What beauty ingredients should we avoid?


In recent years the wellness industry has taken flight, with a focus on how we move, how we fuel, and how we think and feel. Why would we not put a fine tooth comb over the beauty industry as well? Why would we not want to understand what we are putting on and in our bodies? Why would we not want to hold the industry giants and other manufacturers accountable to regulations that protect our health and safety? Chemistry might be complex but common sense is not.

The clean beauty landscape has experienced tremendous growth. The global clean beauty economy is estimated to be worth $54 billion by 2027. B.I.L.L.I.O.N. Driven by conscious consumers who desire products that not only do what they say, but contain ingredients that are transparent and safe. Yes, there are plenty of ingredients in nature that are harmful to our skin and health too. No one is going to apply poisonous mushrooms anytime soon. And yes the Sun is also a double edged sword. We totally get that.

But due to a lack of beauty regulations and differing opinions on ingredients, it can be difficult to ascertain what is truly ‘clean’ and what is not. What ingredients are necessary, what are not. Is it safe, is it not? So we are in a position where consumers set their own ideals of what clean means to them, beauty brands manufacture and market their own version of clean, and retailers also put their stamp on what they consider clean enough. So it’s easy to see how this landscape can get clouded, generalised, and misinformed.


What Is Clean Beauty?

Clean beauty has been called the future of beauty. It has also been called a fad, a business model, clever marketing, and a shiny new thing. So what is Clean beauty really? Popular clean beauty advocates GOOP give this definition: ‘It means a non-toxic product that is made without a long, ever-evolving list of ingredients linked to harmful health effects from hormone disruption, to cancer, to plain-old skin irritation.’

Brands also define their own boundaries of clean beauty. US brand Drunk Elephant defines themselves as ‘Clean Compatible’ stating they are committed to using only ingredients that either directly benefit the skin’s health or support the integrity and effectiveness of their formulations. They keep well clear of the ‘suspicious six.’

Whilst another US brand, the Beauty Counter takes this to a whole other level. Not only do they promote an active movement geared at education and political change for the American beauty industry, they have a trademarked Never List that includes over 1,500 ingredients. That’s more than the EU currently bans/restricts. This is a business that puts the health and safety of people at the forefront of its operations. And if their reviews are anything to go by, customers are very happy about it.

Whereas on home turf, Australian brand, Biologi Serum challenges conventional skin care formulations with their plant based extracts. Ross McDougald from Biologi Serum became frustrated at the low levels his plant actives were being added in to commercial products, often only for marketing and labelling claims. So, after 7 years of extensive research, he created the world’s first 100% active natural plant serum. It contains no harmful chemicals, no additives, perfumes, not even water. The manufacturing is entirely traceable from plant to bottle, sustainable, vegan and cruelty free. A game changer!

Retailers, such as Sephora, are defining their own standards too. In order to obtain the ‘Clean at Sephora’ seal of approval the product needs to be free from Sulfates SLS and SLES, Parabens, Formaldehydes and Formaldehyde-releasing agents, Phthalates, Mineral oil, Retinyl Palmitate, Oxybenzone, Coal Tar, Hydroquinone, Triclosan, and Triclocarban. Plus, they also have a ‘free from’ list for Fragrance brands too.

Wouldn’t it be great to no longer need ‘free from’ lists? That we were assured of product safety and efficacy, and that marketing was not subject to any green washing.


What Is Green Washing?

Companies have been known to create advertising, packaging and labels that ‘green wash’. Green washing has become a popular term that describes marketing attempts to win the trust of consumers. This is achieved by using words like clean, green and natural, when in fact the ingredients are far from any of these things, nor do they minimise any environmental impact. Here’s a general summary of some of those terms:

  • Natural refers to a product made with ingredients sourced from nature.

  • Naturally-derived suggests a natural ingredient that has undergone some sort of chemical processing.

  • Green implies the product is sustainable, without harmful chemicals, packaging is eco-friendly, and production has a minimal environmental impact.

  • Toxin-free suggests it is made of ingredients that are not harmful to humans.

  • Organic refers to pesticide free ingredients.

A great thing about social media is that people are now able to call out companies that are seen to be doing this, and they do. I’ve seen many a label that contains a round circle that looks like a certification, yet on close inspection it is not.


