mossbetweentoes – adventures in homesteading, with brief forays into politics, geekery, parenting, crafting, and design

A Who’s Who List of Toiletry Ingredients

Ball and stick model of the urea moleculeAfter yesterday's post on chemicals, Mira posed a question in the comments: "Are there chemicals/soap ingredients you so avoid? Which ones and why?"

Great question.

I was going to simply reply to her comment, but then I realized that the list and accompanying explanations are worth publishing as their own blog entry. Also, there are some ingredients that are worth seeking out, and so I thought I'd share those too.

Disclaimer: The list below is my opinion only! While I like to think my opinions are well-researched and thoughtful, you might find that you reach a different conclusion after doing your own research. That's okay! Everyone has different thresholds for what they might be comfortable with. Nothing is black and white; every ingredient falls onto a spectrum of safety.

"No Thanks!" Ingredients

Formaldehyde donor preservatives: These include DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidiazolidinyl urea, and quaternium 15. They work by slowly decomposing into different chemicals, slowly releasing formaldehyde to preserve the product. Formaldehyde is toxic to all living things, which is why it makes a good preservative. This by itself is a reason to avoid this class of preservatives. The other reason I'm uncomfortable with these chemicals is that the rate of decomposition is dependent on pH, temperature, etc. I would rather apply a chemical neat on my skin and know the exact amount I'm being exposed to, than apply something that will spontaneously create other biologically active compounds on my skin.

Synthetic Colors: These include the FD&C colors, D&C colors, and Lakes. They are typically petroleum derived, which seems like a huge waste of resources to me, for something that is a non-essential ingredient. Stick to mineral pigments and botanical colorants.

Fragrance: The FDA considers fragrances to be trade secrets, and so the individual ingredients that make up a fragrance do not have to be disclosed to consumers. Fragrances can contain thousands of ingredients, including phthalates, solvents, octoxynols and nonoxynols. Phthalates in particular are concerning, because they are endocrine disruptors. Some "natural" cosmetic companies use fragrances that contain preservatives, so they won't have to be disclosed on the label, and they can then label their products as "preservative-free." Pretty disingenuous! One caveat on fragrances: if you make your own soaps and toiletries, you might feel comfortable using a fragrance if the supplier has stated the product is free of some of the aforementioned offenders. I have used phthalate-free fragrances in my soaps and felt comfortable doing so, because in addition to being phthalate-free, soaps are also a rinse-off product so the contact time is very short.

Citrus Oils & Menthol: But wait, aren't they natural?? Yes! But they are also not a good choice for leave-on products. Orange, Lemon, and Lime oils can irritate skin and create photosensitivity. Menthol might be a valid inclusion for a sore-muscle rub, but most products use menthol to produce a tingle effect (the tingling is actually irritation!) so the consumer feels like the product is "working."

Alcohols: In this case, alcohols like SD alcohol - aka denatured alcohol, benzyl alcohol, and ethanol. Although these ingredients might be naturally derived, they do nothing nice for your skin. They are drying and irritating. Do not confuse these ingredients with fatty alcohols like cetyl alcohol, which actually have emollient and lubricating properties.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): SLS is one of the more irritating surfactants out there, and is poorly tolerated by our skin. It is most frequently seen in shampoos or other rinse-off products where the potential for irritation is lessened by short contact time. However, there are better surfactants out there to use, so there is really no reason to use SLS. There are other scary things about SLS circulating the Internet, mainly that it causes cancer and that it is "used to clean garage floors." The first accusation cannot be verified through a search of the medical literature. The second claim could be raised against any detergent, which if used full-strength would be capable of some heavy duty cleaning. SLS is derived from coconut or palm, typically, not animal or petroleum sources. Although I wouldn't use it on my skin because of its irritant potential, I don't see why it couldn't be used in a household cleaning product.

Other Harsh Surfactants & Soaps: TEA-lauryl sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, magnesium laureate sulfate, and soaps made with 100% coconut oil (sodium cocoate) can be pretty harsh on your skin. SLeS (sodium laureth sulfate) is slightly less harsh than SLS, but for optimal mildness you might want to try a sulfosuccinate, cocoglucoside, or taurate. I recommend this nice comparison chart of surfactants, authored by Susan Barclay-Nichols (who writes the Point of Interest! blog.)

