The more we switch to eco-friendlier, all-natural products, I feel healthier and happier about my choices. But it is difficult to go to the store and pick the “right” thing. A lot of times I’ll look at the ingredient list and be completely baffled. The product might say “natural” or “organic,” but I know that that doesn’t count for anything and so I have to learn which ingredients to look out for and which ones aren’t as bad as they sound. It’s taken a lot of research, but I feel like I’ve got a fair handle on the most common ingredients. So, here’s a list of what to avoid and why:
- Parabens – these chemicals are used as preservatives in nearly all personal products and makeup because they effectively kill harmful microbes (otherwise you would have to keep everything in the refrigerator and use it up before it spoiled). Some studies show that they act like estrogen and can increase risks of breast cancer and hormone imbalances in both men and women. There is such a thing as estrogen pollution from the use of birth control as well as all of these daily products that are absorbed into our skin and eliminated or simply rinsed down the sink. Many scientists believe that estrogen pollution is not only harming humans, but also aquatic life. Parabens are necessary in products with water to keep it from developing bacteria that could make you sick, however the better solution is to stick to products that use botanical oils rather than water.
- Bismuth Oxychloride – used in almost all mineral makeups “natural” or not. It makes the makeup look and feel better, but it is a known irritant and if you have sensitive skin you will probably wish you hadn’t tried it. Affordable Mineral Makeup is the only mineral makeup brand I have seen that does not use bismuth and is entirely good for you.
- “Fragrance” - that elusive word that means there is something used to alter the scent of your product, even if it’s unscented, either to give it a special aroma or to cover any unpleasant chemical smells already inherent to the product. In my experience, companies using all natural products will list exactly what is contributing to the scent (botanical oils, etc.) while companies using chemical fragrances will simply list them as “fragrance.”
- Dyes – found in both food (even whole fruits!) and household products they usually look something like “Red Number 4″ on the ingredient list and are usually made from chemicals. Some dyes are considered unsafe for pregnant women and can contribute to allergies in young children. They can also cause some major skin reactions (ask about the burns on my face after using some play makeup at a sleepover once).
- Alcohol – present in many skin and hair care products and perfumes, it has a drying, aging effect on your skin and hair. Read the article linked here to see which alcohols are bad for you.
- Aluminum – this is the major ingredient in antiperspirants and it may or may not be linked to Alzheimers (it does not cause cancer despite popular legend). However, a lot of people are sensitive and have reactions to it. I’ve eliminated aluminum antiperspirants from my daily regimen and found that there’s no more itching, my skin seems clearer, and things actually smell better.
- Talc – an inexpensive filler used in a lot of mineral makeup. It is poisonous if inhaled and is thought to be carcinogenic. A good substitute is cornstarch.
- Chlorine - we all know it’s a disinfectant and we all know it’s toxic too. It’s used to whiten toilet paper, feminine products, tissue, napkins, and paper towels because we think that something that isn’t pure white isn’t clean. That bleach gets into our water all too easily through the manufacturing process and the toxins it produces are a known carcinogen.
- Petroleum - this non-renewable and precious energy resource causes all kinds of problems. Petrochemicals (synthetic chemicals) are used to make surfactants which is what causes the foam in your detergent and other cleansers. Petroleum distillate is used in body lotions and oils, nail polish, furniture polish, tanning lotion, and more. On the ingredients list it might look like mineral oil, petrolatum, or paraffin. Why is it bad for your body? It builds up in your cells rather than being absorbed, and blocks your skin so that it can’t breathe properly. Hello breakouts!
- Surfactants - briefly described above, these can be made from petrochemicals or derived from plant-based extracts such as coconut, palm, or corn. It has great cleaning ability and in fact, companies will put too much of it in so that we will see the foam that it creates and feel better about the cleansing abilities of the product. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate are common examples. They do greatly asist in the cleaning process, but they are also poisonous and the process used to make them is carcinogenic (although the product itself is not cancer-causing).
- Phosphates - these are a natural mineral used in dish and laundry detergents (as well as fertilizers) to break down mineral deposits and dirt. However, they are poisonous, a skin irritant, and perhaps most of all they get into our water streams and contribute to eutrophication (excess algae growth) that causes freshwater life to basically suffocate.
I think I’ve probably only skimmed the surface, but this much info has taken hours of research already. If you know of other ingredients to look out for, please list them in the comments. Remember that all of these ingredients have a valid, useful purpose that corrects something potentially worse, so just switching to any all-natural product that doesn’t contain them is not necessarily the answer. It won’t do you or your environment any good to spend energy on a useless product. The good thing is that manufacturers and retailers are feeling increasing pressure to look for equally good or better alternatives, so even if you can’t find the right product now, chances are it will be in your grocery store in just a few years. The best thing is to make changes where you can and be on the lookout for better solutions in the future.