Did You Know That?

  • According to the Environmental Working Group, women use an average of 12 products a day, containing 168 different chemicals. Men use fewer products, but still put around 85 chemicals on their bodies. Teens on average use 17 personal care products a day.

  • The EU bans or restricts approximately 1400 ingredients. The USA bans or restricts approximately 30 ingredients. Canada bans or restricts close to 700 ingredients.

  • There are over 3000 chemicals on the IFRA International Fragrance Association list that can be used in products.

  • Between 2017 and 2018, the natural skin care market grew by 23% to $1.6 billion.


Is Sensitive Skin The Chicken Or The Egg?

It’s been said that more than 60% of women consider themselves to have sensitive skin. I am one. If you have read the About page you’ll know that the moment my face comes in contact with a highly fragranced product, my skin reacts. A conscious, uncomfortable feeling starts to occur, it starts to tingle and then gets itchy, my eyes water, the skin becomes red, patchy, bumpy and swollen. I then get that strong urge to rub it. But now I know better, and wash it gently off and head straight for my trusty Bf Serum.

I was drawn to clean beauty due to my experience with sensitive skin. Where products with many of the above ingredients had increased the irritation I was experiencing. Not because of a fad, pretty packaging, clever marketing, shiny new thing syndrome or social media influencers. Simply because of evidence. Something in that mystical concoction of chemicals we know as fragrance, was giving my skin grief. For me, sensitive skin is the chicken, and fragrance is my egg.


Beauty Ingredients To Be Aware Of.

This is not an exhaustive list, but a good starting point to understand why people are looking for cleaner formulations, tougher regulations, and new ways of addressing their beauty needs. The EWG score ranges from 1-10 (10 being the biggest hazard to your health) and the data ranges from Limited to Robust, highlighting the need for more studies and testing on some of these ingredients.

Benzalkonium Chloride - a quaternary ammonium cationic detergent, used as an antiseptic and preservative in beauty products, household, pharmaceutical and industrial products. Associated with contact dermatitis, particularly in health care workers. Found in baby wipes, moisturisers, shampoo, eye drops, nasal sprays, dental products. EWG Score 4-6. Fair.

Butylated Hydroxyanisole & Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHA & BHT) - synthetic antioxidants used to extend the shelf life of a product. Linked to allergic skin reactions and BHA as a potential carcinogen and endocrine disruptor. Found in lipsticks, moisturisers, nappy cream, cosmetics and food. EWG score BHA 5-7 Fair BHT 4 Fair.

Coal Tar - A mixture of many chemicals, derived from petroleum. Coal Tar is a known human carcinogen and linked to skin and organ toxicity. Found in hair dye, anti-dandruff shampoo and cosmetic colours. EWG Score 8-10 Robust.

Ethanolamines - (TEA, MEA, DEA etc) - Surfactants designed to make a product creamy or sudsy and pH adjuster to balance acidity. Linked to allergies, skin toxicity, and endocrine disruption. Found in soaps, lotions, creams, shampoo, conditioner, fragrance, sunscreens and pharmaceuticals. DEA is banned in Canada and the EU. EWG Score DEA 7-10 Good.

Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde Releasers - Used as a preservative in cosmetics. A known carcinogen that has been linked to asthma and neurotoxicity. It can be found in Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl Urea. Found in shampoo, body wash and bubble bath. EWG Score Formaldehyde 8-10 Robust.

Hydroquinone - a chemical used in skin lightening that stops the production of melanin. Linked to cancer, organ toxicity, skin irritation. Found in sunscreens, skin lightening creams, anti-ageing creams, nail treatments. Restricted in Japan, EU and Canada. EWG Score 6-9 Fair.

Methylisothiazolinone & Methylchloroisothiazolinone - chemical preservatives that are known skin irritants and linked to skin sensitivities and allergies. Found in shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. EWG Score 4-7 Fair.

Oxybenzone - Sunscreen agent and ultra violet light absorber. It is a potential endocrine disruptor and has been inked to allergies, irritation and sensitivities. Found in sunscreen, moisturisers, lip balm, and foundation. EWG Score 6-8 Good.