Products without Preservatives: I know, this isn't so much an ingredient, as an ingredient exclusion. But you really shouldn't buy a toiletry without preservatives unless it's anhydrous - aka containing no water (such as bar soaps, lip balms, sugar scrubs.) Think of it this way: would you pour yourself a cup of coffee into a travel mug, leave it on the counter for a day or two, and then drink it? No, you wouldn't. Toiletries are the same way. Although they might be made under very clean or sterile conditions, exposure to outside air and your fingers (or other applicators) will introduce bacteria, mold, and yeasts into the product. Without a preservative these little beasts can quickly multiply. Not only will a contaminated product not perform as well (consistency, fragrance, and emulsion stability are often affected) but you could get serious irritation or worse, a skin infection. By the way, Vitamin E, Rosemary Extract, or Grapefruit Seed Extracts are great for protecting oils from rancidity (since these ingredients are anti-oxidants) but they will not protect the product from microbial growth. Some people will buy preservative-free products and keep them in the refrigerator when not in use. While this certainly slows microbial growth, it does not stop it. If you put your left over dinner in the refrigerator, how many days would you continue to eat it afterwards? Three? Five? Just as with food, preservative-free products will not last indefinitely in the refrigerator. If you are a visual learner, checkout these pictures of a moldy lotion, as documented by the CEO of Brambleberry. Ewwww.

"Try to Avoid" Ingredients

Parabens: Methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, benzylparaben, isopropylparaben and isobutylparaben. It might come as a shock to some people who know me, but I'm pretty much not buying into most of the hype about parabens being really dangerous. There are a lot of accusations about parabens causing cancer because they are estrogenic. But, so are phytoestrogens (like those found in soy.) There are numerous "natural" extracts that are also estrogenic - such as flax, lavender, and dong quai - and yet they do not receive the bad press that parabens receive. Believe it or not, parabens do exist in nature, namely in the Japanese honeysuckle, and also in blueberries. Now, does that mean we should pay no attention to the endocrine-distrupting potential of parabens? No. Personally, when I go shopping, I would prefer to see another preservative on the ingredient list. But, if there is a paraben-containing product that is otherwise satisfactory and it provides benefits to my skin, and there is no alternative product with a different preservative, I will likely still use it. The way I feel about it is, we have to reduce our total exposure from toxins. I live a pretty clean life, I don't smoke or use drugs and I eat whole foods. Parabens are typically used at less than 1% of the formulation, so the "dosage" is pretty low when you are considering using less than teaspoon of a lotion, or a body wash which is rinsed off anyway. For a list of "better" preservatives, scroll down to the "Yes please" Ingredients.

Ethoxylated Ingredients: These include PEG esters, sodium laureth sulfate, and chemicals that include the clauses "xynol," "ceteareth" and "oleth." The biggest concern with these ingredients is that, because of their manufacturing process, they could be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which is widely regarded as a carcinogen. Ethoxylation is an industrial process in which ethylene oxide is added to fatty acids to give them detergent properties. A report put out by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics called "Toxic Tub" noted that these ingredients can be found in many children's products, and the report received wide media coverage when it was released. Many "natural" toiletry manufacturers use ethoxylated ingredients, and thus many consumers were outraged. The problem is, 1,4 dioxane is considered a byproduct or a contaminant, and as such is not required to be disclosed on the ingredient label if the ppm falls below a certain threshold. So, as a consumer, you have no idea if this carcinogen is in your product or not. This confusion is exacerbated by the fact that there is a way to remove 1,4 dioxane (via vacuum stripping) from the ingredient, and some manufacturers in fact do this. But which ones? Again, there is no labeling requirement. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, "in a study of personal care products marketed as “natural” or “organic” (uncertified), U.S. researchers found 1,4-dioxane as a contaminant in 46 of 100 products analyzed." So, should we be concerned? Yes. But, like parabens, I think we also need to consider total exposure to carcinogens when deciding whether or not to use these products. And, if there is a product you really like that has an ethoxylated ingredient, write to the manufacturer. Either they might be able to tell you if their ingredient has been decontaminated, or perhaps will consider your comment when deciding whether or not to reformulate their product due to customer demand.

