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The organic natural beauty market is booming. Brands with natural or botanically derived ingredients represent the largest share of high-end skin care sales, valued in the billions. More than ever, we’re hyper-aware of what we put into and onto our bodies, and, as a result, we’re demanding more transparency from beauty brands. This is such an exciting time to clean your beauty routine! Using plant-based skin care products allows you to align your outer appearance with your inner beliefs for overall wellness. It’s also a chance to use your purchasing power to support brands that empower their employees and care for the environment.
If our lives are the reflection of our actions and beliefs, then each time we make the choice to purchase another product, we’re voting for that product — for the manufacturing methods, for the ingredients, for the packaging. We’re placing our trust in that skin care company. When examining and revamping your beauty bag, look at every aspect of the products that you welcome into your home. In addition to the purity of the product, other factors may play a role in your decision to purchase with intention. As you build your own unique plant-based beauty routine, consider these questions:
- Is the packaging recyclable or biodegradable?
- Are the products cruelty-free?
- Who founded the line?
- Are the ingredients sustainably sourced or wild-harvested?
- Does the company give any portion of proceeds to charity?
Cleaning your routine is an orientation toward a more intentional lifestyle, and creating your own personal set of standards will help guide you to the products that are just right for you.
Reading Ingredient Labels
It’s important to understand how to read an ingredient label to know exactly what you’re putting into your body. This little bit of know-how will save you time and money. You’ll be able to skim quickly through an ingredients list like a pro, and know when to bypass products that market a few key ingredients, but in reality bury them at the bottom of the ingredients list and hardly use them in their formulas.
Order matters, especially when it comes to deciphering skin care ingredient labels. Each list, or “deck,” is compiled by order of concentration. The most highly concentrated ingredients are listed first, and everything that follows is listed in descending order. For example, if a product claims to be packed with antioxidant-rich green tea, and you look at the label to see green tea leaf extract (Camellia sinensis) listed at the bottom of the list, then there isn’t much of this ingredient in the product at all. Even though it was the active antioxidant ingredient that drew you to the product in the first place, there’s not enough concentration to justify the misleading marketing.
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Another ingredient you’ll often see is water. It’s usually the first “base ingredient” in conventional skin care. Sometimes, water makes up as much as 80 percent of the formula. In my experience, products that contain mostly water don’t last as long, because they’re heavily diluted. The water in beauty products won’t hydrate your skin in the same way that drinking a glass of water will your cells. Most of the water evaporates from your skin a few minutes after application, leaving your skin still craving moisture. What’s worse is that, typically, many more nonessential filler ingredients (fragrances, emulsifiers, and alcohols) must be added to keep the product shelf-stable while still achieving a nice, smooth texture.
Natural plant compounds can still look like tongue-twisting ingredients when they’re declared on labels under their chemical or Latin names. For example, a label may state “dipotassium glycyrrhizate,” which looks hard to pronounce and potentially toxic, but it’s actually licorice root extract, which is plant-based, brightening, and beneficial. When you’re researching a plant-based product, complicated ingredient extract names are typically the exception; in general, labels become much easier to understand. Often, plant-based beauty products don’t contain water; instead, the first ingredients are natural plant oils, such as sweet almond, rosehip, jojoba, red raspberry seed, pumpkin seed, and carrot seed. You’ll also see plant butters, such as shea and cocoa, and hardening agents, such as beeswax and candelilla wax, followed by essential oils. For the most therapeutic benefits, look for products that contain only genuine plant ingredients.
The simple truth is that you don’t need hundreds of skin care and makeup products to achieve healthy skin. Instead, you need a few hardworking, plant-based products to cleanse and renew your skin and deliver antioxidant protection to your cells. More importantly, though, you need to know which eyebrow-raising, questionable ingredients to purge from your beauty routine forever.
This article features my personal list of the top ten ingredients that I avoid. There are so many innovative, clean beauty alternatives on the market that you can say goodbye to these additives and never look back.
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Luckily, it’s easy to rid yourself of these harmful products and switch to plant-based and equally effective replacements. With research and smart shopping, your new beauty routine will leave you with a healthy, toxin-free glow.
Count up how many personal care products you use on a daily basis; this includes your makeup, dental, skin care, and hair products. What’s your number? Based on a survey done by the Environmental Working Group, the average woman uses at least 12 products each day. The same study found that 12.2 million adults expose themselves every day to known or probable carcinogens via their personal care products. Some of these ingredients are endocrine disruptors, which are especially hazardous for women.
Top 10 Toxic Ingredients to Avoid
1. Fragrance (Parfum, Perfume)
In New York City, I worked at a spa in SoHo that specialized in fragrance- and allergen-free products for extremely sensitive customers. Clients would often come in looking exhausted and discouraged, with the results of their allergen patch test in hand. Almost every time, the ingredient at the top of the list to avoid was fragrance blends. While these customers are an extreme example of how contact dermatitis can be triggered by synthetic fragrance, it’s still wise to avoid this unnecessary toxic ingredient, even if you aren’t specifically allergic.
