To truly know what's in your toiletries and cosmetics you need to read the label - and buy organic! [Photo: Bigstock]

Petrochemical beauty? No thanks!

10 June, 2013

Recent news stories have highlighted how little progress most conventional beauty companies have made in terms of cleaning up their acts.

Look at promises on the front of the bottle or tube of most beauty products and you will regularly see words like ‘natural’ and ‘organic’. But a closer look at the ingredients labels on the back of the product too often tells a different story. A cream claiming to contain natural or organic lavender may only have 1% of this natural ingredient.

The rest, as Soil Association Policy Director Peter Melchett highlighted in a recent speech at the Organic Natural Beauty Show in London, can be a toxic soup of chemicals that no one would want on their bodies such as methylisothiazolinone, phthalates, parabens, PEGs – (polyethylene glycols), non-natural propylene glycol (PG) or cocamide DEA to name but a few.

Lies on the label

The organic cosmetics and toiletries sector has defied the recession and continues to grow. Consumers, it seems, want to be reassured, even when – or maybe especially if – money is tight that what they put on their bodies is both effective and safe.

Yet many popular brands prefer to simply tell lies on the label rather than reformulate to make their products safer using widely available natural alternatives.

Due to the lack of specific organic legal regulations for cosmetics there has been a proliferation of brands that exaggerate their organic and/or natural status.

For a concerned consumer it can be a minefield; and there’s no easy way out.

To get to the truth of what’s really inside you need take a good look at the ingredients listing on the packaging and ask yourself: does the company indicate exactly which of the ingredients are organic? If so,  how many organic ingredients are there, and where do they appear in the list? Cosmetics ingredients are listed in order of quantity so the ingredients that make up the bulk of the formulation are listed first.

To avoid being greenwashed, choose products that have independent organic certification (Soil Association, USDA, etc.), or choose companies that clearly identify their certified organic ingredients and sourcing policies.

Don’t greenwash yourself… or the planet

Chemical ingredients, most of which are derived from petrochemicals, aren’t just bad for us. They are bad for the planet as well.

The beauty industry relies on a variety of basic ingredients made from petrochemicals. These ingredients are energy intensive to produce and contribute to the depletion of finite resources.

Detergents and surfactants are a good example. Whether they are derived from petrochemicals or natural material they perform much the same function in the product. But compared to the manufacture of petrochemical-based surfactants, those derived from vegetable oils such as  coconut produce 23% less solid waste.  Coconut-derived surfactants also require around 13% less energy to produce.

Coconut-derived surfactants also emit 24% less CO2 in their manufacture than petroleum-derived ones.

If the beauty industry increased its use of vegetable-based surfactants by an achievable 24% it could cut its overall CO2 emissions by around 8%.  Other evidence shows that soaps derived from animal fats or tallow (i.e. sodium tallowate, a detergent) emit substantially more CO2 and other climate changing gases in their manufacture than those that make use of vegetable-derived detergents.

Most of the packaging for beauty products also comes from petrochemicals. The plastics in both the primary package (the actual bottle) and the secondary packaging (all the unnecessary stuff that gets wrapped around the bottle), use dwindling non-renewable resources and contribute to global CO2 emissions in their manufacture and disposal.

In spite of all the hype about the importance of recycling, most plastic packaging uses a high proportion of virgin material and bottles, tubs and tubes are very rarely recycled.

What you can do 

Apart from being wasteful and polluting, petrochemical ingredients confer no real benefits to your skin and can even be toxic.

The more of us who refuse to buy toxic products, the quicker manufacturers will get the message that using industrial chemicals in beauty products is not acceptable. You can help in lots of ways:

  • Only buy shampoos, conditioners, body washes, bubble baths and toothpastes that make use of vegetable-based surfactants and detergents.
  • When buying products like tampons and pads don’t buy those with plastic packaging, applicators or components, all of which end up in landfill, where they do not degrade, or in incinerators where they produce climate-changing emissions.
  • Look for products that are fragranced with natural essential oils rather than those that use generic ‘parfum’ – which is usually synthetic.
  • Refuse to buy over-packaged products and wherever possible choose those contained in glass in preference to those in plastic. Some beauty products are packaged in plastic for practical and safety reasons reason – i.e. products used in the shower or bath are usually packaged in plastic to prevent dangerous shattering should they fall. Make sure you do your bit and recycle these and look for products that are made with recycled, recyclable or post-consumer materials.
  • Buy organic. If forensically examining every label seems like too much hard work, then look for certified organic products. These will clearly display the logo of the certifier such as the Soil Association, or in the US the USDA. Certification is your guarantee that no nasties are inside.
  • Read the label. Look out for the ingredients listed below on the labels of your favourite products. You’ll be surprised how often they appear…

Look out for these

Isopropanol A solvent and penetration enhancer, found in make-up, shampoo, moisturisers and nail polish. It is neurotoxic, skin drying/irritating and potentially liver toxic.

Methyl-, Propyl-, Butyl- and Ethyl-Paraben The most widely used preservatives in the cosmetic industry. Parabens can cause allergic reactions and skin rashes and are easily absorbed into the body. Laboratory studies show that parabens have an estrogenic effect and there is concern that in vulnerable individuals this could act as a trigger for cancer.

Paraffinum liquidum Also known as mineral oil, this is a cheap, abundant ingredient found in face creams, make-up, body lotions and baby oils. It does not add moisture or nourish the skin. Instead it can interfere with the body’s own natural moisturizing mechanism, which over time can lead to dryness and chapping.

Petrolatum Also known as petroleum jelly, this mineral oil derivative is used for its emollient properties and can cause similar problems to Paraffinum liquidium. Found in lipsticks and balms, hair care products, moisturizers, depilatories and deodorants.

Propylene glycol Can be found in moisturisers, deodorants, make-up, depilatories and soaps. It can be derived from natural sources but is usually a synthetic petrochemical mix. It is added to keep the product moist and acts as a penetration enhancer – driving other ingredients deeper into the skin. It has been linked to allergic reactions, hives and eczema. Ingredients such as PEG (polyethylene glycol) or PPG (polypropylene glycol) are related synthetics.

PVP/VA copolymer A plastic-like substance used in hair sprays, styling aids, make-up, fake tans, toothpaste and skin creams. Inhaled particles can damage the lungs of sensitive people. Used topically it can prevent the skin from ‘breathing’.

Sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate Detergents commonly used in shampoos, body washes and toothpaste. Some labels list this ingredient as being derived “from coconuts”. However producing sodium lauryl/laureth sulphate requires the addition of petroleum-derived ingredients and the finished product is far removed from its vegetable origins. These detergents can cause eye irritation, scalp scurf similar to dandruff, skin rashes and allergic reactions.

Synthetic colours Denoted in Britain and the rest of the EU by the prefix CI followed by several numbers. Most toiletries and cosmetics contain colours even though they add nothing to the effectiveness of the product. Many synthetic colours can be carcinogenic and so are best avoided. Exceptions are mineral based colours which are denoted with the prefix CI 75… or CI 77… which indicate mineral or other naturally-derived colours.

Parfum Around 95% of the fragrances used in toiletries and cosmetics are petrochemically-based. Often they are made up of dozens of separate ingredients. Perfumes are neurotoxic and can cause headaches, mood swings, depression, dizziness and skin irritation. They are also very common triggers of asthma attacks.

Toluene Used as a solvent in cosmetics, especially nail polish and dyes. A toxic, volatile chemical that may irritate the skin and respiratory tract and cause mild anaemia and liver damage with prolonged exposure.


For more about how to avoid unnecessary chemicals in everyday products see: