July 2, 2014

A Guide to Buying Safe & Eco-Friendly Cosmetics. ~ Monica Wells

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This article is meant for everyone who likes to use cosmetics and is interested in both their own health and the well-being of the natural environment.

The recent talk of town is that conventional beauty products we find in regular drugstores might contain a wide variety of harmful substances. These kinds of subjects pop up on Internet forums, as well as on professional cosmetologist conferences, where all parties involved discuss the potential dangers of silicons, parabens and detergents.

How to steer clear of those nasty ingredients? By learning to read the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI)—the ingredient list we find on the etiquettes of all cosmetic products, something that is actually more difficult than it seems.

Here are some of the main problems with the INCI:

INCIs are usually pretty long. They might include dozens of substances that are encoded in ways intelligible only to industry professionals. Learning to read them can take  several hours and a lot of determination—you’ll need to browse through several specialized websites that contain information about those enigmatic ingredients.

You can make this task easier by concentrating only on those substances that are found in the vast majority of cosmetics and analyze their impact on skin and hair in order to develop an opinion about their safety. Once you’ve done that, you’ll know which substances to avoid. Then, you’ll be able to quickly assess beauty products and choose those that fit you criteria.

The Basics

The first thing you’ll notice when looking at INCI is its length. If what we’re analyzing is a simple shower gel and not a specialized conditioner for hair damaged by coloring, we can easily follow this rule: the less, the better.

Why is that so? Every chemical substance is treated by our organism as an intruder, and the longer the ingredient list, the more probability of an allergy or skin irritation. Of course, some of the substances found in the INCI might be great, like natural oils or fruit extracts, but more often than not, you’ll find synthetic detergents, preservatives and silicons—the amount of which should be as limited as possible.

The First Positions on INCI

The first few positions on our ingredient list mark substances that make up for the majority of our beauty product. Usually, those places are reserved for strong chemical detergents like Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) or Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), which cause our soaps and shampoos to produce a lot of foam, irritating our skin and causing allergies. If we opt for conventional cosmetics, there’s a very high chance that they will contain SLS or SLES. Believe it or not, but those detergents are present in cosmetics that pretend to be ecological, so it’s always worth to check the INCI of a product – even if it’s advertised as natural and eco-friendly.

If what we’re buying is a simple cheap liquid soap and at the very beginning we find only SLS or SLES, with no other substances that would amplify their working, it’s not a terrible choice. If we spot some strange names in the INCI—such as Laureth-4—we can be sure that the soap in question will have a very strong cleaning effect, which goes in pair with considerable skin irritation.

That’s why some conventional conditioning substances like emollients or betaine, responsible for maintaining humidity in our hair or lubricating our skin, tend to be included in those products to neutralize the harmful effects of those strong detergents.

The Active Substances

The use of cosmetics is similar can lead to a vicious cycle: a lot of substances that help our skin from drying provoke other problems.

Take silicons, for instance, which are used to lubricate our skin and hair. Silicons fill the damaged structures of our cells, effectively blocking their air supply and causing them to slowly die out.

The worst of silicons are those that cannot be dissolved in water since they glue into our tissues and are difficult to remove. In the INCI, they figure as: Cyclomethicone, Cyclopentasiloxane, Trimethylsilylamodimethic and Trimethylsiloxysilicates.

Emulsifiers that start with PEG or PPG promote the permeability of our skin, but their production requires a gas considered to be carcinogenic.

Instead of those harmful substances, we should look for organic oils, glycerin of natural origin or extract from aloe vera. A great counterpart to chemical detergents is betaine, usually marked as Cocamidopropyl Betaine—a natural mild detergent extracted from coconut oil. It should never be mixed with SLS—otherwise, it can cause allergies or severely dry our skin.

Finishing INCI

The very end of the ingredient list will contain the preservatives, among which we find substances that are potentially harmful, such as parabens, which can impact our hormonal system and are suspected of having a carcinogenic effect.

It’s worth to avoid those preservatives, which are found in the majority of men’s shower gels and shampoos: Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Isopropylparaben, Propylparaben, Butylparaben, Benzylparaben, Glutaraldehyde, Hexamidine-Diisethionate, Phenol, Phenyl Mercuric Acetate, Phenyl Mercuric Borate, Benzetonium Chloride.

Natural cosmetics are an alternative to those paraben-filled products—it’s best if they’re certified by BDIH or ECOCERT certificates that give credit tot he high quality of ingredients used in the process, as well as the general conditions of their production.

The substances mentioned above are only some of the most important ingredients used in cosmetic production that should be avoided when shopping in a drugstore. Before making a purchase, it’s best to check the cosmetic’s INCI at home first. This is the best way to guard ourselves against making a mistake in the shop.

Unfortunately, cosmetic producers are sometimes unwilling to share their ingredients on the web, and we all know what shopping reality looks like—beautiful packaging and attractive prices have a fair share of influence on our decisions.

That is why it’s always best to choose those brands, which don’t shy away from showing their ingredient lists online and are honest about their production process.



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Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Wiki Commons 

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Monica Wells