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Skin Care Ingredients

Just because a skin care product is made by a power brand or carries a natural label does not mean it is good for you or your skin. Look beyond the marketing and go straight to the skin care ingredients list to find out what is in your favourite products and whether they are really worth using.

It is a sad truth that most skin care products are more likely to cause inflammation, irritation and pigmentation than they are to give you clear, glowing, younger-looking skin. That is a big call, and we know it.

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.

The jury may be still out on some skin care ingredients, but there are many that we know are either harmful or not good for 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.

More and more shoppers are seeking out skin care that is both safe and ethical. They often turn to natural skin care, thinking that it sets a higher standard. Just because a skin care product carries a label saying it is natural does not necessarily mean it  is better for your skin. Many brands claim they do not test on animals, even when the ingredients they use have been or they have used a third-party regulatory agency to undertake testing to get their products into certain countries. In some cases, cruelty-free is just a marketing claim. It is an ugly side of the skin care and cosmetics industry.

For those that have moral and ethical concerns, there is also 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.

Know what’s in your skin care

Every day, our regular skin care routine exposes us to about 200 chemicals, some of which make it into our bloodstream. These can interact with other chemicals we in our homes, offices and the environments and 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. 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.

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.

Our approach

The debate around ingredients will continue, and rightfully there will be ongoing scrutiny of ingredients of concern.

Of course, there is not universal agreement on what is safe and what is not. However we do not think brands are doing enough to create products that are effective, affordable and as safe as current knowledge and evidence allows. As newer and safer ingredients become validated, the industry needs to do more to change their formulations.

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 FDA 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.

We set a stringent criteria to find products for our shop, and we can say it was no easy task to find products that measured up.

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.

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