Skin Care Ingredients

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Ethical skin care

More and more shoppers are seeking out skin care that is ethical and safe. And many are turning to natural skin care brands, thinking that they set a higher standard. But take a closer look. Skin care products may carry labels claiming to be natural, but this is not a guarantee of any kind that the ingredients used are clean or that they are free of ingredients to avoid.

The search for great skin care products is like being at a wedding banquet but finding nothing to eat. Despite the thousands of products offering much hope and promise, so few really measure up.

While the jury is out on some ingredients, there are others that continue to be used even though there is enough evidence that they are harmful or do not benefit the skin. Some are even banned or restricted in certain countries. Despite this, there are many global brands that will remove a banned or suspect ingredient from one country but continue to use it in others.

It is very difficult for anyone who is concerned about what they put on their skin to find products that deliver on their promises, are truly safe to use and do not involve animal cruelty. Ultimately, there are very few products that fully fit the selection criteria we set, and that is a great shame as we think many brands are not listening to their customers.

The world of skin care, like many other fields, is multi-spectrum, not black and white. There are always differences of opinions among scientists, skin care chemists, dermatologists and environmental consumer groups too. So it is not always possible, or even helpful, to use simple rules to assess products and their safety. However, we have identified some ingredients we prefer not to see in skin care products.

Given we like to share the truth, there is one that is well hidden by the industry. Of course everyone claims their products are cruelty free and have not been tested on animals, and that may be true. However the companies they source their ingredients from may be testing on animals. Indeed some countries require that ingredients and products be tested on animals before they can be sold there. Or it may be that even another brand owned by the same company is being tested on animals or one of the parent company’s other companies is doing so. For this reason, we place no faith in the “cruelty free” claim. Unless the brand has full sourcing verification, it is a meaningless claim that fails to be policed. It is an ugly side of the skin care and cosmetics industry.

For those that have moral and ethical concerns, there is the issue of ingredients derived from animals or human cells. A number of companies at the forefront of this technology have come under scrutiny and attack by those who are deeply concerned about the use of aborted foetal cells, baby foreskins or animal-derived ingredients in their anti-ageing products.

At the end of the day, we are the company we keep and the sum of our values … choose wisely.

Skin care ingredients : know what's in your skin care products

Know what’s in your skin care

Every day, our regular skin care routine introduces about 200 chemicals into our bodies, some of which make it into our bloodstream. These, is in addition to the hundreds of other chemicals in our home, offices and the environment, can enter our bodies, interact with each other and sometimes find their way into our organs. Just as what we eat matters, so does what we put on our skin. Remarkably there is little oversight of what chemicals are used by the cosmetic industry, and the organisation that is touted as the watchdog in the US, the Federal Drug Administration, does not require cosmetic companies to list their ingredients.

There is not enough testing or data to enable us to know how these chemicals affect us over the long term. And there is even less testing or data to enable us to know how these chemicals, when combined, affect us and our environment.

In Australia, sunscreens are classified as therapeutic goods and so almost all the brands take the view that they do not owe the consumer anything and therefore do not declare all of their ingredients, only the active ingredients.

Globally, consumers spend more than $827 billion on cosmetics and personal care products each year, many sold on the promises of the brands. By focusing on what ingredients are in the skin care product, you will be able to achieve better skin faster and save hundreds, if not thousands, on wasted purchases.

Safe skin care : Chemicals used in skin care products

Chemicals in skin care

The world of beauty is full of not-so-beautiful ingredients.

There are thousands and thousands of ingredients that can be used to develop skin care products, both natural and synthetic.

Some chemical ingredients are potential allergens, irritants, endocrine disruptors or carcinogens. Reading a chemical safety data sheet can be a scary activity, although it is best to keep in mind the warnings refer to handling the chemical, inhaling it or using it in large amounts.

We understand that reputable manufacturers will use ‘hazardous’ ingredients according to the specified limits of the countries they manufacture in or sell to. However countries have their own regulatory systems and safety assessments, and what may be banned in one may not be banned in another. Manufacturers may continue to use a chemical ingredient in some countries and not in others, rather than reformulate globally.

Australia has banned the use of several phthalates (Dibutylphthalate, Diethylhexylphthalate, Diisobutylphthalate and Di(methyloxyhexyl) phthalate, but not parabens.

The great unknown, and of significant concern, for all of us is:

  • What is the potential cumulative damage of using these chemical ingredients?
  • What is the impact of increased exposure through the layering of multiple skin care products and cosmetics?
  • How do chemical ingredients in skin care products and cosmetics interact with the increasing levels of chemicals, toxins and environmental pollutants in our everyday lives, ranging from food containers to carpet glues to fuel contaminants?

It is not a simple area, especially when some newer chemicals are displacing older known ones and sometimes proving even more irritating to skin. Let us also set the record straight. Preservatives in our skin care are necessary to protect us from bacteria, fungus and mould.

