Ashleigh Mythen Naturopathic Practitioner | Writer | Podcaster
As a naturopath and an avid consumer of skincare products, I am incredibly passionate about the formulas that are essentially going on to the biggest organ of the human body – the skin.
The skin is more then what we see, it provides a protective barrier for our internal organs, helps regulate body temperature and as well has immune functions. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the skin has its very own ‘microbiome’. We often hear a lot about the digestive microbiome but not the skin. Microbiome is a term to describe the delicate ecosystem that makes up the balance and health of a living organism.
So, like how your digestive microbiome can be disrupted by chemicals, preservatives, etc. We also must conclude it could be said the same for our skin.
Which is why being aware of the types of chemicals and which ones to avoid in our skincare is essential.
Here are 3 main chemicals to avoid in skincare products:
1. Synthetic Fragrances
Walking into a department store the first thing that my senses are aware of is the power of the fragrance counter. The sense of smell is said to be an ‘essential in defining human inner ego as an indispensable attribute of sophistication and complexity.’
Although this may be true research has shown that synthetic fragrances which are found in cosmetics and skincare products as well as many household products such as candles, air fresheners, and scented trash bags. Have been the instigator of many adverse health issues and a primary source of indoor house pollutants.
Anything synthetic or artificial always raises a red flag with me.
Although fragrance looks like it’s one ingredient on the label. The reality is that they are made up of hundreds to thousands of different ingredients not listed on the label, so you are never sure what you are being exposed to.
On the label, “fragrance” should be followed by a list of ingredients. It’s best to look for a product that uses essential oils instead of “fragrance (parfum).”
Synthetic molecules of scent can wreak havoc on your skin by causing contact dermatitis, or other allergic reactions like a headache or asthma.
According to studies allergy to fragrance is the most common cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis.
This can be hard to avoid considering the number of products, from skincare and haircare to makeup and perfume that all contain synthetic fragrance. The best thing to do is to begin reading the ingredients of the things that you are.
2. Petroleum & Mineral Oils (Petrochemicals)
Mineral oil and petroleum jelly are both by-products of petroleum distillation and are recognised as petrochemicals. It comes in different grades, classifying from the technical grade – which is used to lubricate car engines and equipment – to a highly purified cosmetic grade which is often found in many of the skincare products.
Untreated and mildly treated mineral oils are carcinogenic to humans and the ‘highly purified’ cosmetic grade has been labelled as ‘safe’ and ok to use.
However, I would still recommend avoiding such chemicals in your skincare products. As I’ve already said, your skin is an organ which means anything you apply to that organ is literally being absorbed and metabolised throughout your entire body. A study published in the Journal of Women’s Health confirmed this by reporting:
“The increase in MOSH [mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons] concentration in human fat tissue with age suggests an accumulation over time. Cosmetics might be a relevant source of the contamination.”
So, in other words, these chemicals get into our bodies JUST from topical use, and it doesn’t leave your body but accumulates over time.
Petroleum and mineral oil are also “occlusive” agents—meaning they seal off the skin from air, water, or anything else getting in (or out). When applied, they form an invisible film on the surface that blocks the pores and the skin’s natural respiration process.
The occlusive nature could also create a warm, moist environment for yeast and fungus to grow. Another study had also found that extremely-low-birth-weight infants treated with petroleum jelly were more likely to develop systemic candidiasis.
A series of studies in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry also found that they can indeed produce estrogenic effects:
“The present study indicates that oils contain compounds with possible endocrine-disrupting potential, some of them acting via the hormone receptors.”
3. PEG (Polyethylene glycol)
PEG’s or polyethylene glycol is the most common form of plastic, and when combined with glycol, it becomes a thick and sticky liquid usually found in cleansers to dissolve oil and grease.
PEG’s are found in several personal care products including skincare brands and may be listed as PEG-6, PEG-150 and Ceteareth-20 (PEG-20).
Polyethylene glycol compounds have not received a lot of attention from consumer groups, but they should. Showing the potential for neurotoxic effects.
Since no toxicity studies can be found for the substance it is regarded as safe but According to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) expert panel:
“The presence of impurities during or after the process of mixing these compounds is of concern, including 1,4-dioxane, ethylene oxide, and propylene oxide, which are known to be carcinogenic and/or highly volatile. Thus, it was emphasized that purification of end mixtures before incorporation into cosmetic products should be carried out as a necessity in order to keep these impurities”
The cosmetic and skin care product industry continue to use these substances within certain boundaries and preparations deeming that this will allow it to be safe for use. However, I think it’s important to consider the possibility of long-term effects of these synthetic chemically made commodities as well as the high account of acute adverse side effects i.e. contact dermatitis and allergic reactions. Personally, I prescribe to a more natural approach choosing brands and products that choose ingredients more aligned to those that are found in nature.
***This Article was written by Naturopath, writer, and podcast host of ‘it can’t be that friggin hard’ Ashleigh Mythen.
1 Wysocki AB. Skin anatomy, physiology, and pathophysiology. Nurs Clin North Am. 1999;34(4):777-v. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10523436/
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9 Systemic Candidiasis in Extremely Low Birth Weight Infants Receiving Topical Petrolatum Ointment for Skin Care: A Case–Control Study
Judith R. Campbell, Elena Zaccaria, Carol J. Baker
Pediatrics May 2000, 105 (5) 1041-1045; DOI: 10.1542/peds.105.5.1041
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12 Jang HJ, Shin CY, Kim KB. Safety Evaluation of Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) Compounds for Cosmetic Use. Toxicol Res. 2015 Jun;31(2):105-36. doi: 10.5487/TR.2015.31.2.105. PMID: 26191379; PMCID: PMC4505343. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4505343/
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