By Solwyn AOR
First published in ORB 209, Summer 2258
Most people use products without knowing what an item is made of. Understanding an ingredient label enables you as a consumer to know what it is that you are putting on yourself. Some of these terms you may be familiar with from advertising, and some you may have heard of but have misinterpreted because the terminology in chemistry can be confusing. Still others are just plain nasty and you’re scrubbing them right across your butt every morning in the shower. If you aren’t sure what something is or does, google the term or visit the library, research the pros and cons, and see what some of these ingredients are being put in.
It is important to bear in mind that while some of the names may be long and intimidating, this does not render an ingredient dangerous. Many people automatically assume that because an ingredient name is several syllables long that it must automatically be bad for them in some way. For example, Vitamin E ,which is quite beneficial to you both inside and out, can be written as Vitamin E, Tocopherol, Tocopherol Acetate, or or Alpha-Tocopherol. It is still Vitamin E, and it is still good for you. It is also a personal sticky point of mine, those people who push something on you that is “all natural” and good for you because it “has no chemicals”. Kindly inform them that EVERYTHING on this planet is made up of chemicals. Including them. We are walking bags of constant chemical reactions. To say that something is “chemical free” is to state that it does not exist. Chemicals and their compounds, in and of themselves are not bad things, we need many of them to survive, the two principal ones being air and water. Also, most of the ingredients in a listing are generally in very small amounts and many have molecules too small to penetrate beyond the uppermost layer of the epidermis, so they do not “build up” in your body, just in your dead skin. Again, if you are concerned about an ingredient, research the term and look for answers that will help you make an informed decision. Consulting the check-out girl at a health food store, sales rep, or product educator, in my opinion, is NOT making an informed decision. Do as much independent research as you can on your own, before you get your answers from people whose wallets depend on your consumer dollars.
As a Master Esthetician my professional focus is on skin, so the product ingredients that I will profile in this article are the ones that would be most commonly found in cosmetics and toiletries. Since the cosmetic field is a multi-billion dollar recession-proof industry, it goes without saying that we contribute significant amounts of our disposable income to this area, so it benefits all of us to understand what it is that we are using.
Organic: This is not an ingredient, but it is a word that needs to be defined before we proceed. Many people, particularly those in the natural health industry, attach this word to just about everything to show that the product in question is better for you, cleaner, more natural, etc. Most of us understand this word in relation to a style of farming that practises specific types of ecosystem management with a focus on working with the ecosystem rather than against it. It is beyond the scope of this article to fully delve into this definition and its accreditation among farmers, suffice it to say that the term “organic” is now being attached to just about everything that we buy that can be considered a cosmetic or health care product. When a skin care product lists something as organic, what it generally means is that this ingredient has its basis in organic chemistry, sometimes it means that the ingredient (such as a botanical) is organically grown. Acrylic and gel nails are organic. They come from the earth (through petroleum production) and are created with ingredients that contain carbon. I would not be lying if I described the artificial nail systems that I’ve used over the years as “organic”. It doesn’t carry the same meaning that the general public attaches to the word, though. Cosmetics and toiletries of virtually any sort can be termed “organic” based on their chemistry, but it is not the same use of the word as your “organically grown” apples and carrots.
When possible, do try to buy things that are made locally, using organically farmed ingredients. Still do your homework, though. Ask suppliers about the originating source of their ingredients. Anyone who has been watching the news in the last year knows about the quality of ingredients coming out of places like China. Even if something is packaged in granola-beige corrugated cardboard and stored in a nifty little tin tied with raffia, with a unicorn printed on the label, it still begs the same scrutiny you would apply to a prescribed pharmaceutical.
Humectants: Organic ingredients that bind water and deposit it onto the skin. Humectants are usually found after water on the ingredient list. Glycerin, Propylene glycol, Butylene glycol, and Sorbitol (a sugar) are typical humectants. These products are usually found in concentrations ranging from 10% to 1% each, much lower than the water but generally higher than the other ingredients. Other examples of humectants are some organic salts like Sodium Lactate, Sodium Hyaluronate, Sodium PCA, and Triethanolamine Lactate. Urea is also a very good humectant. Hyaluronates are my favourite because one molecule will hold 1000 times its weight in water. Urea is also a personal favourite because it is something that our bodies manufacture naturally. As we age, the level of urea in our cells drops and contributes to skin changes. Our bodies will readily accept urea in a moisturizer, generally with fabulous results within two weeks of regular use, particularly for those with skin disorders.
Emollients: These are oils and oil-soluble substances that form occlusive (sealing) barriers on the skin. They help the skin maintain its natural hydration by preventing moisture from evaporating. Some plant-based emollients are Safflower, Sesame, and Coconut oils. Often Coconut and Palm oils will be used because they can replace fatty acids and fatty alcohols, which tend to clog skin.
Other examples of emollients are hydrocarbon oils, such as Mineral Oil and Petrolatum, which are waste products of petroleum distillation. Petroleum products clog skin, eventually dry it out, leave a residue behind, and generally show up in cheap skin care products, although this is not always the case – some high end products use mineral oils because they are cheap fillers that increase profits.
There are also silicone oils such as Dimethicone and Cyclomethicone, fatty acids such as Stearic Acid and Palmitic Acid, and fatty alcohols like Cetyl Alcohol and Stearyl Alcohol. Common natural emollient choices are Jojoba and Grapeseed oils.
Fatty Acids: These come from both plant and animal sources. They are commonly used in cosmetic products such as cremes and lotions to keep the product firm but soft, and easily applied to skin. Fatty acids are excellent lubricants. Some examples are Caprylic Acid, Oleic, and Stearic Acid.
Fatty Alcohols: These are fatty acids that have been exposed to hydrogen. The use of the word “alcohol” in the name implies that they will dry something out, which is not true. Fatty alcohols are used to increase the thickness of a product and provide moisturizing properties. Some examples are Cetyl, Cetearyl, Oleyl, and Stearyl Alcohols. Cetyl alcohols were originally isolated in the early 1800s by chemist Michel Chevreul when he was studying the reactions between spermaceti (a substance harvested from sperm whales) and caustic potash. The end result was cetyl alcohol flakes. It should be mentioned that these products, which still bear “cetyl” in their chemical name no longer come from whales. They are now isolated from petroleum by-products and palm oil. In the case that it is derived from palm oil, it is called palmityl alcohol.
Surfactants: This term encompasses a large category of ingredients with surface activity. Surfactants have the ability to bind a wide range of organic and inorganic matter (dirt and oils) to water. Because of this ability, surfactants are most often employed in cleansing products as detergents. Shampoos, facial cleansers, shower gels, and laundry soap are all examples of products that use surfactants. In high concentrations they provide cleansing abilities and in low concentrations they act as emulsifiers. They are usually found high on the ingredient list when used as cleansers because they must be used at a significant concentration to obtain the desired result. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate are the two most commonly used anionic surfactant cleansers. Others are Cocamidoproplyl Betaine and Cocamide MEA. These last two boost foaming and enhance cleansing while reducing the harshness of other surfactants. I am not a big fan of sulfates because they can be very harsh, stripping the skin and hair of things they need. They have also been specifically indicated in eye damage in small children through exposure to bubble baths and generally indicated in many cases of non-specific contact dermatitis.
Those used to create emulsions are usually found in the middle of the ingredient list. They are generally used at concentrations ranging from 4% to less than 1%. Some examples of the most common anionic emulsifiers are Stearic Acid (a fatty acid that has been neutralized to Sodium Stearate or Triethanolamine Stearate), Cetyl Phosphate (a fatty acid derivative with a phosphate group……phosphates do nasty things to our waterways and there is really no need for them to be in products anymore, aside from the fact that they have a well-funded marketing team), and beeswax, which can be treated chemically too so as to neutralize its fatty acids to yield a powerful emulsifying surfactant. Other names that surfactants may show up as are “ethoxylated fatty acids” such as Steareth-2 and Steareth-21, Sorbitol-derived polymers such as Polysorbate-20 and Polysorbate-40.
Thickeners/Viscosity Modifiers: These are ingredients that help increase the density in emulsions and gels. Thickeners also allow for the suspension of small particle solids in a base by creating enough of a supporting structure to prevent settling. Viscosity modifiers may be organic compounds such as cellulose derivatives (like the Methylcellulose family), acrylic acid polymers (Carbomers), natural gums like Guar and Xanthan gums, or inorganic (mineral) compounds such as metallic silicates (Magnesium Aluminum Silicate). The level of thickeners will generally range between 0.1% to 1% of the formulation.
Botanicals: This is the general classification for a wide variety of natural or naturally-derived substances from plants. There are many benefits attributed to botanicals, such as anti-bacterial, irritant, oxidant, and conditioning effects, to name a few. Some popular botanicals are Green Tea Extract, which has powerful antioxidants, and Willow Bark Extract, which contains Salicylic Acid, an effective keratolytic (a substance that acts to unclog pores and break down keratin build-up in dead skin) and anti-inflammatory agent. Botanicals are always listed by their Latin name, usually with their common name in brackets. Usually the concentration is less that 5%, and most are between 0.5% and 1.0%. They are usually solutions of the plant extract or oil in some form of solvent, so look for names like Propylene Glycol or Butylene Glycol. Sometimes they are held in an oil like Safflower or Sesame Oil.
Preservatives: These are included in products to preserve them against bacterial contamination and to extend shelf life. Products that contain water and a variety of natural ingredients create the perfect environment for mould, bacteria, and yeast to proliferate. Some of the most common preservatives are hydroxybenzoates, including Methyl, Ethyl, Propyl, and Butyl P-hydroxy-benzoates, listed as Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, and Butylparaben.