Following Johnson & Johnson’s long-overdue – but highly praiseworthy – announcement this week that it would ban all harmful chemicals from its products by 2013, I felt compelled to write a rather lengthy post touching on the ubiquity of toxic ingredients in skincare.

J&J produce baby products in addition to skincare (Neutrogena, Aveeno, and Clean & Clear) and their decision to clean up their act came after persistent pestering from the The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics  (and not least because J&J have been loading their baby shampoo with potentially carcinogenic chemicals. “No more tears“, indeed… have you ever got that stuff in your eyes?).

While the specific chemicals to go are vague, we do know that the long term goal is to remove 4-dioxane and quaternium-15 from their products. For more information read this great article form the New York Times.

Hopefully J&J’s decision will motivate the likes of Procter & Gamble (Gillette, Head & Shoulders), Unilever (Dove Men + Care, Vaseline, Toni & Guy) et al to do the same.

But, given the convoluted list of INCI ingredients on the back of any bottle, most of us are still in the dark when it comes to deciphering the contents of a formula. So, in order to make you a more educated, well-groomed example of masculinity, I’ve attempted to put the technical jargon into layman’s terms.

In the same way that most of us are making more informed food choices by learning to read the Nutritional Information label on the back of supermarket goods, you can use the rough translations that follow to discover which skincare ingredients are worth reconsidering. This is by no means a definitive list  but it should go some way to explaining why you break out in hives every time you decide to give that discount moisturiser another go…
1. Silicone-derived emollients (Dimethicone, Cyclomethicone): The equivalent of wrapping your face in cling film, these occlusive ingredients coat the skin to ‘lock in’ moisture (and pretty much everything else). With skin unable to breathe, prolonged use of these common ingredients can cause irritation and breakouts (not to mention block absorption of all the ‘good’ ingredients you’re using). Silicone-derived emollients are  a hard one to cut out as they’re in most products… and you’ll certainly notice the difference in product consistency and texture when they’re removed.

2. Sodium Lauryl and Sodium Laureth Sulfate: SLS is responsible for creating that satisfying foam in shampoos and body washes (and laundry soap and dishwasher liquid…). For many people Sulfates are a common irritant as they can strip away the skin’s protective barrier. The war on SLS started a few years ago and many brands now champion the fact that they are SLS-free. If you’ve got eczema or psoriasis, you really should consider cutting out sulfates altogether.

3. Parabens: Essentially a preservative, parabens come in a variety of guises (they’ll usually contain a prefix like ‘Ethyl’ or ‘Methyl’ on the back of the bottle). The benefit of parabens is for the manufacturer, not the consumer, as they are designed to extend the shelf life of a product. While the clinical evidence is still scant, there is the suspicion that an overdose of parabens can lower sperm count or reduce testosterone levels.

4. Petroleum-based ingredients (especially Propylene Glycol (PG), Polyethylene Glycol (PEG), and Ethylene Glycol (EG)): Commonly used as solvents and surfactants, petroleum based ingredients tamper with the skin’s natural processes in a similar way to silicone-derived emollients. Remember the skin is a semi-permeable membrane: it needs let bad things out and, ideally, let good things in. If this balance is disrupted by ‘suffocating’ the skin, then you’re likely to create more problems. Propylene glycol is easily the worst offender. It’s also used in brake fluid and tire sealant, so that should give you a good idea of its toxicity.

5. Ammonium Derivatives (DEA (diethanolmine) and TEA (triethanolamine): Emulsifying ingredients that create a nice lather and consistency but don’t have any real benefit for the skin. When used in isolation these derivatives are relatively harmless. The problem is they’re rarely used in isolation. TEA, for example, is often used to adjust the pH of a formula. When combined with other ingredients, it can create cancer-causing chemicals such as nitrosodiethanolamine. You can usually spot ammonium derivatives by looking for ingredients that end with ‘-dea’ or ‘-tea’.

6. Lanolin: A fatty substance that comes from sheep’s wool that makes for a fantastic moisturiser and healing agent. The problem is a lot of sheep’s wool is contaminated with pesticides like DDT. Find the pure / clean stuff (we recommend anything from Lanolips in the UK) as it can trigger outbreaks, if you have acne-prone skin.

7. Hydroquinone: The skin bleaching agent (now banned in many countries) that features in brightening / whitening products. Ironically, it can cause hyper-pigmentation and has been shown to cause leukaemia in lab rats. Avoid at all costs.

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