DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE: CREATING AN INGREDIENT INVITE LIST
I like to make informed decisions – I don’t trust that something is safe simply because it’s for sale in a store or online. I’ve seen too many commonly used ingredients vilified in recent years. Have you wondered why more and more products are boasting “paraben free” on the label? Parabens are highly effective synthetic preservatives that are widely used in the US, despite being banned by the EU since 2012. The paraben controversy circles around studies that show that they “disrupt hormone function, an effect that is linked to increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity” (source: non-profit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC)). The amount in a single application of lotion is very small, and likely harmless, however some studies also show that the body’s metabolism can’t break them down, making cumulative exposure an issue.
Reading about parabens was like opening Pandora’s box for me – I started digging into all of the usual suspects in ingredient line ups, comparing “never lists”, consulting with teratology sites (www.mothertobaby.org is a great one for pregnancy safety), and talking with my own OBGYN.
Ultimately, I decided I wasn’t comfortable with synthetic ingredients. They might be completely harmless…or 10 years from now we might view them the same way we now view parabens. I wanted organic and natural ingredients.
Not to say all things organic and natural are safe…For example, I’d take a hard pass on an organic poison ivy based lotion. This is when simplicity gets its time to shine. How wonderful would it be to find organic and natural products with super short ingredient lists that could be easily recognized and/or researched?
Why is that so difficult to find?? Why do most ingredient lists require a PHD to translate?
In a word: Water.
Most skincare products contain 70-85% water (probably the most expensive bottled water in your home). You know what they say about oil and water….they’re not exactly great at mixing, so require emulsifiers to give that familiar (stabilized) lotion texture. Also, if a product contains ANY water it also contains a synthetic preservative to make it last longer than 1 week. That water could be listed as Aloe Water, Rose Water, Green Tea Extract, etc. but to microorganisms, it’s just water, and an excellent breeding ground for growth.
Researching preservatives was when I really started to feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Every time I came across an article promoting a “natural” preservative, I came across at least a handful of conflicting articles highlighting some controversy about the safety of that ingredient. I decided to approach the professionals – contract manufacturers and cosmetic chemists – to get their take on the best natural preservative. I then learned the uncomfortable truth that there are “clean” preservatives, but not natural preservatives.
Enter: Greenwashing. Let me give a few examples of preservatives that sound great, but a deeper dive raises questions:
· Japanese honeysuckle – this sounds lovely, but it should be noted that the phytochemical that is naturally occurring in this ingredient (para-hydroxybenzoic acid, aka a paraben) is truly the driving force of its preservative properties. Now, it’s the genetically modified version of that particular paraben that most natural skincare companies try to avoid, but it still raises questions for me.
· Grapefruit seed extract – this not only sounds natural, but also healthy! And it’s a go-to choice for DIYers (I started with this one). Unfortunately, it’s commonly extracted via harsh chemical methods, such as hexane extraction, and many also use glycerin or propylene glycol additives to mask or alleviate the skin irritation side effect that is common with grapefruit seed extracts.
· Geoguard Ultra – this one sounds like it might be the star robot in the next transformers movie! Fun fact: the FDA allows branded ingredient blends to be included in ingredient lists! What is it actually? Gluconolactone and sodium benzoate. I can see why they renamed it.
Eventually, I decided preservatives were just too questionable to include. Plus, I buy preservative free foods, so why should I apply preservative laden products directly to my largest organ (i.e. my skin), twice daily?
My kitchen tinkering took a hard right turn. Water was out. Organic and natural oils, butters, clays, herbs and salts were in.