Decoding Ingredients: What’s in my product?

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No matter how much of a so-called beauty junkie you are, the list of daunting chemicals on the back of products can be tricky to get your head around and even the best of us are left wondering what we are actually putting on our skin. In fact, while we may be warned to not put some acronym on our face and told that this ingredient causes cancer, they are difficult to spot. The harm that can be caused by ignorance is frightening and plunging down into the depths of the repercussions that the beauty (and fashion) industry is having on the world is a humbling experience. So, unlike many of the health companies, I, and the rest of the writers of SCAN Fashion and Beauty, are not setting out to scare you nor vilify you, just to share our little beads of knowledge in the best way we can. So, here is a gentle compilation of some of the worst, highlighting the harm that products can cause to yourself, to others and the environment; but this will be done without too much fuss, just to tell you that if you can, please avoid them! 

– Rhian Daniel 

Parabens

Parabens are antibacterial preservatives used in cosmetics, foods, and pharmaceuticals, to increase their shelf life. The most commonly used parabens are butyl-, ethyl-, methyl-, and propylparaben. Parabens are an extremely controversial topic, with an overwhelming amount of literature in circulation, exhibiting polarised views on matters of human health, animal welfare and environmental impact. 

Introduced in the 1930s, there has been little conclusive research into the lasting effects of this chemical compound. Recent research discovered traces of parabens in human breast tissue, marine life, and higher levels in female urine than that of male, leading many to question whether parabens will cause an increase in cancer, health problems and environmental contamination. However, various scientists claim they are not a cause for concern, as the low-dosage of parabens found in products are not toxic to biological life. 

Beauty brands are now marketing products as ‘paraben-free’, a growing trend within the cosmetic industry. Is paraben-free advertising out of a genuine concern for health and the environment or a newly-founded marketing ploy? I have gone paraben-free for the purposes of this article; my hair has improved drastically. Is this a direct result of being paraben-free or due to investing in higher-end products? There is evidence that the use of parabens leads to dry and dull hair as it strips hair of its colour and natural oils. I would recommend going paraben-free for an improved haircare routine, but unfortunately, there is not enough conclusive scientific evidence to suggest parabens are dangerous.

– Ellie Ball

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is used to remove the outer layer of skin – which is why it features as a key component in acne-fighting skincare. As a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), it helps to exfoliate the skin and keep pores clear. It is naturally derived from willow bark, and, as it is more oil-soluble, it can better penetrate into the skin to remove the oils that cause acne.

While there aren’t any serious side effects associated with salicylic acid, it’s important to know how many times it is safe to use in one day. Lower percentages are safe up to 3 times per day, but a higher percentage should only be used as and when needed. Higher concentrations of 10-30% are used in salicylic acid peels that are used by dermatologists, whereas lower concentrations of around 1-5% are usually found in skincare products. It can cause irritation and dry skin to those with more sensitive or very dry skin, and so should be avoided by people with those skin types. 

Salicylic acid is best used for treating mild acne, such as whiteheads and blackheads, removing dead skin cells, and reducing redness. It can also be used in treating dandruff.

– Lauren Banks

Candelilla Wax 

Candelilla Wax is often presented as the cruelty-free option, avoiding non-vegan products such as beeswax. While it is admirable that companies are attempting to become more conscientious, this is sadly often a thinly veiled attempt.

Made from a plant located in the Mexican desert, the wax is removed from the plant through the use of sulphuric acid. This may seem like a good alternative, being beneficial to your skin, neither an animal byproduct nor damaging to the environment. However, there is an often forgotten side to this ‘gem’ that was brought to my attention by the BBC’s documentary Beauty Laid Bare

They drew attention to the perilous working conditions, the disastrous pay and the abominable and inhumane way in which large beauty companies managed their workers. Working without protection in sweltering heat these workers were handling corrosive sulphuric acid as though it were water: a risk they acknowledged having seen the consequences that misjudgement can have. All this hard and dangerous labour was undertaken for below minimum wage. 

Marketing catch-phrases such as ‘cruelty-free’ and ‘sustainable’ look great on the packaging and sound great in adverts, however, as we begin to make these possible shifts away from traditional ingredients and into more progressive alternatives, we also need to ensure that this does not come at a heavy cost elsewhere. The beauty industry is perhaps gaining a reputation for leaving a trail of destruction in its wake, as in the case of Candelilla Wax it is chopping, burning and corroding a mark into the landscape and lives of the Mexican desert. 

-Rhian Daniel 

Phthalates

As one of the most common ingredients alongside parabens and salicylic acid, phthalates are everywhere! The purpose of phthalates is to increase the ‘life’ of your cosmetics, however, over the past few years, phthalates have now been marked as a major public health concern. According to an article in the Guardian, researchers have linked phthalates to asthma, ADHD and breast cancer to name just a few. Yet, the issue is that this chemical is in many home goods, not just cosmetics, which are absorbed into the human body and unknowingly, we increase our exposure to this dangerous chemical. Therefore, over time the long-term consequences may have a negative impact on your health. 

