Deciphering Cosmetic Codes: Ingredients Your Skin Can Live Without

A clever marketing game is played in every skincare and cosmetics aisle in standard and in health stores. Phrases like "Active Ingredients", "Key Ingredients" and "Natural" are emblazoned across labels in bold print to distract us from investigating the small print of what is really in the product.

The full list of ingredients is often hard to find. If you do locate the full list, then you may understand why it is not part of the extoled marketing strategy. These bright bottles with splashy labels are made with undesirable ingredients and futile fillers that our skin can certainly do without.

I have been examining skin care labels since I was eighteen years old, and I have seen, firsthand, the cosmetic industry's formulation processes. Some ingredients and some products are better than others, so I have created a top ten list of commonly used ingredients that our skin, our cells, can thrive without.

My Top 10 List of Undesirable Ingredients:
1. Sulfates
2. Paraben
3. Sodium Benzoate
4. PEG
5. FD&C Colors and Pigments
6. Alcohols
7. Urea
8. Fragrances
9. Aloe Vera (what?)
10. Water (tap)

1. Topping the list of chemicals is sulfates. They are in 90% of foaming and lathering products as well as in skin and hair care products as fillers. Sulfates are frequently described on labels as "comes from" or "derived from" coconut in an effort to portray them as innocuous even though they are known skin irritants, hormone and endocrine disruptors and suspected carcinogens and gene mutagens. Any chemical capable of mutating genes deserves our attention. Additionally, animals exposed to sulfates experience eye damage, central nervous system depression, labored breathing, diarrhea and severe skin irritation.

On labels, look for sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), ammonium laureth sulfate (ALES), sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS)...and don't be fooled by the coconut references.

2. Paraben is a common preservative and one of the chemicals foremost responsible for disrupting the endocrine system and unbalancing crucial hormones. In its defense, someone may say, "Well, it is only .001% of the product." True, this is a small amount... kind of like mercury. Mercury is not used in big amounts either and as a labeled bio-hazard, mercury devastates the cells. Paraben cannot yet be said to cause breast cancer, but its estrogenic activity may be a contributing factor. A 2004 study found paraben in over 90% of human breast cancer tumors. That is sufficient reason for me to avoid this chemical at all costs and to protect my family from it.

On labels, paraben is often listed with the prefixes ethyl-, methyl-, propyl-, isopropyl-, butyl- or isobutyl.

3. Look for sodium benzoate at the end of the ingredients list of skincare, toothpaste, and mouth wash. Sodium benzoate is another very common cosmetic, food and supplement preservative used to protect acidic environments from spoiling. When mixed with vitamin C and ascorbic acid, sodium benzoate (as well as potassium benzoate) forms benzene, a known carcinogen. If you have vitamin C in your food or already in your body and you use a product with benzoate, you have made a carcinogen.

Alas, where you will not see sodium benzoate listed on the label is when it is a secondary ingredient of a raw material. For example, "organic Calendula Officinalis Extract" (listed on the label) is sold as a cosmetic raw material with the addition of glycerin and preserved with potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate. (I choose to infuse our herbs directly into jojoba, or I use the supercritical extract which is very rare practice in the industry.) Sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate can be found in many ingredients that are "extracts", like green tea extract, wheat protein extract, edelweiss extract and so on.

4. Would you choose to wash your face with the same product used to degrease ovens? Me neither. Polyethylene Glycol has many different uses in cosmetics...and in oven cleaners. As a degreaser, it strips the skin of its natural protective oils leaving the body susceptible to invaders. PEG is commonly contaminated with a known carcinogen called 1,4-dioxane. Some studies have linked it to leukemia and uterine, breast and brain cancers. It is very easy and inexpensive to remove 1,4-dioxane from PEG though most cosmetic manufacturers choose to leave the contaminates in to save money. PEG also contains high amounts of heavy metals, and metal contamination is known to cause neurological, autoimmune and kidney issues.

5. Dwelling in the land of confusion, FD&C Colors and Pigments, under the purview of the FDA, have hundreds if not thousands of muddled regulations for production, naming and use. Here's one example:

"Colorants are classified as either organic or inorganic depending on the chemistry. Organic colors were originally called "coal tar" because they were derived from coal sources. However, nowadays almost all organic colorants are synthetic... Inorganic colorants are composed of insoluble metallic compounds which are either derived from natural sources (e.g. china clay, carbon deposits) or are synthesized. Inorganic colors do not have the same kinds of health risks as organic colors and, therefore do not require certification."

