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Natural beauty: naming the nasties

Our experts give us the lowdown on some of the chemical ‘nasties’ to avoid in your beauty products

Have you ever taken a look at the ingredients label on your beauty or bodycare products and seen a bafflingly long name that sounds suspiciously synthetic? From polyethylene glycols to ethanolamines, these chemical ‘nasties’ are absorbed into our bodies via our skin – the body’s largest organ.

“Did you know that the majority of high street brands contain a mixture of synthetic chemicals?” says Charlotte Vohtz, founder of Green People ( and pioneer of organic beauty. “So-called ‘natural’ products can contain only 1 per cent natural ingredients and still be labelled as natural. More than 100,000 tons of synthetic chemicals are dumped into ‘natural’ beauty products every year. Most of us use a daily combination of cleansers, creams, serums, shampoos, shower gels and body lotions to name a few, but how many people are really aware of the hidden nasties that go into these beauty products?”

“Some professionals believe that products applied to the skin should only contain ingredients we would feel safe to put into our mouths,” says Rose Holmes, nutritionist and Education and Training Manager with Rio Health ( “Potentially, topically applied substances absorb quicker, as blood capillaries are just beneath the skin surface, whereas foods absorb through the gut lining after being digested. This might mean that topically applied synthetic products might have equal or greater potential for harm.”

Rose adds: “Just as our bodies are healthiest when fed with good wholesome food, our skin benefits from nourishment with natural ingredients without synthetic additives. Such products with natural plant-based ingredients and without synthetic ‘nasties’ provide ideal nourishment without synthetic ingredients that might harm the skin, contribute to toxic load or cause allergic reactions.”

Naming and shaming

Here are some of the most common chemical nasties to avoid in your beauty products

“Some preservatives are known to release small quantities of formaldehyde, a known irritant as well as a carcinogenic and neurotoxin,” says Charlotte. “Others can cause skin irritation or have oestrogen-like properties. Avoid: 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1 3-diol, Diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15 and parabens.”

“Paraffin and petrochemicals should also be avoided,” says Rose. “Mineral oils are petroleum derivatives, commonly used as emollients and lubricants, but are often contaminated with impurities. These petro-ingredients may affect the ability of skin to breathe, may clog pores and cause acne, and may cause skin to age prematurely.”

“PEGs (polyethylene glycols) are petroleum-based chemicals used to soften, thicken and aid moisture retention of the product,” says Rose. “Like other petroleum-based chemicals, PEG compounds can be contaminated with impurities. PEGs are also penetration enhancers and therefore may allow other compounds to absorb more readily through skin into the body. These can therefore cause skin irritation and system toxicity.”

Did you know?

A 2004 epidemiologic survey in the UK revealed that 23 per cent of women and 13.8 per cent of men experience some sort of adverse reaction to a personal care product over the course of a year. Although most of these reactions may be due to subjective sensory irritation, various studies reveal that up to 10 per cent of dermatologic patients who are patch tested are allergic to cosmetic products or their constituent ingredients. Causative products include deodorants and perfumes, skin care products, hair care products, and nail cosmetics. These findings were published in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology.

“Ethanolamine compounds: DEA (diethanolamine) and TEA (triethanolamine) are ammonia compounds used as emulsifiers and foaming agents in cosmetics,” says Rose. “Links have been shown between ethanolamines and cancer in laboratory animals. Skin irritation, inflammation and organ/neural system toxicity has also been linked.”

“Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), a surfactant commonly used to help create foam should also be avoided,” says Rose. “SLS and SLES (Sodium Laureth Sulfate) are penetration enhancers. These therefore have the same potential negative effects of PEGs – facilitating absorption of potential irritants and toxins. SLS and SLES also strip natural oils from the skin, causing dryness, irritation and sometimes allergic reactions.”

“Many chemicals found in fragrances are designated as harmful,” says Charlotte. “Always avoid these if you suffer from asthma or skin allergies.”

“Several artificial colours contain heavy metal impurities and some have been linked to cell damage and cancer,” says Charlotte. “In particular avoid the following synthetic ‘coal tar’ dyes: CI 15985, CI 19140, CI 42090, CI 44090 and CI 45430.”

“Triclosan is used as a preservative and antibacterial in deodorants, cleansers and hand sanitisers,” says Charlotte. “It is also found in a wide range of household products such as plastic chopping boards, bed linen and fridge linings. Triclosan is readily absorbed through the skin, and a study in the USA in 2003-4 found traces of triclosan in the urine of nearly 75 per cent of people tested. Triclosan is a potential hormone disruptor and is inherently toxic to aquatic life as well as being bio-persistent. Triclosan is thought to be responsible for the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA.”

“Alcohol (ethanol) is dehydrating and may damage by destroying natural oils in skin, resulting in dry, cracked skin,” says Rose.

Natural heroes

“Botanical ingredients have been used for skincare for centuries and have a full spectrum of properties: moisturising, healing, cleansing, nourishing,” says Rose. “These can revitalise and renew skin, promoting healthy skin, soothing the complexion and protecting it from environmental factors. Combinations of these botanicals can help prevent tired, dull skin, dehydration and wrinkles. They can reduce the slowing down of cell renewal that can occur in ageing and can help encourage a brighter and more radiant complexion.”

Here are some natural heroes to look out for:

Plant oils
Organic nourishing plant oils and waxes such as coconut, jojoba, sweet almond and avocado oils make great natural alternatives to petrochemicals. “Plant oils are rich in fatty acids that form an important part of the intercellular fluids which are essential for maintaining the skin’s barrier property,” says Ian Taylor, Operations Manager with Green People.

Essential oils
“Synthetic fragrances often irritate sensitive skin and are not necessary when there are wonderful essential oils such as rose, geranium and lavender,” says Rose. Tea tree and myrrh have a long history of controlling bacteria, so make good natural replacements for triclosan.

Seed oils
Seed oils are highly moisturising and rich in antioxidants. Examples include cranberry seed oil, sacha inchi oil and rosehip seed oil (rosa mosqueta oil). “Rosa mosqueta oil is extracted from the seeds of rosehips and is naturally rich in vitamins A, C and E and essential fatty acids,” says Rose. “Studies have shown it has the ability to heal and fade post-surgical scars, acne scars and stretch marks and prevent the advancement of premature ageing.”

Plant extracts
“Extracts from plants such as green tea, rosemary and calendula are rich in natural antioxidants which help to control free-radical activity and which have calming and soothing effects on the skin,” says Ian Taylor. “Studies in the past have shown that minimally processed, organically-grown ingredients have higher nutrient levels than conventionally-grown, more refined materials – and there is the added benefit that no environmentally-damaging chemicals have been used in the growing of these organic ingredients.”

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