Know Your Ingredients

Nadia Lam

There are chemicals that are helpful to us and chemicals that are downright dangerous.  Below is a discussion of just a few of the worst offenders. Below that is a list of chemicals that will help repair and heal the skin rather than destroy it.  Knowledge is key to understanding what’s right for the skin and what is not. With this information you’ll be able to have the knowledge to know what to look out for in ingredients.

Chemicals that Harm


Benzene is known to be a carcinogen. Harmful amounts may be absorbed through the skin; it is irritating to the mucous membranes and poisonous when ingested. Because it is usually a trace element, it will not show up on the list of ingredients of cosmetics.

Colours and dyes (FD & C, or D & C)

Artificial colours are made from petroleum and coal tar, and are believed to be cancer causing agents. They penetrate the skin, can cause allergies and are irritants to the skin and eyes. They are found on labels as FD&C, or D&C and are followed by a colour and a number

DEA (diethanolamine)

This is a synthetic solvent, detergent and humectants widely used in brake fluid, industrial degreasers and antifreeze. It is mostly used in liquid soap, shampoo and conditioner. It can be harmful for the liver, kidneys and pancreas. It may cause cancer in various organs. Irritates skin, eyes, and mucous membranes and is a health risk especially to infants and young children.


Due to its bad reputation, it is sometimes hidden under the name DMDM hydantoin or MDM hydantoin. The trade name is Formalin. A common ingredient in shampoos, it is a disinfectant, germicide and fungicide and is used as a preservative in shampoos. There is a suspected link to some cancers and it also causes a breakdown of DNA in the skin. Unfortunately, due to the fact that formaldehyde is often used as a preservative in surfactants (washing substance), it is not often listed as an ingredient.

Parabens (methyl, ethyl, propyl and benzyl)

Cheap preservatives used in beauty-care products that make it possible for them to survive the long trip from China, sit on store or warehouse shelves for years or be exposed to extreme temperatures. When parabens are applied as a cream, the chemicals appear in the blood within hours. Parabens have been shown to mimic oestrogen, disrupting our bodies' endocrine (hormone) system and have been found in human breast tumours possibly linking them to breast cancer.  Where possible use glass containers for your personal beauty products.

Propyl Alcohol (also known as isopropyl alcohol and rubbing alcohol)

Unfortunately propyl alcohol is not on the list of ingredients as it is used as an antiseptic in the bottling procedure, so theoretically it is not an ingredient. Traces can be found though in most cosmetics, creams, shampoos etc. Possible effects of propyl alcohol include mental depression, headaches and even cancer. The fatal ingested dose is 1 fluid ounce.


Phthalates are industrial chemicals that make plastics soft. They are found in over 70 percent of beauty products and are absorbed through the skin. They have been found to cause birth defects, infertility and other illnesses. If you use plastics, try to transfer the contents to glass containers when possible

Propylene Glycol (common name Antifreeze)

Propylene glycol is the main ingredient in anti-freeze, brake and hydraulic fluid. Propylene glycol, the most widely used cosmetic ingredient is found in moisturisers, baby lotions, makeup, shampoos and hair conditioners. Material safety data sheets on propylene glycol warn users to avoid skin contact as it is systemic and can cause liver abnormalities and kidney damage. Note: it is widely used in baby wipes.

Sodium Lauryl Sulphate and Sodium Laureth Sulphate

Up to 50% of most shampoos are made up of these ingredients. Originally invented to clean garage floors, SLS has been linked to cataracts and cancer. SLS can actually damage the outer layer of the skin, causing dryness, scaliness, and loss of flexibility. SLS denatures protein and can change genetic material found in cells (mutagenic).

Synthetic Perfumes

Fragrance is used extensively in skin and hair care products and is often the leading cause of allergies and skin problems. Complaints to the FDA concerning perfumes include headaches, dizziness, violent coughing, vomiting and skin irritations and rashes.

Alkyl-phenol ethoxylades

This ingredient is used in the production of shampoo making. Its chemicals mimic oestrogen causing havoc with lowered sperm counts. It has also been linked to breast cancer from the high levels of oestrogen. I could write a whole book about dangerous chemicals, but this gives you some idea about what people are using in the commercial marketplace for beauty products.