Coloring agents serve no purpose in skin-care products beyond the emotional draw, and they may have adverse effects. Coal tar, carbon deposit and laboratory derived colors are recognized as potential allergens and have a 20 year anecdotal history of causing hyperactivity in children. When FD&C color names are followed by the word lake, it indicates that the pigment is mixed with calcium or aluminum as fixates so the color stays put on the skin; this is why lipstick doesn't bleed. Aluminum has long been associated with disease and cancer. Dr. ChrisExley at Keele University in the United Kingdom is currently studying the correlation between aluminum and breast cancer. He follows his own advice to avoid aluminum and drink silica-rich water to leach it from the body.

6. Alcohols are very drying and irritating solvents made from propylene, a petroleum derivative. They are very irritating and drying because they can strip the skin's natural acid mantle which dehydrates the cells and makes the body more vulnerable to bacteria and viruses. A significant amount of research has shown that alcohol may cause free-radical damage to the skin including brown spots, hyperpigmentation and premature aging.

Check product labels for isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol 40 and ethyl alcohol, ethanol, denatured alcohol, methanol and benzyl alcohol.

7. Urea is one of nature's best sources of nitrogen, found in and produced by most plants and animals. In fact, urea is found in the top layers of healthy skin as an active part of the moisture barrier. The problem lies with manmade urea; as a near skin-identical compound, synthetic urea quickly moves through the natural barrier of the skin and allows the other chemicals in the product to move in to the body with it. The American Academy of Dermatology reports that urea is a primary cause of contact dermatitis, especially in concentrated amounts found in skin exfoliates and fertilizer. It also contains small amounts of formaldehyde, a carcinogenic chemical that is toxic when inhaled.

Urea can be labeled as diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea and DMDM hydantoin.

8. Fragrances (aka Parfum), including Geraniol, Citral and Limonene found in cosmetics are all synthetic. The term alone can indicate the presence of up to one thousand substances, many toxic or carcinogenic. Phthalates used to stabilize fragrances are hormone disruptors linked to allergies in children, and it may alter pre-natal genital development. According to the FDA, synthetic fragrances may cause headaches, dizziness, allergic rashes, skin discoloration, violent coughing, vomiting and skin irritation. Clinical observation shows fragrances can affect the endocrine and central nervous system, causing depression, hyperactivity and irritability.

9. This one may surprise you: Aloe vera. Aloe vera, Aloe vera juice and Aloe barbadensis juice is often the first ingredient on the label of moisturizers, cleansers and lotions, and it is usually compromised by hidden preservatives like sodium benzoate, sodium sulfite, potassium sorbate and citric acid (to adjust pH). The ingredients in the ingredients, like the preservatives in aloe, are called "secondary ingredients," and they can be, and usually are, allowed to be left off the label. Of course, hidden ingredients makes label reading an almost pointless exercise.

Aloe vera is wonderful for the skin, and fortunately aloe makes a great, easy to grow houseplant because that is the best source for pure aloe skin care. Simply break off a leaf and rub the pulp into skin. I like to mix my favorite serum with the aloe pulp in my palm and massage it into my skin before bed.

10. Cosmetics seem to be created backwards and upside down! Liquid and creamy products contain mostly water or water-based infusions, called distillates or aqueous extracts, used to fill up bottles inexpensively. Because aqueous solutions are vulnerable to spoilage, preservatives (like paraben, sodium benzoate and Leucidal Liquid) must be added to the product.

I love water! Pure water is wonderful and amazing to drink and to wash with, and there are better ways of getting it than in $20 per ounce bottles of cosmetics. It is probably tap water, too, which means it likely contains chlorine and fluoride along with a multitude of other toxins.

Hopefully, this list will help you decipher the slew of lofty labels that promise the world. Everything that is applied to the skin is absorbed in to the bloodstream, circulates to our cells and mingles with our mitochondria. The skin's brilliant ability to absorb is a gift. When applying the right things, we can literally feed our immune system and skin cells. With the food I eat, I want every morsel to be of benefit, and with the skincare I create, I want every single ingredient to actually be natural, active and key. Everything that goes in and on my body must benefit my cells and my skin.

Every single ingredient matters; each drop must contain boundless, bioactive, botanical beauty. When nature provides such exquisite and effective botanicals that graciously attend to our beauty, why use anything artificial?


Nadine Artemis is author of Renegade Beauty: Reveal and Revive Your Natural RadianceandHolistic Dental Care: The Complete Guide to Healthy Teeth and Gums, a frequent commentator on health and beauty for media outlets, and her products have received rave reviews in the New York Times, the National Post, and the Hollywood Reporter. Described by Alanis Morissette as “a true-sense visionary,” Nadine has formulated a stunning collection of rare and special botanical compounds. Her healing creations, along with her concept of Renegade Beauty, encourages effortlessness and inspires people to rethink conventional notions of beauty and wellness.

Bombeli, T. MD BBA. "Colorants for Cosmetic Products." www.makingcosmetics.com