Is this worth having longer-lasting and more durable products? Would you change your buying habits knowing the consequences?

I know many individuals, including myself, don’t really read what ingredients are inside make-up. It is worth being more conscious about what we use and put on our skin.

-Isobel Dignum

Courtesy of @fineprint via Instagram

Oxybenzone

We all know wearing sunscreen is important. In the most basic terms, it blocks damaging UV radiation and has been found to reduce the risk of certain skin cancers by 40-50%. Like any skincare product, different sunscreens contain different ingredients and one common ingredient is oxybenzone (benzophenone-3 or BP-3) which works in sunscreen by absorbing UV rays.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), as well as the FDA, have been wary of oxybenzone for a while. Oxybenzone is a potential hormone disruptor, meaning it can interfere with biological processes like growth and development, sexual reproduction, and more; the EWG and FDA have also found that oxybenzone is allergenic and has a relatively high rate of skin reactions.

Beyond possible human side-effects, oxybenzone has been found to have negative environmental effects, damaging and killing corals, causing reproductive issues in fish and accumulating in the tissue of dolphins. This is why, from 2021, Hawaii will be banning sales of sunscreens containing oxybenzone. 

It should be said that wearing sunscreen containing oxybenzone is better for your skin than not wearing sunscreen at all, however, if you do want some alternatives, mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium oxide are considered safe for both you and the coral reefs.

-Maria Jakobsen

Microbeads

We all have those days where we just want to take care of our bodies and have a little self-care routine which might include taking a bath, doing a face mask or even doing a face and body scrub. But what are we actually rubbing on our bodies? 

Microbeads can be found in various products that are part of your self-care routines such as toothpaste, facial scrubs, body wash and cosmetics, and often act as cheap fillers or emulsifying agents. But what is it that makes microbeads undesirable components of your self-care routine? When you put a scrub with microbeads on your skin and wash it off with water, the microbeads in the scrub will flow straight into the sewer system and are too small to be filtered out by wastewater treatment plants. From there they then flow straight into the ocean and end up being absorbed or eaten by sea animals, which then, in turn, end up being eaten by humans and the tiny bits of plastic sit in our bodies unable to be digested. 

Once they enter the marine environment they are impossible to get rid of, being non-biodegradable; but why should we care? Well, while the long-term health effects are not clear yet, microplastic contains phthalates which is a group of chemicals that can cause various hormone-related cancers. Therefore, next time when you get some products for your self-care routine lookout for the words ‘Polypropylene’ and ‘Polyethylene’ on the label as that will be a clear indicator for microbeads in the product. 

-Lilli Reuss

Talcum Powder 

There has been a lot of controversy over Johnson’s, the pharmaceutical company who for years provided homes with baby powder, and the threat of asbestos-contaminated talc powder causing cancer. The company has publicly defended the product, saying ‘No we do not cause cancer, we firmly believe that JOHNSON’S® baby powder is safe to use’ and it ‘does not contain asbestos.’

So, why all the fuss?

A 2019 study presented 33 case studies of people with asbestos-related cancer whose only exposure to the mineral was through asbestos-contaminated talcum powder. Talc and asbestos are two minerals that can form naturally beside each other and this is how talc deposits can become contaminated. 

Medical-grade talc products are 99% pure and sterilised. Cosmetic-grade talc products (such as baby powder) are 98% pure and have a history of asbestos-contamination.

Until the 1970s, the asbestos industry was still denying the toxicity of the mineral and gave talc companies no reason to fear product contamination. It wasn’t until medical reports began to show its damaging effects that the public began to worry.

In March 2018, Claire’s recalled three children’s makeup products that tested positive for asbestos. 

And 9 months later, a report revealed that Johnson’s had known for decades that its baby powder could be contaminated with asbestos.

-Beth Train-Brown

SLES

SLES, the accepted contraction of the chemicals Sodium Laureth Sulfate, are perhaps names you will recognise more in products that say they are free of them, rather than by locating them in the ingredients on the back. Though it is generally the things you haven’t heard of that are more dangerous than the things you have. 

This ingredient is a foaming agent commonly found in shampoos, soaps and even toothpaste but it is also a surfactant. A surfactant is an ingredient that acts as a barrier between oils and water, and in doing so strips all the natural fats and grease that protect our skin: this can result in dry skin but also more serious skin complaints, such as eczema. 

Many green or clean beauty companies have been advocating against this product for many years, not simply because of its damaging impact on skin health but also for more serious complaints. SLES is derived from a more harmful chemical SLS and undergoes a chemical process called ethoxylation: this process can introduce dangerous carcinogens into our products. 

Some companies may claim they only use SLES and avoid SLS but try not to be fooled by this, it would be better to avoid both those chemicals if at all possible. 

-Rhian Daniel

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