You might be forgiven for thinking that you need a degree in biochemistry to understand what's written on the back of all those bottles in your bathroom, but that's not the case. That long list of ingredients is now so common that we've come to accept them, but few of us actually know what they are. It's actually pretty easy to figure out what you'd rather not be exposed to when you understand a few very common ingredients. It's important to remember that each of those listed (and it's by no means an exhaustive list) have a safe limit so that each product made in Europe can't contain any stronger a concentration than has been clinically set and that's controlled by European legislation. America has its own legislation and governing bodies.
But it's equally important to understand that there isn't a test in the world that can reproduce what each and every one of us uses in our skincare routine at home and check that it is safe for us. By the time the average woman has showered, brushed her teeth, put on her face, put a bit of perfume on, fixed her hair and done a little light cleaning in the morning before leaving the house, she's been exposed to a completely unregulatable cocktail of over 5000 chemicals in mixed concentrations. However, we're not trying to say that that in itself is certainly toxic and that all your skin will fall off if you don't immediately change your habits.
What we're saying is that we simply don't know what long term effects this type of exposure will lead to, this is a remarkable time in human history and that evidence simply isn't yet available. The effects being caused today might not become apparent for years to come and by then, how will we trace it back to our choice of shampoo? We do know that some of these chemicals are polluting the water table already and that damage is irreversible while these ingredients are in such common use. We do know that some of them are simply very cheap alternatives to natural ingredients that make the manufacture of them a highly profitable exercise. We do know that the cosmetic industry has been very successful at playing on and promoting women's insecurity about their looks in order to sell products that simply don't reverse the aging process as they claim.
So, put simply, we at PNS have decided to take ourselves out of this particular game. We believe that great soaps and real oils are better for us than the chemical laden alternatives. We've decided that contributing to the pollution of our surroundings isn't acceptable. We've decided not to play the game of believing that a cream will reproduce 18 year old skin (or blow cellulite away, lift busts, lighten skin or give you the lips of an infant) however expensive, technical sounding or beautifully packaged it is.
So, in order to give you a bit of an idea of what's really in the bottles in your bathroom, here is our list of The Dirty Dozen - this is by no means an exhaustive list and it's in no particular order, they're just very common ingredients.
SLS (SODIUM LAURYL SULPHATE)
It's a detergent found in body washes, shampoos, toothpastes, exfoliants, moisturisers, hair colours and shaving creams. There to make foam, it's also a grease disperser, which is why it's in creams - to make them spread further.
SLS is commonly used because it's so very cheap. But anything that produces large amounts of foam has been created to appeal to your sensuous nature rather than your desire to be clean. It's just not necessary. SLS damages the protective outer layer of skin, and is a known skin irritant and penetration enhancer, able to modify the structure of the skin so as to enhance the absorption of other chemicals. It aggravates eczema and psoriasis and is also known to cause dermatitis.
SLS has come into common use recently as we haved moved away from traditional soaps and towards detergents (shower gels and body washes). Pat Thomas says in her book "Cleaning Yourself To Death" that "the difference between soap and detergent is rather like the difference between cotton and nylon. Soap and cotton are produced from natural products by a relatively small modification. However, detergents and nylon are produced entirely in a chemical factory. Detergents have a greater impact on the environment than soaps, both from the waste stream they generate during their manufacture and in their poorer biodegradability."
It also has a number of slightly less unpleasant cousins, Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES) among them. A growing number of these are being created because SLS is getting such bad publicity.
PARAFFINIUM LIQUIDIUM (COMMONLY KNOWN AS MINERAL OIL)
Paraffinium Liquidium is a mixture of refined liquid hydrocarbons derived from petroleum. It's colourless, odourless and stays on top of the skin, leaving a shiny film. When heated, it smells of petroleum. It's a film-former most widely found in baby products, but also present in facial cleansers (particularly acne treatments), eye creams, foundations, lipsticks, lip gloss, hand lotions, concealer, face powder, hair colours and styling creams.
We don't approve of this ingredient for a number of reasons. One is that it mimics oil but doesn't perform the same function, so in our eyes it's essentially a con: just a very cheap alternative to the natural ingredient.
We don't feel that it deserves a place or serves a real function in anyone's skincare routine, especially where it's most commonly used: in the care of babies. For at least the first 12 weeks of life, a baby requires no more than water to clean it (see here for more detail on this). The acid mantle, which is what protects us all from the outside world, is not yet formed, so it's crucial to protect baby skin from anything that might disrupt it, much less coat it, especially during this period.
Also, because mineral oil forms a film on the surface of the skin, it can trap dirt and toxicants under the skin, which can promote acne. It's also said to cause photosensitivity, increasing the risk of skin damage on exposure to the sun.
ALPHA HYDROXY ACIDS
These largely fruit-derived acids (grapefruit and papaya are popular) have become very common and are now almost an accepted part of many face products, even ones that claim to be natural - especially eye cream and anti-wrinkle formulations. Lactic acid is also an AHA.
The clue really is in the name: these are acids and behave as such. The perceived wisdom is that by using these products you can reproduce at home the type of chemical peel that doctors perform as a cosmetic procedure. Chemical peels remove several outer layers of skin over the surface of the face and are said to result in a youthful appearance. Well, once the skin heals again they are. We've all seen that episode of SATC where Samantha gets a peel, haven't we? While these creams don't contain AHAs in any way approaching the levels of concentration used in a full cosmetic procedure, they do burn the skin slightly. That "glow" they promote is actually a mild irritation caused by the chemical burn. Not so amusingly, they can actually promote premature ageing as well an increased susceptibility to sun damage.