Some people prefer a natural approach and therefore some manufacturers use natural preservatives or natural fragrances in the form of essential oils, however it is also important to keep in mind that these too can be imperfect. Natural preservatives are used in higher concentrations and may also be irritating or sensitising, and the same applies to natural fragrances that are based on fragrant essential oils, as over the long term they can cause inflammation – and as we know, inflammation leads to skin ageing.

Why natural skin care does not always mean clean skin care

Our approach

The debate around ingredients will continue, and rightfully there will be ongoing scrutiny of ingredients of concern. Unfortunately, we believe brand owners and manufacturers are not listening hard enough.

We look for skin care products that meet our dream list, and encourage the companies to catch up with the growing preference of consumers to have products that are effective, affordable and as safe as current knowledge and evidence allows. In a world in which information is available globally at the touch of a smart device, and newer and safer ingredients are being validated, we are disappointed at the slowness of change.

Skin care manufacturers and brands are trying to have their cake and eat it too! They are coming up with more and more active and corrective formulas that supposedly penetrate the epidermis to deliver real results, yet at the same time they claim their ingredients do not penetrate the epidermis and therefore are safe and so continue to use harmful and controversial ingredients. Are you confused yet? We are!

To get fast results, cosmeceutical-type products will use penetration enhancers in their serums, and this is particularly evident with the use of glycols in skin care. If they help the good stuff penetrate more deeply, why would they not also help those questionable ingredients penetrate deeper too? Propylene Glycol, Butylene Glycol and Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) are widely used because they are penetration enhancers. They also can make a formula feel light and non-greasy, enhance absorption, dissolve other ingredients, create the right consistency, hold moisture to the skin and even preserve. It is estimated that Propylene Glycol alone is used in 38% of all cosmetic and skin care products.

These glycols are usually derived from petroleum. Polyethylene Glycol contains trace amounts of 1,4-dioxane, a potential carcinogen linked to organ toxicity. Despite manufacturers refining and purifying their glycols, the US Food and Drug Administration continues to find 1,4-dioxane in a significant number of cosmetic products that contain Polyethylene Glycol when it undertakes testing.

Glycols have been found to be weak skin sensitisers and irritants. The American Contact Dermatitis Society named Propylene Glycol the Allergen of the Year for 2018 and noted that Propylene Glycol is now being used in an extremely large number of products. It put the incidence of developing contact dermatitis from Propylene Glycol at up to 3.5%, however advised that the rate was more likely to trigger an allergy when it was used in a water base and applied to the face.

Given the multi-tasking nature of glycols, they are being widely used in skin care, and at high concentrations. We have even seen them in serums as the main ingredient, ahead of water.

Many natural skin care brands will use plant-derived versions of these glycols, listed on ingredient lists as -diols, such as Propanediol. Interestingly, though, they are still chemically synthesised, despite their claim of being natural! Disappointingly, a US study of personal care products labelled as natural or organic (uncertified) found 1,4-dioxane in 46 o the 100 products tested.

Glycols have been assessed as having a low level of dermal toxicity, however they many not be the most skin-loving ingredients. Anyone with acne, irritated skin or an impaired skin barrier, may prefer to give glycols a miss.

Are natural skin care products really clean and green?

Ingredients your skin can do without

If you, like us, are concerned about what you are putting on your skin each day, 365 days a week, then you may want to keep the chemical load down. Here are some ingredients that you may prefer to avoid or keep to a minimum, as they are not going to be doing much good for you or your skin:


  • SD Alcohol, Denatured Alcohol or Isopropyl Alcohol as a significant ingredient
  • Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) as a major ingredient
  • Propylene Glycol as a major ingredient


  • Triclosan


  • FD&C colours and pigments

Emollients and emulsifiers

  • PEG-100 Stearate
  • Ceteareth-20 (can contain Ethylene Oxide and 1,4-dioxane)


  • Butylphenyl Methylpropional
  • Amyl Cinnamal
  • Added fragrance
  • Added essential oils as a significant ingredient
  • Phthalates – found in synthetic fragrances


  • Parabens: Methylparaben, Butylparaben, Ethylparaben or Propylparaben
  • Diethanolamine (DEA), Cocamide DEA, Monoethanolamine (MEA), Triethanolamine (TEA)
  • Para Amino Benzoic Acid
  • Formaldehyde-releasers: Diazolindyl Urea, Imidazolidinyl Urea, DMDM Hydantoin, Quaternium-15
  • Toluene: Benzene, Butylbenzene, Methylbenzene, Phenylmethane
  • Chlorphenesin

Sunscreen chemicals


  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

Other ingredients

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. As we have said, the classification of ingredients in skin care is not always black and white. One’s own personal preferences, ethical framework and risk tolerance are all important factors. It is, however, necessary for you to do your homework and not rely on marketing claims. Natural does not always mean natural in skin care. Decide what is right for you. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics provides resources that may be useful.