Parabens (methyl-, propyl-, isobutyl-, isopropyl-) - widely used preservatives used to prevent the growth of bacteria, typically in low levels. Parabens are said to enter the blood stream, and bypass the metabolic process. Being in so many products, there is concern for the overall exposure as they mimic oestrogen and are a potential endocrine disruptor. Found in foundation, eye makeup, bronzers, makeup removers, lipstick, quick dry nail products. soaps, toothpaste, skin care, sunscreens, cleansers, antiperspirant, deodorant, and food products. EWG Score Methyl- 4 Fair, Propyl- 5-7 Fair.

Parfum/Fragrance - represents a complex mixture of dozens of chemicals. Over 3,000 chemicals are listed on the IFRA website. it has been suggested an average of 14 chemicals is used to make fragrance in a single product. Many of these ingredients can be linked to skin irritations, asthma, allergies, and migraines yet do not need to be listed on the product due to ‘trade secret’ regulations. Found in perfumes, colognes, deodorants, antiperspirants, nearly every type of personal care product, cleaning products, laundry detergent and softeners, air fresheners and so much more. Some organisations have even commenced fragrance free workplace policies, including the Centre for Disease Control (CDC). EWG score 8 Fair.

Phenoxyethanol - used as a preservative and a stabiliser. Linked to skin and eye irritations, and has been gathering more noise in recent times. Found in foundation, lipstick, moisturiser, concealer, serums, make up, shampoo and conditioner, body wash, baby products, self tan, lip plumper, hair spray among other products. Restricted in Japan. EWG Score 2-4 Limited Data.

Phthalates (DBP, DEHP, DEP and other variants) - a class of plasticiser that is used as a solvent for dyes and prevents nail polishes from becoming brittle. DBP is said to absorb through the skin, be an endocrine disrupter and toxic to reproduction, and a known respiratory toxicant. Banned in the EU. Phthalates are widely used in Fragrance, where they are not required to be disclosed. EWG Score DBP 10 Robust.

Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) - petroleum based compounds that are widely used in cream bases for cosmetics as thickeners, solvents, softeners, smoother and moisture carriers. PEGs function as penetration enhancers, raising concern they allow permeability of more harmful ingredients and causing skin irritation. PEGs may be contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4 Dioxane, a potential human carcinogen. EWG Score 1-3 Fair.

Propylene Glycol (PG) - related to Polyethylene Glycol, also functions as a penetration enhancer, potentially allowing harmful ingredients in to the skin and causing irritation. EWG Score 3 Fair.

Retinyl Palmitate and Retinol (Vitamin A) - A nutrient that may damage DNA and speed the growth of skin tumours when used topically. Found in anti-ageing skin care, lip products, moisturisers. EWG Score 6-9 Fair.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate & Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS & SLES) - used in cosmetics as a cleansing agent and to make products bubble and foam. Linked to skin, eye and respiratory tract irritation. Found in shampoos, shower gels, facial cleansers and household cleansing products. EWG Score 1-3 Fair.

Toluene - a volatile petrochemical solvent that is toxic to the immune system and linked to toxicity and birth defects. Found in nail polish and hair dyes. Restricted in EU. EWG Score 6-10 Fair.

Triclosan - used as a preservative and for antibacterial properties. Linked to endocrine disruption and skin, eye and lung irritations. Found in cleansers, hand soaps, toothpaste, deodorant, toys, linens, mattresses, clothing, furniture fabric, paint and cosmetics. Restricted in Japan and Canada. EWG Score 4-7 Fair.


Interesting Ingredient Facts You May Not Know.

I recommend spending time on Ross McDougald’s Instagram to learn more about skin care ingredients. It contains a huge amount of information that is backed by his 30 years of experience as an Industry Chemist.

  • Natural vitamins can only be delivered through the delivery of a plant produced oil or water soluble extract. Otherwise Vitamins A, B, C, D. or E are from a synthetic source.

  • To have healthy peptides, ceramides, collagen and protein you need to nourish the living tissue with nutrients they require. If the amino acids in your skin care product are not alive, they have very little benefit to your skin.

  • Conventional formulations are often made up of a mix of the following, this is how it was originally done back in the day, and many companies still do. So what do these offer in terms of benefits for your skin? You tell me.

