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Is It Really Toxic?

Sep 14, 2020 | Skin Care

There is a laundry list of make-up and skin care ingredients that have been labeled “toxic” but have you ever wondered how it got that label and if it is even valid, or are you just going with what your favorite influencer told you. 

I understand that it is alarming to read something bad about a product or ingredient we love.  We have become savvier about what we put on our skin and in our bodies so it is important to understand why something is being said before deciding what is best for you. 

Several ingredients have been deemed “toxic,” meaning that using products that contain these ingredients can lead to a variety of health problems. What does the scientific research really say?  

Parabens are a group of preservatives that have borne the brunt of toxic claims over the last decade or so. This comes from research suggesting that parabens can alter or disrupt how some biological systems work, leading to health problems.
The studies cited to back this claim do not consider how parabens are used in cosmetic products. If you look at the studies carefully, the ones that lead to this negative conclusion examined high concentrations. The studies that led to these negative statements examined extremely high concentrations of parabens, while much lower amounts (less than 1%) are used to preserve cosmetics.

Additionally, multiple safety and regulatory boards around the world (not just in the US) have stated that, as currently used in cosmetics, parabens are safe and do not pose a health risk.  Products labeled “paraben free” often contain more harmful but lesser known preservatives. 
PEG Compounds
PEG is an acronym for polyethylene glycol. PEG compounds are mixed with fatty acids and fatty alcohols to create ingredients that serve numerous functions in cosmetics, from thickening agents to emollients to stabilizers.

Those who say PEG compounds are harmful claim that they are contaminated with a harmful substance known as 1,4 dioxane, a manufacturing by-product classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a possible human carcinogen. Studies show that the greatest risk is when it is inhaled in its pure form.

Even with that in mind, PEG compounds, as used in cosmetics, are formulated to greatly reduce or remove contaminants. A 2016 safety assessment from the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel concluded that PEG compounds are safe in their current use and concentrations in cosmetics applications.

Silicones, substances derived from the natural mineral silica, are used to give cosmetics a silky feel, as well as to impart emollience and to serve as moisture-binding agents.

One of the chief arguments against silicones is that they somehow “smother” skin, leading to clogged pores and acne breakouts, but that’s not how silicones work. Instead, their unique molecular structure means that even though they are resistant to air (which is how they form a protective barrier on skin), they’re also porous. That porosity allows skin to “breathe,” so to speak, so your skin isn’t being suffocated or clogged.

Numerous studies and research panels have found that silicones, as used in cosmetics, are perfectly safe to apply to skin and hair.

Sodium Laureth Sulfate
Sulfates get a lot of flak in the industry. Sodium laureth sulfate is one among many sulfate-based detergent cleansing agents that can be derived from coconut.

Sodium laureth sulfate is generally considered one of the gentler and more effective ingredients for cleansing skin because of its high amount of fatty alcohols. Numerous industry experts have stated that sodium laureth sulfate is safe as used.

The problem is that sodium laureth sulfate sounds (and is) very close to sodium lauryl sulfate, but the two ingredients are not the same. Sodium lauryl sulfate is one of the more sensitizing, drying cleansing agents found in skincare products. In fact, some studies use it as a comparative baseline for determining sensitizing reactions to other ingredients.

Still, even though it can cause skin dryness and itching and should be avoided, sodium lauryl sulfate should not be considered “toxic.”. I think that label is a bit of a reach. I am not promoting any of these ingredients, of course, there are some safer alternatives. The decision to avoid these products (or not) is a personal choice. Do what is right for you and you can’t go wrong!

Dermatology PA and creator of Perfect Skin Code.

Photo of Perfect Skin Code owner Kimberly Brown
Kimberly Brown

Perfect Skin Code was created by Kimberly Brown, a Physician Assistant in Dermatology, when she decided to create products for her patients who had trouble finding effective yet gentle skin care products.

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