, irritating sludge in stylish packaging?
Consumers should learn some of the main ingredients in cosmetics to identify commonly known irritants, but this doesn’t always eliminate the guesswork. How your skin responds to an ingredient has more to do with your skin type and your genetics, according to skin-care professionals. Even ingredients that are considered “natural,” such as lavender essential oil, can severely irritate the skin depending on your skin type, said Ashley White, a licensed aesthetician.
So first, don’t be distracted by the buzzwords on a product’s cover. Instead, examine the full ingredient list, focusing on the first five to 10 ingredients (which are used in the greatest amounts).
When in doubt, licensed aesthetician Hadiyah Daché — also known as the “Fairy Glow Mother” — said shoppers should type the product into INCIdecoder, an online cosmetics database, to get a full rundown.
True product wonks might want to check out the research on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, but for now, here’s a guide to basic types of ingredients found in skin and hair care products, compiled from interviews with Daché and dermatologist Caroline Robinson, plus research in Paula’s Choice Ingredient Dictionary and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review.
*An asterisk indicates that skin-care professionals commonly refer to the ingredient as sensitizing or that it is likely to cause skin irritation. Use with caution, especially in higher concentrations.
Alcohol: Although there are several types of alcohols in cosmetics, generally they are used to help other ingredients penetrate the skin. Some types of alcohol, such as SD alcohol*, ethyl alcohol* and denatured alcohol*, are known for their drying effect on skin and hair, but skin-care professionals say shoppers shouldn’t be afraid of the word “alcohol” on ingredient lists. Cetearyl alcohol and cetyl alcohol, Daché said, are known as good or “fatty” alcohol ingredients. Fatty alcohols can soften hair and even help sooth dry skin in moisturizers and hair conditioners.
Alpha hydroxy acids: These chemicals, such as glycolic acid and lactic acid, are used to exfoliate the top layers of the skin by “loosening” the glue between skin cells to promote cell turnover. AHAs are found in a variety of skin-care products, such as cleansers, and can vary in strength and concentration. Although the word “acid” might sound scary, alpha hydroxy acids applied to the skin in the right concentration (based on skin type) can help slough off dead skin cells.
Antioxidants: These compounds can prevent or reduce the effect of free radical damage. Sun exposure and air pollution are some of the most common causes of free radical damage, which can result in wrinkles and fine lines. There are many types of antioxidants out there, but here are a few to know:
●Studies have shown that L-ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C, has positive benefits for the skin, such as brightening hyperpigmentation with use over time.
●Vitamin E or tocopherol acetate is known to reduce skin inflammation, but contrary to popular belief, applying it to scars does not improve their appearance.
●Your body’s natural antioxidants, like ubiquinone, also known as coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), start to decline with age. Ubiquinone stimulates production of collagen — a protein your skin needs to maintain its youthful “bounce” — and helps cells to respond to threats (i.e. free radicals) and get rid of toxins.
●There are eight types of vitamin B, but the two consumers will most often see on ingredient labels are niacinamide (vitamin B3) and panthenol (vitamin B5). Both types applied topically can reduce hyperpigmentation, assist with moisture retention and improve the skin’s overall complexion.
●Retinol*, also known as Vitamin A, is an antioxidant your body doesn’t naturally produce. Vitamin A and its various derivatives are called retinoids, and these ingredients can range from low-concentration treatments like Differin gel to prescription-strength Retin-A or tretinoin. Retinol is regarded by most skin-care professionals as an effective anti-aging ingredient, but it is also known to cause dry, flaky skin. Consumers should see a skin-care professional for guidance on how to best use retinol to limit irritation.
Beta hydroxy acid: A chemical often used in cosmetics to treat acne, unclog pores, reduce inflammation and tame excess sebum (the oil your skin naturally produces). Types include salicylic acid and betaine salicylate. Willow bark extract is also considered a BHA-like ingredient because it contains salicin, a chemical found in aspirin. Although willow bark can be soothing, it can’t “mimic” the acne-fighting benefits of salicylic acid, according to Paula’s Choice.
Citric acid: An alpha hydroxy acid derived from citrus fruit and often used to adjust the pH of products.
Cocamide MEA/DEA: A thickening agent used in shampoos, conditioners and soaps.
Disodium EDTA: Known as a chelating agent, this ingredient bonds with other heavy metals to help preserve a product.
Emollients: Ingredients used to help the skin or hair retain moisture. Behentrimonium chloride, for example, is a conditioning and cleansing agent found in shampoos and conditioners. Dimethicone gives moisturizers their silky texture, helps protect the skin from water loss and helps control hair frizz, but it isn’t water-soluble, meaning it can create product buildup and weigh down curly textures. Other types of emollients include lecithin, isopropyl myristate and isopropyl palmitate.
