Deciphering Cosmetic Codes: Ingredients Your Skin Can Live Without

A clever marketing game is played in the skincare and cosmetics world, both synthetic and natural organic cosmetics. 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 extolled marketing strategy. These bottles 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 9 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. 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 mouthwash. 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 contaminants 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:

Colouring 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.  Aluminum is used as a colour fixative and 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 man made 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 stabilise 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. 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 chorine 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 Radiance and Holistic 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 under her brand Living Libations. Her healing creations, along with her concept of Renegade Beauty, encourages effortlessness and inspires people to rethink conventional notions of beauty and wellness.