Bad Ingredients – I recommend avoiding products of any kind containing these ingredients.
Petrochemicals, mainly occlusives – this includes petroleum, petrolatum, mineral oil, baby oil, petroleum jelly, and Vaseline (all basically the same), as well as paraffin wax. These ingredients are bad news – occlusives seal the skin off from water, meaning that while they seem like incredible moisturizers, they seal OUT moisture in the long run and therefore dry out skin and hair over time.
Natural plant-based oils are a good alternative. If you like using plain Vaseline, you can try a product called Un-Petroleum Jelly, which is made by a company called (surprise) Un-Petroleum. They make loads of products that are normally petrochemical-based. Some other more emollient plant-based moisturizers with similar textures to petroleum jelly are mango seed butter, coconut oil, cocoa butter, and shea butter (all usually available at natural grocery stores in the health and beauty section). There are many other kinds of natural butters and oils that are very moisturizing and are much better alternatives than mineral oil.
Propylene Glycol – This is another harmful petrochemical which shows up in a whole LOT of products (including ANTI-FREEZE). It acts differently than the occlusive petrochemicals mentioned above in the “mineral oil” family, but it draws moisture out of the skin, and some theorize it can be absorbed into the body. Frankly, I just hold the opinion that, regardless of what research concludes, it’s probably unwise to use products that are derived from the toxic sludge that is buried deep within our earth, and that poisons us and the environment when we expose it. Bad idea for skincare, I say. Similar ingredients like Butylene Glycol are also to be avoided. (Once I’ve seen a product specify “vegetable propylene glycol” in the ingredients list. I am not certain of its user-friendliness, as this seems like a total oxymoron to me — very mysterious. And I’m still inclined to avoid it.)
‘Cones – This is another group of chemicals that has a similar bad effects as petrochemicals, though they’re actually derived from silicone. A very common one is dimethicone. These chemicals function essentially as an emulsifier and moisturizer as well as a “slip” agent for texture, and is often found in lotions, conditioners, and 2-in-1 shampoo/conditioners, to name a few.
Silicones can seal the hair shaft and/or skin, leading to eventual dryness and, in the case of some skin types, acne. These compounds can travel under other names, but anything ending in “-cone” or containing the word “polymer” = bad for skin and hair, at least over time. Many hair straightening/relaxing serums contain dimethicone or cyclomethicone or similar – this stuff needs an extra-strong shampoo to truly wash it out, but it can provide amazing styling results.
Personally, I do use ‘cones on my hair to straighten it, but every few days I wash with a very stripping shampoo and follow with an oil and/or deep conditioning treatment. Over time continued dimethicone use will screw up your hair if it is allowed to build up.
Here’s a quote from one of the most savvy EDS members, Carekate (she’s quoting another source here, and I’m not sure what that source is):
“Silicones are viscous oily liquids that coat the hair shaft in gloss, giving the illusion of healthy sheen. As most curly hair tends to be dry and often frizzy, silicones seem like the miracle ingredient to combat these complaints. The downside is that MOST silicones are not water soluble, and can only be removed with harsh detergents. The very detergents needed to remove the silicones strip the hair of all its natural oils, leaving it stripped and straw-like. This causes the user to think she needs more silicones to combat the dryness. Thus, the cycle begins again. If the user is not using these harsh detergents to remove the silicones, they can build up, creating a barrier on the hair shaft. This barrier prevents moisturizing conditioners from penetrating the hair, further drying it out.”
How do you know whether it’s water soluble or not? Here’s a cheat sheet:
• Amodimethicone – not soluble in water by itself;
• Amodimethicone (and) Trideceth-12 (and) Cetrimonium Chloride – mixture that is soluble in water in the bottle;
• Behenoxy Dimethicone – sparingly soluble in water
• Cetearyl methicone – not soluble in water
• Cetyl Dimethicone – not soluble in water
• Cyclomethicone – not soluble in water
• Cyclopentasiloxane – not soluble in water
• Dimethicone – not soluble in water
• Dimethicone Copolyol – water soluble
• Dimethiconol – not soluble in water
• Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein Hydroxypropyl Polysiloxane – water soluble
• Stearoxy Dimethicone – sparingly soluble in water
• Stearyl Dimethicone – not soluble in water
• Trimethylsilylamodimethicone – not soluble in water
• Lauryl methicone copolyol – water soluble
So as you can see, there’s a lot of information to absorb there. I personally use silicones and strip them with harsh detergents every week or two. Not ideal, but the styling bonus I get from using them is worth the potential damage to me. If I start trying to grow my hair very long, though, I will need to re-think this strategy in order to protect it. I hope all this ‘cone info can help some of you decide which products are safe for your hair!
Lanolin – In my opinion, animal-based oils are thicker and heavier than plant oils, and they tend to seal in moisture well, but they also block pores and block the skin’s ability to absorb moisture naturally. Plus, they are just gross in my opinion, and many animal products are often obtained cruelly (lanolin sometimes being an exception to the cruelty, but NOT the grossness, factor).
