Latest tips on understanding ingredients and labelling!

Learning about ingredients? Here’s the ingredients list of an anti-age serum by an overseas brand that a friend asked me to look into.

Water, aloe barbendensis leaf extract, lactic acid, glycolic acid, sodium hyaluronate, algae extract, artemesia vulgaris, polysorbate 20, hydroxyethylcellulose, phospholipids, cucumber, arnica montana, yeast (faex) extract, chamomile, grape seed, spearmint oil, eucalyptus leaf oil, disodium EDTA, malic acid.

Just starting with a general observation – this product contains some nice plant ingredients however it’s a bit odd for an international brand to have some ingredients written with their full biological name (eg aloe barbendensis and arnica montana) while others were not (eg cucumber and chamomile). That’s not necessarily a problem – just, well, odd for an international brand to not follow the INCI guidelines (ie the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients).

Now, to get to the useful information…

The two ingredients that jump out at me most quickly are Polysorbate 20 and Disodium EDTA.

We’ve written about these before (as linked) but to make it quick and easy to jog your memory, we’ll recap for you now…

DISODIUM EDTA is in many products as a preservative, to stabilise it, or to enhance the foaming action. It’s also used as a chelating agent, which means it us used to precipitate out metals from the formulation (if tap water were used to make the formulation instead purified water, for example).

One reason we recommend to avoid products containing Disodium EDTA, is because it is a ‘penetration enhancer’. Although it doesn’t absorb particularly well into the skin, it disrupts the surface of skin cells so that other chemicals can get in more easily. That might sound like a good idea if you’re thinking about letting the aloe and cucumber penetrate, however it’s not such a great idea when you have chemicals in your product that are not good for you.

Which brings us to POLYSORBATES… These are used in a variety of skincare, haircare, makeup and cleaning products. They alter surface tension and their inclusion in formulations is usually to help dissolve oils into water. These chemicals are not particularly harmful per se, however the way they’re made mean that they can introduce impurities of chemicals that are a great concern: Ethylene Oxide and 1,4-dioxane. These are two chemicals that you really, REALLY don’t want on your skin or in your body – or in our waterways and landfill, for that matter.

ETHYLENE OXIDE scores 10 on a scale of 1-to-10 of hazardous chemicals. It’s carcinogenic, shown to induce tumours in mammary glands. It’s also linked with developmental and reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity and allergies.

1,4-DIOXANE is included on California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer or birth defects. Readily penetrating the skin, it is a known carcinogen with evidence suggesting a possible link to breast cancer. While pregnant women, infants and teenagers are considered to be most vulnerable, it’s reasonable to suggest this is a chemical best avoided more widely.

Want to avoid these chemicals? Here’s what to look out for:

EDTA: It’s easy to spot EDTA on labels, though instead of abbreviating the chemical name, they sometimes write ETHYLENEDIAMINETETRAACETIC ACID. By the way, there are other EDTA chemicals (not just Disodium EDTA) but as a general rule we recommend avoiding them all.

POLYSORBATES: Look on the label for any ingredient with ‘polysorbate’ as part of its name: Polysorbate-20, Polysorbate-21, Polysorbate-40, Polysorbate-60, Polysorbate-61, Polysorbate-65, Polysorbate-80, Polysorbate-81 and Polysorbate-85.

ETHYLENE OXIDE and 1,4-DIOXANE: you need to be a bit more of a sleuth. You will not see the name of either of these chemicals on a product list. The traces of Ethylene Oxide are there as leftovers from it being combined with other chemicals (including some nice ingredients like fatty acids from coconut or almonds) in a process called ethoxylation. The 1,4-dioxane is present as a by-product of the ethoxylation process. To avoid such ethoxylated chemicals (and by extension, avoid ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, so they don’t pollute our bodies or our environment) you need to avoid:

Chemicals with ‘polysorbate’ in their name (as we’ve just discussed).

Chemicals that have the suffix ‘eth’ in their name (eg laureth, ceteth, deceth, steareth, etc).

Chemicals that have the suffix ‘oxynol’ in their name.

Chemicals with the prefix PEG (polyethylene glycol) or PPG (polypropylene glycol).

‘Vegetable wax’ and ‘Emulsifying wax’ is usually ethoxylated as well, though there are exceptions.

Ingredients designated as ‘plant derived’ or ‘derived from coconut’ (or mango, almond or other plant name) may also be ethoxylated, so check by referring to the tips in the list. For example, PEG-20 Almond Glycerides (plant derived) sounds all nice, natural and healthy. You can see the ‘PEG’ though, so you know that in addition to containing a plant derived component, it’s been ethoxylated and altered to something very different that means it’s no longer healthy and natural.

We hope you find this helpful!

Til soon xo

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