    1. Major Fillers ⁠>50%⁠

    2. Minor Fillers⁠<20%⁠

    3. Emulsifiers ⁠<20%⁠

    4. Foaming agents / Surfactants⁠ <20%⁠

    5. Opacifiers / Colouring agents⁠ >5%⁠

    6. Stabilisers⁠ <5%⁠

    7. Thickeners⁠ <5%⁠

    8. Conditioning agents⁠ <5%⁠

    9. Fragrances/essential oils⁠ <2%⁠

    10. Preservatives⁠ <2%⁠


What Can We Learn From Johnson & Johnson?

Over 100 years ago, in 1886, Robert Wood Johnson and his younger brothers created a startup. They began with a line of plasters, sticky rubber strips amongst other remedies. When customers complained of skin irritation, they sent out packets of talc. Mum’s began applying the talc to their infants’ chafed skin, and the Johnsons realised they were on to something. They sifted the talc in to tin boxes and added a signature fragrance. By 1893, this product was sold as Johnson’s Baby Powder.

Fast forward to 2019. A New York Times article reports that Johnson & Johnson (J&J) recalled 33,000 bottles of Baby Powder, due to the FDA finding evidence of asbestos, a known carcinogen, in one of the bottles. Court ordered documents suggest that J&J have known about the potential asbestos risk for some time. For more information, I recommend reading the Reuters Investigation which dives in to these documents. Apparently J&J are potentially facing 15,000 lawsuits related to Baby Powder exposure, whilst the other 85,000 are for other issues. J&J are appealing. J&J have also responded with a website addressing ‘facts about talc’ so that you can consider their side of the story as well.

So here we learn that a product that has been around for a long time could still contain unsafe ingredients. The J&J documents show that their corporate policy was focused on addressing consumer confrontations AFTER problems occurred. This doesn’t mean J&J didn’t do any testing, but the question is did they do enough? Were they completely transparent about their findings over the years? Hopefully as regulations and transparency improve, this kind of scenario will be a thing of the past.


What’s In Store For Clean Beauty?

Large companies are buying in that’s what!! In 2017, BWX noticed the potential in Australian natural beauty retailer Nourished Life. The ASX-listed company reportedly spent around $20 million on the online store. Not a bad business journey for Irene Falcone, who initially started out in 2010 with $100, a Facebook Page and a blog sharing her passion for natural products. Now Nourished Life is said to turn over $20 million a year. Full respect to Irene. Who is still at the helm by the way, and just as passionate.

Overseas acquisitions have gained a lot of attention too. Shiseido reportedly beat out Estée Lauder and Unilever to buy Drunk Elephant for US$845 Million. You read that right. L’Occitane Group recently purchased ELEMIS for around US$900 million, and Unilever bought Tatcha for around US$500 million. That’s a SERIOUS amount of money to be investing in an ‘over reaction or a fad’. These companies are clearly diversifying their portfolios and positioning for a slice of the billion dollar pie we’ve talked about already.

Back in Australia, we’ve seen how Biologi Serum has radically turned skin care formulations on its head. Other companies are also following suit. The emphasis is shifting to include more Australian plant based extracts and their antioxidant and nutrient rich actives, rather than synthetics. Cosmetic companies are also expanding their colour ranges using safer pigments to cater for more diverse skin tones.

Regulation still has a long way to go. Safe Cosmetics Australia advise consumers need to be aware that current legislation does not protect our health, as there are no pre-market regulations requiring mandatory testing of chemicals PRIOR to their sale in Australia. NICNAS is being replaced with the Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme in 2020. It will be interesting to see what the new Industrial Chemical Laws will bring.

Consumer consciousness has increased, we want honesty and transparency, and we expect health and safety to be a given. I don’t see Clean Beauty as fear mongering. I see it as an opportunity to learn more about ingredients, what they do, and how they are sourced. I see it as a way to enjoy beauty and have less negative impact on my health and the environment. I want my kids to be able to choose products that aren’t going to affect their hormones, their fertility, their skin or give them organ toxicity.

Let’s work towards a safer culture and better ingredients for our health now and in the future.

Signature by Mel.

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