Emulsifiers: Ingredients such as xanthan gum or stearic acid that prevent a formula from separating. They can also improve the texture of cosmetics such as moisturizers and creams.
Essential oils*: Fragrant and highly concentrated chemical compounds derived from plants such as lavender (Lavandula) or rose (Rosa damascena) found in aromatherapy and skin-care products. These compounds are considered “volatile” and likely to irritate the skin, especially when they aren’t accompanied by a carrier oil (i.e. coconut oil, castor oil, jojoba seed oil, etc.). Although there are plenty of lofty promises when it comes to these elixirs, there’s also lots of fuzzy science — and few guarantees about any purported benefits beyond a nice smell.
Fragrance/parfum*: A combination of chemicals designed to produce a pleasant aroma. Although you can rarely label an ingredient “bad” or “good,” Daché said she doesn’t recommend her clients use products with fragrance. “Fragrance is a really good example of an ingredient that’s added in everything, and for some it can be perfectly fine. But the inclusion of fragrance can also wreak havoc on the skin,” she said. Shoppers with allergies or skin conditions may want to avoid fragrance because there are no known benefits for the skin, and there is little transparency about what’s in them. Food and Drug Administration regulations don’t require companies to disclose what chemicals are in fragrances, but the word “fragrance” must be listed as part of an ingredient list.
Humectant: An ingredient that pulls moisture into the skin from the humidity in the air. What you might see on the ingredient list: allantoin, propylene glycol, butylene glycol, sodium hyaluronate/hyaluronic acid or glycerin.
Occlusive(s): These ingredients, including mineral oil, petrolatum (petroleum jelly) and squalane, are used to create a protective layer on top of the skin.
●Squalane is a non-fragrant oil that is often derived from olives, but it is often confused for shark liver oil, also known as squalene. Advocacy groups including Oceana have raised awareness about overfishing to obtain squalene oil, but consumers have also shown a growing interest in plant-based beauty. Brands including Biossance, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have responded to this desire with squalane oil-based products derived from olives and sugar cane.
●Petroleum distillates (including mineral oil and petroleum jelly) are derived from crude oil, which has contributed to a host of claims about them being carcinogenic and pore-clogging. However, petroleum jelly and mineral oil undergo a purification process that makes them safe for topical use and are generally nonirritating, according to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review.
Parabens: Preservatives such as methylparaben, ethylparaben and butylparaben are used to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold in makeup, moisturizers and hair products. There is no research by the FDA's standards that proves parabens in concentrations used in cosmetics are harmful, but parabens are controversial for two reasons: First, the FDA doesn't have specific regulations about parabens in cosmetics. This in part has contributed to some distrust between cosmetics companies and consumers about their safety. Secondly, the Environmental Working Group and other advocacy groups have drawn attention to claims about paraben exposure being linked to endocrine disruption, cancer and skin irritations. Parabens get a lot of "bad press," according to Robinson: "The data has shown no true relationship between parabens and any of the claims of endocrine disruption or cancer."
Polyethylene glycols (PEGs): Known as PEG compounds, these ingredients have an array of uses in cosmetics. Generally, they are used to help deliver moisture to the skin, but PEG compounds are also used in formulations as cleansing agents. These ingredients have also become controversial because products with PEG compounds may contain another ingredient called 1,4-dioxane. The FDA has stated that 1,4-dioxane is potentially carcinogenic, but PEG compounds found in personal care products, such as PEG-40 hydrogenated castor oil and PEG-20 glyceryl triisostearate, are considered safe independent of that contaminant.
Phenoxyethanol: A common preservative used to extend shelf life and prevent the growth of bacteria, mold, fungi and yeast. Research has found that although it can be dangerous for infants if ingested, a concentration of up to 1 percent (the concentration used in most cosmetics) is considered safe.
Sodium chloride: Also known as salt. It’s often used an exfoliating ingredient in body scrubs and as a thickening agent in cosmetics.
Sulfates: Sulfates used in cosmetics are safe, according to Robinson, but they can be drying for curly or coily hair types. Sodium lauryl sulfate*, for example, is a known sensitizing ingredient, especially when it is a prevalent ingredient or present in the first few ingredients on a label. However, Daché referred to sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) as a “good” sulfate, because it dries the skin less.
Surfactant: A cleansing agent. You might see surfactants under names such as coco glucoside or ocamidopropyl betaine.
Witch hazel (i.e. Hamamelis)*: A plant extract that can have soothing and antioxidant-like benefits in low concentrations. Research has shown that the use of products with larger amounts of witch hazel over time can have drying and sensitizing effects on the skin.
Do you have questions about an ingredient we didn’t include? Send Nia Decaille (firstname.lastname@example.org) an email with your suggestions or questions about cosmetic ingredients.
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