"Yes please" Ingredients

"Better" Preservatives: Want to avoid parabens and the formaldehyde donors? Then look for products with some of these preservatives instead (or, if you've seen these on a label before, and didn't know if you should freak out or not, now you know what they are!)

  • Polyaminopropyl Biguanide
  • Glucono Delta Lactone
  • Glucolactone
  • Sodium Benzoate
  • Potassium Sorbate
  • Phenoxyethanol
  • Caprylyl Glycol
  • Benzoic Acid, Sorbic Acid, or Dehydroacetic Acid
  • Silver Citrate (usually with Citric Acid)

Urea: I list this specifically, because this ingredient is sadly blacklisted due to it's name, which is similar to the formaldehyde-releasing preservatives diazolidinyl urea and imidiazolidinyl urea. However, urea is not a preservative! In fact, it's a moisturizing ingredient that is considered "skin-identical" - meaning that it is a chemical that is found in healthy human skin. Urea for use in cosmetics is synthesized in a lab, not derived from skin or urine. At higher concentrations urea can also have exfoliating properties. This makes it a great inclusion for a foot lotion.

Bisabolol: Another helpful ingredient that has a scary sounding name. This is actually the active compound in chamomile that gives it such renowned anti-irritant properties. This ingredient can either be extracted from the plant or produced synthetically in a lab.

Sodium Hyaluronate: Also known as hyaluronic acid, a polysaccharide. Hyaluronic acid is found naturally in every tissue of the body. Topically, hyaluronic acid has water-storing properties, making it an ideal swelling agent and lubricant, increasing suppleness, elasticity and tone. PETA has warned that this product is animal-derived, although when I bought some for my own lotion crafting, my supplier claimed that it was synthesized from yeast and/or potatoes. So, if you are vegan or vegetarian, beware.

Retinol: Also known as retinal palmitate, retrinol, or Vitamin A. This is one of the most researched skincare ingredients, and one of the only ingredients that has ever been shown to reverse signs of aging. In addition to the over-the-counter products, there are also prescription-strength varieties. Retinol is a potent anti-oxidant, but also has the potential for irritation and flaking. These side effects are generally well tolerated, but varies between individuals. Because of the way retinol works on your skin rejuvenation, it is IMPERATIVE to use a sunscreen everyday. Retinol will increase photo-sensitivity and increase your chance of pigmentation caused by UV exposure. Although I have personally used products with retinol, there is one caveat: Vitamin A - taken either topically or orally - is a teratogenic compound and could cause birth defects if used in excess by a pregnant woman. This is one of the reasons why prenatal vitamins contain conservative amounts of Vitamin A. It is a real risk. In fact, some dermatologists will not prescribe you a prescription-strength retinol until you have taken a pregnancy test. For the strongest medications, they might recommend taking birth control pills just in case. So, although I have listed this as a "good" ingredient, you need to assess your own situation before making your own judgment.


Well, I think that about sums it up. If you feel like doing some of your own research, here are some resources I recommend:

Point of Interest! Blog - geared towards formulators, but presented in clear language

Skin Deep Database - Take with a grain of salt. Perhaps many grains. A good starting point for research, but don't stop there. Often the "score" on the ingredient is lacking any context (for example, any ingredient, in the right dosage, could be toxic.) or backup research.

Cosmetic Cop - Paula Begoun demystifies many ingredients here. She generally poo-poos natural extract and essential oils, which is unfortunate, but otherwise she does a good job of debunking myths and untruths.

Personal Care Truth - From their "About Us" page: "Personal Care Truth is not about scare tactics, generalizations, fear mongering, or hopping aboard what’s considered trendy at the moment. [We are] about education, facts, questions, research, sharing knowledge, and empowering consumers to make the choice that’s right for their families"

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