These are, however, better ingredients to use than the above petrochemicals, if it comes down to a choice between the two, and many drier skin types do fine with lanolin. I just don’t think using oils from other animals is wise — I believe in sticking to plants. Lots of people on EDS are fans of emu oil, but I personally just think it’s disgusting to use animal fat of any kind on my skin.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, and/or Sodium Laureth Sulfate (also known as SLS and SLES, respectively) — These are extremely harsh detergents that strip skin and hair of any and all natural moisture. They’re also not so great for your mouth, in my opinion, but it’s often found in even natural brands of toothpaste. Try to avoid it whenever possible (not easy – read ingredients carefully!) Aside from the Internet hoax/hype about these ingredients being potential carcinogens (not all of which was totally untrue, though the facts forwarded around a thousand times were diluted and misquoted), this is a very harsh skin irritant and will often cause problems with overdrying and sensitivity, whether they’re carcinogenic or not.
Parabens (incl. Methylparaben and Propylparaben, as well as Ethylparaben and Butylparaben) – These are preservatives that I don’t think are good for you, aside from Internet hoaxes again (and there was some truth to the bioaccumulativity quoted in said hoaxes, even if it was reported wrong in the hoaxy messages). I prefer to look for products that use natural bactericides and essential oils that can function as natural preservatives.
A good natural preservative is tea tree oil, and there are many others. Read ingredient lists whenever possible – it’s important for most products to be preserved, but even a good preservative won’t truly create an extended shelf life – most stuff needs to be discarded before truly horrendous bacterial cultures would be able to grow anyway, in my opinion (though there are some exceptions like mascara, for example).
Triclosan – This is a strong chemical bactericide (used in antibacterial soaps, gels, lotions, etc, as well as some deodorants) and I don’t think it’s good for you. It’s designed to kill organisms, so that’s a pretty strong chemical. Plus, I’m of the philosophy that a) bactericides may create resistant bacteria strains, and b) germs are not going to kill you — exposing yourself to them will strengthen your immune system, and I think being a germophobe is just silly and pointless and sometimes counterproductive.
It was also recently discovered that when Triclosan combines with chlorine in tap water, it forms the carcinogenic compound chloroform. We don’t need any MORE carcinogens in our world. Down with germophobia — only doctors and medical professionals really need a bactericide like this on a regular basis.
Possibly bad ingredients — these are ingredients whose use is still questionable. Until I have a more fully formed opinion, they go in this “maybe” section.
Glycerin — Glycerin is a water-soluble by-product of oils. It’s a humectant, which means it attracts water to the skin or hair, and when used in small to moderate quantities it can be a great moisturizer. But don’t go overboard with this stuff — not only can it feel disgustingly sticky if you add too much to a given product, but it also can potentially attract water OUT of the skin if you use too high a concentration.
If you purchase glycerin, try to get vegetable rather than animal-based. If it doesn’t say, or if you buy it in a normal drugstore’s first-aid section, chances are it’s animal-based,, so go to a natural grocery and look in the health and beauty section for vegetable glycerin.
Cetyl or Cetearyl Alcohol — These are types of “moisturizing” alcohols, and are the ingredient(s) responsible for most conditioners’ tangle-busting power. However, if left on the hair for too long (and it’s often impossible to entirely rinse this stuff out if your conditioner contains this) it actually dries out the hair shaft, causing the opposite of the desired (and apparent) effect. Again, glycerin (see above entry for details) is a good alternative ingredient (in small doses), as are plant-based oils. I don’t think cetyl alcohol is a good ingredient in skincare/lotion formulations – it’s a sign of a cheap manufacturer.
AHAs – This is one of the most popular recent skincare phenomena out there. While I’m sure the studies that prove that alpha hydroxy acids are great for wrinkles or dead skin cells,I hesitate to use them in massive quantities because I think they can strip our skin of its outermost layer prematurely, exposing the underlying vulnerable skin to sun damage, which is even more likely as these acids make skin more photosensitive so it damages easier. I’ve heard several claims that they actually lead to worse skin damage down the road. My rule of thumb is to just not overdo it – I use an AHA facial lotion or wash less than once a week, and I don’t use it in combination with other drying/peeling agents. I think skin peels offered in salons and/or home kits are a bad idea, period, as these are just too strong and damaging. The thing is, though, despite contra-AHA warnings, these really are some of the most effective methods of exfoliation, acne-control, and skin “brightening” that are available, so I myself still use them. Again, moderation is key, and I really strongly don’t believe in facial peels or dermabrasion or anything that strips off a layer of skin or more at a time.
BHAs – Like AHAs, beta hydroxy acids can be a bit too harsh in the wrong quantities. Salicylic Acid is the most common BHA, and is a great ingredient in acne-fighting and pore-cleaning formulations at about a 2% concentration. However, I think the peels out there that have higher percentages are just idiotic. To each their own, I suppose.
