Use This, Not That: Ingredients to Look for in Natural Beauty Products
In the world of natural beauty products, it's easy to get lost in the pretty packaging, celebrity spokespeople, and ingredient claims. Unfortunately, the word "natural" isn't regulated by any governing body, so it's somewhat meaningless if you don't have a basic knowledge of what should and shouldn't be in the bottle. We know that words we don't recognize are more likely to be synthetic than the ones we do, but shouldn't there be a better test than that?
Ingredients are everything. Your skin absorbs 60–70 percent of what you put on it, so you need to know which beauty brands are using strictly non-toxic ingredients. Furthermore, if you're on the hunt for natural personal care, chances are you care about the environment as well. Many of the synthetic (and even toxic) ingredients found in mainstream skincare aren't just bad for your health, but bad for Mother Earth as well.
There are a host of ingredients in American beauty products that are actually banned from use in other parts of the world. Do you want to know what they are and why they're banned? We've compiled a list of the worst ingredients in conventional body care (including hair care, skincare products, and deodorant) and offer a few suggestions for natural ingredients that the best natural products on the market to use instead.
Worst Ingredients List
Propylene glycol: Propylene glycol is considered a skin conditioning agent. It's a clear, viscous, syrupy ingredient that offers humectant properties (helping seal moisture in), along with emulsifying properties (keeping ingredients from separating).
In addition to its presence on the ingredient lists of a number of body care and personal care products, it's also a relatively widely used food preservative. While the FDA recognizes it as safe for ingestion (with warnings for pregnant and nursing mothers and young babies), it was also named the American Contact Dermatitis Society's Allergen of the Year for 2018.
It's now widely known among skincare professionals that propylene glycol can cause skin irritation, rash, contact dermatitis, and hives (urticaria). It's also non-biodegradable, which means that when you wash it down the drain, it could eventually contaminate sea life. If you have sensitive skin, allergies, tend to react to new products, or have environmental concerns, avoid products with propylene glycol.
Hydroquinone: Hydroquinone is a bleaching agent used in hair dyes and skin lighteners. It evens out skin tone for those with blotchy skin or hyperpigmentation, but at a cost. It's one of the few ingredients on our list that is actually mildly restricted in the United States, although it's outright banned in the EU and some countries in Africa.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists hydroquinone as high risk. There is strong evidence showing that it's a skin toxicant and allergen in addition to a potential respiratory toxicant. Overtime, the goal of skin lightening can be overshadowed by thickening and scarring of the affected areas in addition to potentially breaking down collagen and accelerating the aging process.
Additionally, the purpose of hydroquinone is to break down melanin, your skin's natural pigmenting chemical that helps protect you from UV rays and skin cancer. Some research shows that a breakdown in protective melanin can actually suppress immune function, potentially leading to other health concerns.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES): While SLS has a bit of a worse rap than SLES, neither is ideal in natural beauty products. These sulfates are used as foaming agents in shampoos, face washes, toothpastes, and liquid soaps (including body wash). They're also very common in household cleaners. Sometimes you'll see SLS sourced from coconut fatty acids as an attempt to appear natural, but the chemical process remains the same, regardless of the starting ingredients.
SLS is known to be a harmful ingredient after prolonged skin exposure due to its irritating, overly drying, and even blackhead-forming effects. It's generally recognized as safe if only exposed to the skin temporarily and then thoroughly washed off (and is also considered a safe household cleaner).
SLES was developed as an alternative to SLS, and while it is a less irritating ingredient, it's actually worse for the environment, creating a byproduct called 1,4-dioxane, a known water contaminant and cancer-causing agent that's easily absorbed by the skin. It's also on the California Prop 65 list of ingredients known or suspected to cause birth defects and cancer.
Polyethylene/PEGs: This ingredient is often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane and is used as a humectant. It's also the main (non-biodegradable) ingredient in scrubbing beads in exfoliating face washes. The beads have been banned in most countries at this point though, including the United States.
Parabens: While there seems to be some controversy over whether or not parabens are definitively, unequivocally bad, there's reason to at least consider it a questionable ingredient. Used as a preservative in makeup, hair care, moisturizers, and home cleaning products, studies on the effects of parabens to the endocrine system have raised some eyebrows.
The FDA considers the additive generally safe, but it's been shown to mimic estrogen. It's also possible that it can build up in your system over time, creating concern about breast and skin cancer risk, especially when used in deodorant. Other ways you might see parabens listed on an ingredients label are: butylparaben, methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and alkyl parahydroxy benzoates.
Phenoxyethanol: Often used as a preservative in place of parabens, this chemical is also a skin irritant considered by the EWG to cause reproductive and developmental toxicity.
Oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octocrylene: These three chemical sunscreens are all not only terrible for the environment, but they’re also hormone disruptors. Oxybenzone, the most studied and maligned of the three, has been shown in studies to mimic estrogen and suppress androgenic qualities, including reducing sperm count in mammals. It also travels in the bloodstream and was detected in breast milk along with a number of other chemical sunscreens in 85 percent of the mothers tested. All three of these ingredients are damaging to the environment and implicated in the massive death of coral reefs.
Best Alternatives in Natural Beauty Products
As we said before, the ideal ingredients are often the ones that you recognize and can pronounce. The best natural beauty products don’t harm the environment, and they use natural preservatives, mineral sunscreens, and nature-derived humectants and moisturizers.
Instead of propylene glycol or polyethylene/PEGs consider natural humectants like hyaluronic acid, honey, aloe vera, or vegetable glycerin. Not only are they all better for the environment, they also work for most skin types, even sensitive skin, without the same risk of allergic reaction and skin irritation.
Instead of hydroquinone, look for face masks containing licorice, vitamin C, vitamin B3 (niacin amide), willow bark, or lactic acid. These anti-inflammatory, antioxidant ingredients encourage healthy cell turnover and skin brightening naturally without any of the dangerous side effects.
Instead of SLS and SLES, look for soaps, detergents, and shampoos with a castile soap base, derived from vegetable oil. Tom's of Maine uses glycyrrhizic acid (made from licorice) in their soaps and toothpastes, while a number of natural brands forego foaming cleansers all together and opt for pure cream cleansers instead.
Instead of parabens and phenoxyethanol, choose natural preservatives like essential oils, vitamin E (tocopherols), citrus extracts, vegetable glycerin, or sodium benzoate. Choose natural deodorants without potentially dangerous preservatives, at least until more research is done to understand the potential link between parabens and cancer.
Instead of chemical sunscreens, opt for natural mineral sunscreens like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in addition to simple physical barriers like long sleeved cover-ups and brimmed hats.
Know Your Brands
We did our best to share the best and worst ingredients when you're on the hunt for high quality natural beauty products, but these lists will always be shifting and changing over time. Beyond memorizing the names of these ingredients, it's important to know and trust the brands you use.
The beauty industry is full of toxic and even scary ingredients, but if you find brands that value truth in labeling, prioritize natural, pure formulations, and are transparent about their ingredient lists, you'll be a few steps ahead of other beauty consumers.