The A to Z of beauty baddies

dangerous beauty
Confused by chlorobutanol? Baffled by bronopol? George Blacksell has the skinny on beauty’s nastiest additives

The beneficial or otherwise nature of the beauty industry’s arsenal of additives has been a hot topic ever since it was first realised that parabens weren’t quite the boon they were thought to be. In the years since concerns about parabens were first raised, other additives have been found to have worrying side effects with respiratory problems, rashes and photosensitivity among them. But while skincare rarely contains the sorts of nasties found in cleaning products and others, the scientific jargon and litany of mysterious names has left consumers more confused than ever. Not only are harmless organic compounds such as linalool written off as a possible danger, others such as mineral oil – a genuinely nasty additive - slip through the net. Still mystified? Our A to Z of beauty baddies is here to shed some light.

A for alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA)
Found in a wide range of skin care products, alpha-hydroxy acids, or AHAs, are usually derived from food products such as sugar cane. Products that contain AHAs cause shedding of the skin, although the extent to which it works depends on the concentration. High concentrations of AHA products are used in chemical peels and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that that they can increase the skin’s photosensitivity.

B for bronopol   
A particularly unpleasant chemical, bronopol is a preservative and antiseptic frequently used in cosmetics, shampoo and, shockingly, medicated skin creams. Not only is it bad for the environment and extremely toxic for marine life, it's also a skin irritant in large doses and can damage the liver if swallowed.

C for chlorobutanol
Commonly used as a chemical preservative in cosmetic and pharmaceutical products, continuous use of this nasty, which is made from chloroform and acetone molecules, can cause skin or tissue irritation. High exposure to chlorobutanol also carries a small risk of neurotoxic side effects.

D for dibutyl phthalate (DBP)
Once found in nail polishes the world over, evidence of the deleterious health effects of DBP were so convincing that an EU Directive has since banned its usage in the cosmetics industry within the European Union. Despite this, it is still in use by the big name cosmetic brands in the United States, where many nail polish products on the shelves still contain it.

E for ethoxylated surfactants
These are used as foaming agents in soaps, shower gels and shampoos and can be identified on the label by the inclusion of ‘PEG’, ‘-eth’ or ‘-oxynol-‘ in ingredient names. They are prone to oxidation and once oxidised their products can act as a skin irritant, while frequent exposure can cause eczema.

F for formaldehyde
Formaldehyde is an impurity released by a number of cosmetic preservatives and has considerable health concerns attached to it. Formaldehyde was a widely used component of nail polish until recently, when EU health bodies limited the permissible concentration of formaldehyde in cosmetics to 0.2 per cent. Through inhalation of the vapours it releases, formaldehyde can cause breathing difficulties in those exposed to elevated levels and even trigger asthma attacks in those susceptible to it.

G for glycerin
Commonly used in the skincare industry for its moisturising and hydrating properties, in actual fact, glycerin has the opposite effect; drawing moisture from the lower layers of the skin to the top layers where it is held on the surface. In the name of keeping outer layers of skin moisturised, skin is literally dried out from the inside.

H for hydroquinone
Hydroquinone products are used for reducing age spots and blemishes; and it is also used in skin whitening products. Hydroquinone cream used to be used as a bleaching cream but has since been banned in the EU market due to it’s high levels of toxicity.

I for isopropyl alcohol
An additive that is mainly used in body creams, aftershave lotions and perfume, Isopropyl Alcohol can compromise your skin’s natural pH level and fatty acids, which acts as the skin’s primary defence mechanism against viruses, bacteria and fungal infection. High exposure to this ingredient has been linked to central nervous system depression. 

J for jargon
Companies often mention the use of collagen and elastin as well as other well-known and impressive sounding additives, but they frequently have dubious effects. The reason for the marked increase in medical sounding terminology is its ability to dupe the consumer into thinking they’re buying into proven science when actually, it couldn’t be much further from the truth.

K for kajoic acid
The fact that this originates from certain types of mushroom and fermented rice means it is often seen as being a ‘natural’, and therefore harmless, by-product. Marketed as a safer alternative to the hydroquinone used in skin whitening products, it’s not without its drawbacks. Skin sensitisation is one such problem and it can in turn lead to dermatitis.

L for lead
Lead is toxic contaminant and is found in a wide variety of lipsticks. The problems associated with lead include interference with a number of the body’s processes and its toxicity to organs and tissues. Concerns have also been raised about accidental ingestion through licking or biting lipstick-clad lips, although the lead levels are relatively low in most lipsticks.