This is a wax like substance produced in the intestine of the sperm whale. There is no danger to the whale, but, it is an animal product.


Used for eye gels. The gelatin is obtained from the bone cartilage of animals.


Lanolin, a purified wax extracted from sheep’s wool, easily becomes rancid. It does not penetrate the skin making it useless to use as a carrier for essential oils.


Mineral oil is a petroleum by-product. Although it has a long shelf life, which makes it useful as a commercial item, it does not penetrate the skin making it useless for natural skin care.


Petroleum jelly, a mineral fat, does not penetrate the skin,

Let’s turn now to the ingredients that can contribute to good health and glowing skin.

Chemicals that Heal

Algae powder (Laminaria digitata and Fucus vesiculosus)

These are powerful detoxifiers and absorb toxins on the skin without harming the living skin. At the Aromashoppe, we use algae which has been freeze dried. It becomes active again when it is put into water. We use it in body wraps and as a bath blend. It detoxifies not only the skin, but the whole body, making it a wonderful treatment for cellulite and fluid retention.

Carrier oils

A carrier oil is a vegetable oil derived from plants, (from the seeds, kernels or nuts).  Each carrier oil differs in the therapeutic properties and characteristics that they offer. For example, sesame oil has a sun protection factor of four While sesame, jojoba, almond, or apricot kernel oils are true carrier oils, infused oils such as calendula and carrot root (used in many of the recipes in this book) are infused with herbs and roots within a base carrier oil and therefore have additional therapeutic benefits. In choosing carrier oils for use in natural beauty products, choose cold-pressed versions where possible.

Conditioning emulsifier

This is a blend of cetearyl alcohol, castor oil, and stearalkonium chloride. This emulsifying wax improves the ability to detangle the hair and adds shine.

Cornacopa (Chemical name: Decyl polyglucose)

This is made from re-growable raw materials – glucose derived from corn and fatty alcohols from coconut and palm kernel oils. Although cornacopa has been around for years, the use was previously limited by the lack of a large scale commercial plant. Cornacopa is biodegradable, earth-friendly, orally non-toxic and very mild to the skin and eyes. It can make up to 50% of the shampoo.

Essential oils

Essential oils are extracted by various methods, usually steam distillation from plants, herbs, flowers, trees, seeds and grasses. They have been used in skin and health care for thousands of years and have marvellous therapeutic capabilities. For example, Lavender’s delightful and soothing scent also provides antiseptic and analgesic effects. For further reading, the Creamy Craft of Cosmetic Making has a whole chapter devoted to this subject.

Grapefruit seed extract

A by-product of the citrus industry, grapefruit seed extract contains vitamin C and glycerine. Grapefruit seed extract is anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, antiseptic, and can be used internally to combat fungus infections. As a result, this makes a natural preservative for creams, lotions and cosmetics, etc. Lanette wax Did you know that there are 600 lanette waxes on the market and most that are sold contain sodium laurel sulphate (see Chemicals that Harm).  The one sold at my Aromashoppe contains just cetyl stearyl alcohol, a safe chemical naturally derived from the fatty acids of coconut oil.

Seaweed extract and gel (red algae)

These are extracts from Hypnea MusMusciformis, Gelidiella Acerosa, Sargassum Filipendula. Seaweed is an anti-oxidant and is full of easy to absorb proteins, vitamins, minerals and lipids. Repairing and protecting the skin and hair, it reduces oiliness and sebum over-production and strengthens against damage caused by free radicals.

Wheat protein

This adds protection for the skin and hair as it moisturises and softens. Wheat protein strengthens the elasticity of the hair and repairs damage to the hair especially hair that has been overly processed and coloured. When added to the shampoo, the wheat protein can make the shampoo into an all-in-one shampoo and conditioner

Xanthan gum

A gum produced by a pure culture fermentation of a carbohydrate with xanthomonas campestris, this is widely used as a thickener in the cosmetic and food industries.

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