We at PNS are heartily sceptical of any product that claims to, temporarily or otherwise, reverse, halt or otherwise interfere with the perfectly natural process of aging. The most common way these products can have even this temporary effect is to cause an allergic reaction to the cells at the surface of the skin which may cause them to plump up for a short time. Yes, that's right. It's a little bit of something your body hates and you're encouraged to apply it regularly, especially to the delicate area around your eyes. Just how can that be good for you?
Parabens are found in almost every toiletry: creams, body washes, toothpastes, antiperspirants, shampoo, conditioner, all cosmetics, bath oils, the list goes on and on. They're esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid, and are used as preservatives. They're commonly listed on labels as methylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, polypropylparaben and isobutylparaben.
A number of studies have found parabens to be oestrogenic, which means they're hormone-disrupting, potentially harmful to our own young, and the fish certainly don't like them much, either. They are absorbed by the skin then passed out of the body in urine, and have been found to be present in the water table. What's more, certain parabens have been found intact in the breast tissue of women diagnosed with breast cancer.
Most people are surprised to learn that the average expected shelf life of a cosmetic product is eight years. Which makes the distribution, storage and bulk buying of these products very easy for both manufacturers and stockists. So, in order to keep products free from bacterial growth over this extended shelf life, parabens have become a common ingredient. It keeps the costs of manufacture very low, as machinery doesn't need to be cleaned that often.
At PNS we don't believe that any product should hang around on your bathroom shelf for that long. On a purely practical note, if you haven't finished it in eight years, it's not really your favourite thing, is it? I wouldn't expect to use an ingredient in my kitchen that was eight years old, so why would I expect a cream to be any good for me after that length of time? We don't accept high levels of preservatives in our olive oil in the kitchen; we simply accept that we need to use it within a reasonable amount of time for it to be any good for us. At PNS we've extended that simple logic to our skincare products.
pH BALANCED PRODUCTS
This is one of our all-time favourite myths. Pat Tomas (editor of the Ecologist) explains this example of pseudo science very simply and practically in her book "Cleaning Yourself To Death". She says:
"Contrary to what you have heard, skin and hair do not have an official pH, though generally the skin is more acid than alkali. pH is measured on a scale of 0 (highly acid) to 14 (highly alkali) with 7 being considered neutral. "Normal" skin pH ranges from 5-8.
Your skin produces keratin, fatty acids and other substances that work continuously to adjust its pH level. Almost anything that you put on your skin, including water, will temporarily alter its pH. The pH of your skin can also change according to your environment and your state of health. Unless it is very harsh and applied continuously, the pH of a product will not alter the pH of the skin substantially or for long.
In reality there is no such thing as a pH-balanced product, anyway. The product that left the factory with one pH may shift substantially during storage and shift again when applied to your hair or body and according to the pH of the water in which it is being used. Interestingly, a product's ability to irritate the skin appears to be independent of its pH. While the pH ‘balance' of any given product is unlikely to affect your body one way or the other, the chemicals used to justify the claim ‘pH balanced' can be irritating to your skin. Sodium hydroxide, or lye, is a good example of this."
This is the most common antibacterial agent used in toiletries and is regularly found in hand washes, wipes, deodorant soaps, feminine hygiene sprays, foot odour preparations and lotions.
Your first question upon encountering this ingredient should be to ask why it's there. The germs you encounter in your home (unless you're waiting for a visit from Kim & Aggie) are unlikely to pose a threat to any member of your family - even babies and young children. A normal, healthy human has already built up huge resistance to most bacteria that we encounter in daily life.
So what are you achieving by using antibacterial agents on your hands, or worse still, on any more intimate areas? They are hard on the skin and, more importantly, are linked to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria which is a major health threat throughout the world. Hospitals are now finding it impossible to kill all the germs in their environment using the most powerful cleaning agents known to man. So, by using triclosan, you're not helping your skin, your general health or that of the community. Using soap and hot water to wash hands regularly and properly will keep you clean enough to stop the spread of germs and bacteria perfectly well (click here for the Ecologist article on the subject). This ingredient is, in our opinion, doing more harm than good.
Interestingly, triclosan is a known aggravant of conditions such as eczema, and psoriasis in particular and, ironically, is especially harmful to the skin on the feet, opening it up to further infection. It is able to penetrate the skin and had been found to cause liver problems in animal laboratory testing.
COLLAGEN (also on the label as hydrolysed collagen)
The aging process causes the skin to slowly stop producing collagen, which results in deteriorating elasticity (a nice way of saying that your skin starts to sag). The perceived wisdom is that by applying collagen to the surface of the skin, you can try to stop, reverse or delay this process.
I'm struggling not to use the phrase "horse feathers" in this explanation. Hydrolisation is a chemical process that breaks down the collagen and makes it more usable for the manufacturer, but the molecules are still too large to penetrate the skin. Instead, they remain on the surface and form a smooth coating on top of the skin (and fingertips) which gives an illusion of softness without doing you any good at all. With luck it'll be rinsed off when you next wash, and your skin will be able to breathe again. Add to this the fact that collagen is usually derived from the skin of young animals, though some is vegetable-derived. It's not just totally pointless, it's cruel as well.
This is just another example of the cosmetics industry using pseudo-scientific smoke and mirrors to justify bringing out a new product (often with a "new and improved" price) that's strikingly similar to the old one - apart from one new "wonder" ingredient. See also "pentapeptides", technical sounding complexes that all end in "ox" at the minute (presumably to make the consumer believe they'll achieve the same results as botox: bosweliox, retinox etc.).
Found in facial moisturisers, astringents, toners, shampoos, conditioners, body washes, deodorants, aftershaves, eye liners... the list goes on. It's a very common ingredient. It's a humectant, which means that it attracts moisture.
Our concern over this ingredient is that it's a penetration enhancer, able to modify the structure of the skin, enhancing the absorption of other chemicals.