Look underneath the surface of some beauty products, and you might find some ugly truths.
Common ingredients can clog pores, increase your risk of cancer or strip your skin of natural oils. Some of these might surprise you.
“The real offender here is coconut oil,” said Jon Bresler, founder of LAFCO, a high-end, artisan-made body care and perfumery. Many consumers swear by coconut oil to repair dry hair and moisturize skin, but this ingredient is doing the opposite. “This is extremely drying and harsh on the skin and is being overused in the cosmetics industry because it is ‘natural’ and cheap,” he said.
Soaps made with coconut oil strip the skin of natural barrier oils, he explained in an email interview with The Washington Times. Also, “it is a fact that coconut oil is highly comedogenic, and it forms a barrier on your skin that can block and suffocate pores.”
He recommends ingredients that give skin a higher nutritional value. Coconut oil “is not an ideal oil in that it is low in essential fatty acids when compared to other oils such as palm, olive, almond and many others.”
Despite the pitfalls of coconut oil, it is an improvement over petroleum-based products that are widely used in foundations, cleansers and moisturizers.
One common petroleum-based product is mineral oil. It is intended to lock in moisture, but it sits on the skin’s surface and can block pores, Mr. Bresler said. Silicones, which help cosmetics glide across your skin as you apply them, can have the same effect.
Certain preservatives such as BHT, short for butylated hydroxytoluene, have been found in studies to be toxic and carcinogenic.
Still, cosmetics need agents to preserve them, and Mr. Bresler said it is difficult to properly preserve a cosmetic with natural ingredients. Cosmetics contain water, he explained, and preservatives prevent the water from growing bacteria or mold. The introduction of air to a product will accelerate oxidation, and dipping hands into a jar can cause bacterial contamination. When a product oxidizes, or changes color, it might lose some of its potency but is unlikely to be harmful.
Mr. Bresler said cosmetics have a shelf life. In general, products will be good for two years before opening and two years after opening before it is contaminated with bacteria. Parabens prevent the growth of bacteria, mold and fungus in an array of everyday products but are suspected of interfering with hormonal balance. Preservatives that have received good safety reviews from beauty bloggers include Ethylhexylglycerin and antibacterial agent Lactobacillus Ferment.
Other ingredients to avoid are PEGs. PEG is short for polyethylene glycol and is used as emollients and emulsifiers and as vehicles to allow other cosmetic ingredients to penetrate the skin. These concoctions can be irritating to the skin, and many have undesirable ingredients.
Manufacturing and marketing a natural product is difficult and expensive, so consumers might want to be skeptical about any bargain-brand “natural” product. “Often we see marketing saying that natural botanical oils are used,” Mr. Bresler said. “Yes, these are good as these oils are used because they are high in unsaturated fatty acids (omega fatty acids) or because they contain vitamins. The problem is they are expensive and usually only put into formulas at very low quantities for the marketing claims and not enough to have any beneficial action on the skin.
“More often, the base of the cosmetic is not remedial in any way. In some cases, natural ingredients do more harm than good. What consumers need to look at is where in the ingredient list these oils appear and what base the cosmetic is made from,” he said.
In essence, cosmetics marketed as “natural” or “organic” are not necessarily unsafe but can mislead customers to believe a product will provide a benefit that it does not. “Now we are seeing many ‘natural shower gels.’ What this means is that the detergent in them is not a petroleum-based [sodium lauryl sulfate] but instead a plant-based detergent. It is still produced as a chemical, but it is naturally derived.”
Cocamidopropyl betaine, an organic compound derived from coconut oil, is used in shampoos, body washes, toothpaste, makeup removers and soaps. If one of these products is irritating your skin, cocamidopropyl betaine is a likely culprit.
Few comprehensive studies on cosmetics safety have been conducted, and most reports are funded or advertised by a brand, Mr. Bresler said. “We see reports on specific ingredients but, again, not official reports.” As an example, he said, “There are many studies about dry skin and eczema, but they do not really indicate that it is due to bad skin care products.”
Are natural ingredients always better than synthetic ingredients? The answer isn’t so simple. “Natural or organic is not necessarily safer than not natural — and often the opposite,” Mr. Bresler said. “Natural products can be more irritating to the skin, in some cases, than synthetic. That is why synthetics were developed,” he said.
Some synthetics, such as hyaluronic acid, are more stable or potent than natural products, he said, and others are necessary to prolong the life of the cosmetic.
Another example is perfume. “Natural perfume oils can be irritating to the skin whereas synthetics are made so that they are not irritating,” Mr. Bresler said.
How to protect yourself from harmful cosmetics? Read the list of ingredients on the label, and do your research. The Food and Drug Administration regulates only claims and packaging guidelines. For example, a cream can legally claim to reduce the appearance of wrinkles, and the packaging must list ingredients and net weight, Mr. Bresler said.
“Cosmetics are not drugs, and they are not approved in any way,” he said. “FDA only gets involved for recalls or other post-market issues. Drugs are different in that they are approved for effectiveness.”
Exceptions, he said, are sunscreen and some cosmeceuticals, which are considered drugs and are regulated before they hit the market. Sunscreen manufacturers must prove SPF claims to the FDA.
Mr. Bresler spent years of research into skin care as well as niche perfumery and scented products. While living in Europe in the 1990s, he immersed himself in the world of artisan fragrance and studied the nuances of alchemy and perfumery and botanical skincare.
In 1992, he founded LAFCO in New York with his own line of products, beginning with candles and later introducing natural body care. This luxury brand uses essential oils and other natural ingredients for quality and safety.