2. Chemical Sunscreens (Avobenzone, Oxybenzone, Homosalate, Benzophenone, Octisalate, and Octinoxate)
The main function of these ingredients is to protect you from the sun, but not all SPF products are created equal. These chemical ingredients (as opposed to mineral SPFs, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) are known skin irritants and endocrine disruptors. Some of these sunscreen ingredients cause damage to the oceans by destroying coral reefs. One study published by Environmental Health Perspectives estimates that up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen accumulates in the oceans globally each year. Instead of a chemical-packed product, opt for mineral sunscreen.
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3. Parabens (Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Isobutylparaben, and Butylparaben)
Most people have heard of these preservatives and have known for a while now that they aren’t on the nice list. You’ll see many companies promoting their products as “paraben-free,” which is certainly progress. It’s also a great example of how purchasing power moves the market. If we demand better products, companies will eventually deliver. Parabens are an issue because, like fragrances, they’re found everywhere. When you apply multiple skin products every day that contain these same preservatives, the amount on your skin becomes unsafe. Parabens mimic estrogen, and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that parabens have been found in human breast tissue.
4. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS and SLES)
If it bubbles into a foamy lather, you can bet it contains either SLS or SLES — cheap surfactant additives that leave your skin, hair, clothes, and teeth feeling “squeaky clean.” These should be blacklisted for this principle alone; your skin doesn’t need to be stripped each day by these suds. In fact, daily use weakens skin’s resilience and damages its natural protective barrier function, which keeps you safe by protecting you from bacterial invaders. These ingredients are known to cause skin, eye, and respiratory irritation.
5. Mineral Oil and Petroleum-Derived Ingredients
Not only are these environmentally unkind, they’re also bad for your skin. Mineral oils and petroleum jelly tend to be heavy, pore-clogging moisturizers that block proper detoxification of the skin. They form a watertight barrier on top of the skin that can cause breakouts, particularly in acne-prone skin types. Most skin care formulators use mineral oil because it won’t cause an allergic reaction, even though it brings little therapeutic value to the product.
6. Phthalates (Dibutyl, Diethylhexyl and Diethyl Phthalates)
Usually listed alongside parabens, most phthalates have been eliminated from many personal care products already, but it’s still good to be on the lookout. Phthalates help fragrances adhere to your skin and create a specific product texture. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors and associated with birth defects. On the label, look for dibutyl, diethylhexyl, and diethyl phthalates
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Hydroquinone ranks high on the EWG hazard list. It’s used to lighten skin and fade hyperpigmentation; however, the risks far outweigh the benefits. Already banned in Australia, the European Union, and Japan, this ingredient raises concerns of cancer, organ toxicity, and skin and eye irritation. In some rare cases, when over-the-counter formulas are used for an extended period, it causes a blue-black skin pigmentation called ochronosis. For brightening hyperpigmentation caused by inflammation, sun damage, or hormones, choose plant-based ingredients, such as bearberry, kojic acid, mulberry, ferulic acid, white truffle, licorice, or carrot seed oil.
8. Aluminum-Based Antiperspirant Ingredients
Chemicals such as aluminum chlorohydrate and aluminum zirconium tetrachlorohydrex gly literally plug your sweat ducts so that you won’t perspire. However, sweating is an important, sophisticated function that your body uses to regulate temperature, purge toxins, and ultimately keep you healthy. Alternatively, natural deodorants don’t act as antiperspirants, but rather curb body odor by killing stink-causing bacteria via plant compounds and absorbing wetness using such ingredients as cornstarch or arrowroot powder. For a clean beauty bag, always opt for deodorants over antiperspirants.
This antibacterial ingredient is found everywhere, from hand soaps to laundry detergents to toothpastes. There’s an ongoing debate about triclosan’s safety; emerging research suggests that it may disrupt certain hormones, as well as encourage the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. To make matters worse, triclosan has an environmental downside, because it accumulates in lakes and streams.
The main function of fragrances is to make a product smell appealing. They’re found across a wide array of products, from deodorants to mascaras. Fragrance blends are often a cocktail of toxic chemicals associated with neurotoxicity and hormone disruption, as well as eye, skin, and respiratory irritation. An article published by the Washington Post calls fragrance “the new secondhand smoke,” and quoted the Environmental Protection Agency, saying that because of the overuse of synthetic fragrance, our homes and work environments “can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the most industrialized cities.”
Often found in nail polish and hair dyes, this ingredient is especially harmful for nail technicians and hair stylists who are exposed to large quantities over their lifetimes. Those with autoimmune disorders, women who are pregnant, and children should avoid it altogether. Most people report headaches, dizziness, and skin irritation after exposure.
Jess Arnaudin is a skin care therapist and natural beauty expert. This is an excerpt from her book Plant-Based Beauty: The essential guide to detoxing your beauty routine, Aster (2019).