M for mineral oil
Don’t let the name fool you; this additive has its origins in crude oil and is used by heavy industry as a metal cutting fluid. It can inhibit the oxygenation process of skin, hindering the release of carbon dioxide and resulting in skin that dries out all too easily. Particularly alarming is its use in a wide range of well-known baby oils.

N for nitrosamines
Although nitrosamines commonly crop up in cosmetics; due to the fact that they are impurities, they are not listed on product labels. The UK Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has classified nitrosamines as more toxic in more animal species than any other category of chemical carcinogen. It’s found (as an impurity) in a wide range of beauty products, including shampoos, and when washed down the drain, it enters the water cycle causing concern about traces of it in drinking water. 

O for organic
Organic beauty products provide a viable, safe alternative to the chemical laden conventional sort. Labelling can often be confusing but the best way to be sure if a product is really organic is to see whether it is marked with the Soil Association symbol, which requires a 70 per cent minimum organic content. What’s more, it also ensures that no petro-chemical based or GM ingredients are used.

P for parabens
Parabens are used for their antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. However, they have been proven to penetrate the skin and shown to mimic the body’s own hormones, disrupting important endocrine functions. The biggest risk posed by parabens comes from long-term exposure, including regular use of skin creams and lotions. Be warned: methylparaben has been linked to the premature skin aging. Oh the irony.

Q for quaternium-7
Not only is it toxic and highly allergenic, it also causes the release of formaldehyde. A 2009 report by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics entitled No More Toxic Tub,  presented third-party laboratory results showing that many baby care products are contaminated with this hyper-toxic ingredient.

R for resorcinol (also dihydroxybenzene)
A carcinogen found in a wide variety of products, including shampoo, acne treatments, cleanser and aftershave, resorcinol can have neurotoxic side effects and is particularly damaging for the liver. It’s also an irritant and worse, is hugely poisonous for marine life if washed down the plughole. One to avoid at all costs.

S for sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS)
Is a chemical that can be found in shampoos, hair conditioners toothpastes and body wash- so predominantly in products you would expect to ‘foam up’. It has been known to cause the skin to flake and to separate and cause roughness of the skin. By denaturing skin proteins SLS can have a drying effect. The reason why such a damaging chemical is used in things such as shampoos and toothpaste is for the sole reason that it is a cheap additive that causes that familiar foaming.

T for triclosan
Added to products to fight bacteria, triclosan is widely used in hygiene products. In Britain alone, we use between 60 and 90 tonnes of it per year but its safety credentials have come under scrutiny due to a study conducted by the USA's Virginia Tech University, which showed that when mixed with chlorinated water, it produces chloroform gas - lethal in high doses and a probable carcinogen. Don't panic too much though: the amount generated was less than the concentration present in a swimming pool.

U for urea
Rarely do the worlds of agriculture and beauty collide, but in the use of urea – a compound found in urine – they do. In farming, it’s used in fertiliser as an additional source of nitrogen. In beauty, it’s used as an antibacterial preservative and is found in just about everything, although hair removal creams such as Veet tend to contain higher levels of it. Although the amounts used in cosmetics aren’t high enough to cause problems, concerns have been raised about urea’s ability to alter the structure of skin; allowing other chemicals through in larger amounts.

V for VP-Methacrylamide
A polymer used in mousse and hair gels, VP-Methacrylamide isn’t particularly worrisome in itself, but is often contaminated with toxins, carcinogens and other things you definitely don’t want on your skin. Although it’s still used in the USA, Europe has banned it.

W for white petrolatum
A close relative of petroleum jelly, white petrolatum is made from – unsurprisingly enough – crude oil. While it does have proven protective qualities, its close relationship with non-renewables along with unconfirmed reports linking it to breast cancer make it one ingredient that’s best avoided.

X for xanthan gum
At its most basic level, xanthan gum is a type of fermented glucose with astonishing powers of thickening – a trait that’s made it an invaluable tool for beauty product manufacturers. Often found in food stuffs under the name, E415, xanthan gum is problematic for anyone with a wheat allergy, and can cause cramps, bloating and diarrhoea in sufferers.

Y for yohimbine
A naturally occurring substance found in Yohimbe and snakeroot, yohimbine is used in diet products and anti-cellulite creams. Often sold as a herbal diet pill, and frequently as an aphrodisiac, it has significant side effects including anxiety, nausea and insomnia. In high doses, it can cause seizures and renal failure.

Z for zinc acetate
A chemical compound commonly used in acne treatments and nappy creams, zinc acetate is closely related to zinc oxide (found in sunscreens) but not nearly as harmless. Along with having a negative impact on the immune system, it can also cause asthma attacks and aggravate underlying lung conditions.


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