Retin-A (also Retinoids, Vitamin A, Tretinoin, Retinol) – These creams are usually only available with a prescription, though Retinol and/or Vitamin A can be found in lower (and largely ineffective) concentrations in non-prescription lotions and such. My first naturopathic doctor was the one who expressed concern over Retin-A. When I asked him why he recommended that I not refill my Retin-A prescription, he basically said to me, “You know how there are some products that the FDA says are fine, and then it turns out years later that they are really problematic? I just have a bad feeling about this one, and I think it’s going to turn out to be one of the bad ones.” And, after careful consideration and MUCH deliberation, since I love the results it gave me, I decided to believe him. Retin-A makes your skin peel LIKE CRAZY, it really takes off a lot of that epidermis – it works really well to help combat acne, but I do worry about the long-term effects, and as this is a relatively new product (popular within the last couple decades only), we have yet to see what a lifetime of use/abuse would do. I generally recommend avoiding this family of products if possible, because no matter how much you hate acne now, you’ll hate wrinkled, damaged, spotted skin even more in the future – and Retin-A makes skin VERY photosensitive so if you do choose to use it, do so only at night, and always use plenty of physical sunblock in the day and avoid prolonged sun exposure.
Bad Ideas – Just some general tips to not do any crazy damage. Some seem self-evident, but you’d be surprised!
If you have a bad reaction to a product, don’t use it again.
Don’t purchase skincare items based on marketing, hype, or packaging – these are all VERY clever methods, and it’s easy to be swayed by them, but always read the ingredients.
Don’t self-diagnose. When in doubt about some skincare or health-related question, GO TO THE DOCTOR! I myself am sometimes guilty of not following this advice, but it’s important stuff – all the Internet sites in the world can only get you so far. Sometimes you just need a pro.
Don’t have a closed mind – many weird-seeming homeopathic or natural treatments may sound crazy and far-fetched, but generally speaking there’s centuries of wisdom behind them. This is obviously not true for all, so please proceed to the next tip…
Don’t believe something just because you heard or read it once! Look into things, use your better judgment, do research… whatever it takes. Don’t immediately jump on the bandwagon without doing your homework. Don’t switch up products constantly. Not only will you not be able to accurately pintpoint which product made you react badly in case you do have a reaction, but your skin will be more likely to react badly if you confuse it. Don’t give up on a new product immediately, though, either – skin needs at least a couple weeks of getting consistently used to a certain product before you can really judge it’s reaction. Don’t be shy! Ask me questions if you like, I thrive on this stuff! :)
Bad Habits – These behaviors will screw with your skincare and can lead to infection, scarring, or worse. Don’t keep products that have separated, changed color significantly, or gone funky-smelling or changed texture – THROW IT AWAY!
Don’t keep mascara for more than three months per tube. REALLY. Also don’t ever share any kind of eye makeup, ever. Infections are much easier to transmit than they might seem.
Don’t pick at blemishes, or try to extract on your own without at least steaming first – you can cause serious scarring, especially if you squeeze a blemish and cause something internal to erupt, which is often the case. Squeezing hard enough to redden the skin or leave any kind of nail mark means you’re doing it too hard. If you’re dead-set on doing it anyway, steam your face over a pot of hot water with a towel draped over it for at least ten full minutes beforehand, and use a tissue over your fingers before you have at it. Know that any facialist would still scold you for doing it on your own. Don’t skip facial washings, tooth brushings, tooth flossings, etc. – treatments need time and consistency to work, and if you get into the habit of slacking, it’s easy to make that become your routine.
Don’t be a clueless consumer!
So many cosmetics and personal care companies have super-savvy marketing departments, that we don’t realize what a load of crap it is. Many brands construct a small, cool, independent image, but are in fact part of a massive conglomerate. Being a part of such a conglomerate generally means that the batches are bigger, the formulations are shockingly similar to other products manufactured by that conglomerate, and in general the product is more “corporate” and less “kitchen” than it might seem. This is just a short list, and is by no means inclusive — but it should give you a sense of just how vast the cosmetics world is.
Bumble and Bumble
Acqua di Parma
Make up for ever
L’Oréal (partly owned by Nestlé)
All L’Oréal brands
The Body Shop
And more brands of perfume than we could list including Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Lopez, Kylie and the Beckham’s scents.
Proctor and Gamble
Head and Shoulders
Hugo Boss Fragrances
Numerous other fragrances
Britney Spears, Hilary Duff and many other fragrances
Toni and Guy (products only)
Kangol (products only)
French Connection (products only)
Johnson and Johnson
Clean and Clear
If you notice something in this list that needs checking or updating, please let me know. Mergers and acquisitions go on all the time, so there may have been some pretty massive changes.
Also, I know that both Tom’s of Maine and Burt’s Bees are recent-ish sellouts to big cosmetic industry giants, but I don’t know which ones — and I’d like to!