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Understanding Skin Care Labels 

by Olivia Parker July 20, 2015

Greenwashing is a thing. I've been noticing this a lot lately, a skin care company adding green — literally—  labels, using words like “natural”  without embracing the true essence of the green movement. Getting rid of parabens or sulfates, and stating it on the label is a good start but that doesn’t mean the product you’re about to buy is clean and natural. 

All products have to list their ingredients, so understanding labels is the key.

Natural vs. Organic 

The words natural and organic are used so commonly they can be misleading. Natural implies lots but technically it means almost nothing. There is no regulatory standard that controls what goes into a natural product. You can find  products labeled natural that truly are crafted from organic and sustainably grown raw ingredients, but often it’s the opposite, a few natural ingredients combined with synthetic scents, preservatives, emulsifying and lathering agents.
Organic is a regulated term in the skin care industry. To use it prominently in a company name or on a package, the products must contain at least 85% certified organic ingredients. While organic is a good place to begin in selecting natural beauty products, but there is a drawback. Some ingredients simply don’t conform to organic designations like clay, water, seaweed, wild sourced shea butter from Africa and organically grown but not certified plants and their extracts. If a company wants to use the words organic, many lovely ingredients could be restricted by the percentage rule. Also, becoming organically certified is an expensive process and smaller start ups and artisans may not want or be able to invest in the certification process. 

The Skin is Permeable

The skin is permeable and absorbs close to 60% of everything you put on it. Your skin is a barrier of sorts, but if you put chemicals, preservatives and mineral oil on your skin, some of it will be absorbed into your blood stream. 

Chemicals To Avoid

  • Propylene glycol, a solvent and antifreeze
  • Paraben preservatives, methyl, ethyl, propyl, butyl, 
  • Urea, a preservative that breaks down to ammonia compounds 
  • Mineral oil, a petroleum product
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate and its relatives, laureth, myreth, makes foam and lather
  • The alphabet soup of DEA, MEA, TEA, PEG, synthetic compounds all
  • Phthalates, plasticizers that make plastic flexible and used in cosmetics
  • Synthetic colors from coal tar, you know that purple isn't natural
  • and fragrance oils, powerful cloying scents, only essential oils are from plants are natural 

The Good Guys

I've compiled a list of a few ingredients that sound synthetic but are natural ingredients. These are the good guys. 
  • Xanthum gum: a food grade product to make gels 
  • Citric acid, an acidifier and sometimes preservative 
  • Glycerin, by-product of oil, humectant
  • MSM: an organic sulfur that is an important part of cell walls
  • Allantoin: an extract from comfrey that encourages cell growth 
  • Lecithin: an oil type ingredient, a phospholipid that makes up 50% of cell walls 
  • Bentonite, illite and kaolin clays, active earth compounds 
  • Squalene: a natural lipid found in oils and naturally in the skin 

International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI)

Ingredient lists come in a variety of formats. One, an international method of listing product ingredients called INCI, International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. Under this system all ingredients including plant derived extracts, oils and scents use their Latin binomial or chemical name if synthetic. Here is a short list of a few examples of natural safe ingredients and the Latin binomial. 
  • Jojoba goes by Simmondsia chinensis (Jojoba) seed oil 
  • Shea butter, Butyrospermum parkii (Shea butter) fruit. 
  • Calendula, Calendula officinalis 
  • Lavender essential oil, Lavandula officinalis (Lavender) Oil 
  • Comfrey, Symphytum officinale Extract 
Avoiding harmful or synthetic chemicals is not always practical however, the key is to limit your exposure and, most importantly, know what you are buying. 
Let us know how you deal with green washing in the comments below.

Olivia Parker
Olivia Parker


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