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Living Beauty: Deciphering Cosmetic Codes


Written by Nadine Artemis.

A clever marketing game is played in every skincare and cosmetics aisle in drug, department and health stores. Phrases like “Active Ingredients“, “Key Ingredients” and “Natural” are emblazoned across labels in bold print to distract us from investigating the small print of what is really in the product. The full list of ingredients is often hard to find. If you do locate the full list, then you may understand why it is not part of the extoled marketing strategy. These bright bottles with splashy labels are made with undesirable ingredients and futile fillers that our skin can certainly do without.

1. Sulfates. They are in 90% of foaming and lathering products as well as in skin and hair care products as fillers. Sulfates are frequently described on labels as “comes from” or “derived from” coconut in an effort to portray them as innocuous even though they are known skin irritants, hormone and endocrine disruptors and suspected carcinogens and gene mutagens. Any chemical capable of mutating genes deserves our attention. Additionally, animals exposed to sulfates experience eye damage, central nervous system depression, labored breathing, diarrhea and severe skin irritation.

On labels, look for sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), ammonium laureth sulfate (ALES), sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS)…and don’t be fooled by the coconut references.

2. Paraben is a common preservative and one of the chemicals foremost responsible for disrupting the endocrine system and unbalancing crucial hormones. In its defence, someone may say, “Well, it is only .001% of the product.” True, this is a small amount… kind of like mercury. Mercury is not used in big amounts either and as a labeled bio-hazard, mercury devastates the cells. Paraben cannot yet be said to cause breast cancer, but its estrogenic activity may be a contributing factor. A 2004 study found paraben in over 90% of human breast cancer tumors. That is sufficient reason for me to avoid this chemical at all costs and to protect my family from it.

On labels, paraben is often listed with the prefixes ethyl-, methyl-, propyl-, isopropyl-, butyl- or isobutyl.

3. Look for sodium benzoate at the end of the ingredients list of skincare, toothpaste, and mouth wash. Sodium benzoate is another very common cosmetic, food and supplement preservative used to protect acidic environments from spoiling. In combination with vitamin C or ascorbic acid, sodium benzoate (as well as potassium benzoate) from benzene, are a known carcinogen. If you have vitamin C in your food or already in your body and you use a product with benzoate, you have made a carcinogen. Alas, where you will not see sodium benzoate listed on the label is when it is a secondary ingredient of a raw material. For example, “organic Calendula Officinalis Extract” (listed on the label) is sold as a cosmetic raw material with the addition of glycerin and preserved with potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate (I choose to infuse our herbs directly into jojoba, or I use the supercritical extract which is very rare practice in the industry). Sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate can be found in many ingredients that are “extracts”, like green tea extract, wheat protein extract, edelweiss extract and so on.

4. Would you choose to wash your face with the same product used to degrease ovens? Me neither. Polyethylene Glycol has many different uses in cosmetics…and in oven cleaners. As a degreaser, it strips the skin of its natural protective oils leaving the body susceptible to invaders. PEG is commonly contaminated with a known carcinogen called 1,4-dioxane. Some studies have linked it to leukemia and uterine, breast and brain cancers. It is very easy and inexpensive to remove 1,4-dioxane from PEG though most cosmetic manufacturers choose to leave the contaminates in to save money. PEG also contains high amounts of heavy metals, and metal contamination is known to cause neurological, autoimmune and kidney issues.

5. Dwelling in the land of confusion, FD&C Colors and Pigments, under the purview of the FDA, have hundreds if not thousands of muddled regulations for production, naming and use. Here’s an example:

“Colorants are classified as either organic or inorganic depending on the chemistry. Organic colors were originally called “coal tar” because they were derived from coal sources. However, nowadays almost all organic colorants are synthetic… Inorganic colorants are composed of insoluble metallic compounds which are either derived from natural sources (e.g. china clay, carbon deposits) or are synthesized. Inorganic colors do not have the same kinds of health risks as organic colors and, therefore do not require certification.”[1]

Coloring agents serve no purpose in skin-care products beyond the emotional draw, and they may have adverse effects. Coal tar, carbon deposit and laboratory derived colors are recognized as potential allergens and have a 20 year anecdotal history of causing hyperactivity in children. When FD&C color names are followed by the word lake, it indicates that the pigment is mixed with calcium or aluminum as fixates so the color stays put on the skin; this is why lipstick doesn’t bleed. Aluminum has long been associated with disease and cancer. Dr. Chris Exley at Keele University in the United Kingdom is currently studying the correlation between aluminum and breast cancer. He follows his own advice to avoid aluminum and drink silica-rich water to leach it from the body.

6. Alcohols are very drying and irritating solvents made from propylene, a petroleum derivative. They are very irritating and drying because they can strip the skin’s natural acid mantle which dehydrates the cells and makes the body more vulnerable to bacteria and viruses. A significant amount of research has shown that alcohol may cause free-radical damage to the skin including brown spots, hyperpigmentation and premature aging.

Check product labels for isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol 40 and ethyl alcohol, ethanol, denatured alcohol, methanol and benzyl alcohol.

7. Urea is one of nature’s best sources of nitrogen, found in and produced by most plants and animals. In fact, urea is found in the top layers of healthy skin as an active part of the moisture barrier. The problem lies with manmade urea; as a near skin-identical compound, synthetic urea quickly moves through the natural barrier of the skin and allows the other chemicals in the product to move in to the body with it. The American Academy of Dermatology reports that urea is a primary cause of contact dermatitis, especially in concentrated amounts found in skin exfoliates and fertilizer. It also contains small amounts of formaldehyde, a carcinogenic chemical that is toxic when inhaled.

Urea can be labeled as diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea and DMDM hydantoin.

8. Fragrances (aka Parfum), or words like Geraniol, Citral and Limonene found in cosmetics are synthetic. The term alone can indicate the presence of up to one thousand substances, many toxic or carcinogenic. Phthalates used to stabilize fragrances are hormone disruptors linked to allergies in children, and it may alter pre-natal genital development. According to the FDA, synthetic fragrances may cause headaches, dizziness, allergic rashes, skin discoloration, violent coughing, vomiting and skin irritation. Clinical observation shows fragrances can affect the endocrine and central nervous system, causing depression, hyperactivity and irritability.

9. This one may surprise you: Aloe vera, Aloe vera juice, or Aloe barbadensis juice is often the first ingredient on the label of moisturizers, cleansers and lotions, and it is usually compromised by hidden preservatives like sodium benzoate, sodium sulfite and potassium sorbate and (to adjust pH) citric acid. The ingredients in the ingredients, like the preservatives in aloe, are called “secondary ingredients,” and they can be, and usually are, allowed to be left off the label. Of course, hidden ingredients makes label reading an almost pointless exercise.  Aloe vera is wonderful for the skin, and fortunately aloe makes a great houseplant which is very easy to grow because that is the best source for pure aloe skin care. Simply break off a leaf and rub the pulp into skin. I like to mix my favorite serum with the aloe pulp in my palm and massage into my skin before bed.

10. Cosmetics seem to be created backwards and upside down! Liquid and creamy products contain mostly water or water-based infusions, called distillates or aqueous extracts, used to fill up bottles inexpensively. Because aqueous solutions are vulnerable to spoilage, preservatives (like paraben, sodium benzoate and Leucidal Liquid) must be added to the product. I love water! Pure water is wonderful and amazing to drink and to wash with, and there are better ways of getting it than in $20 per ounce bottles of cosmetics. It is probably tap water, too, which means it likely contains chorine and fluoride along with a multitude of other toxins.

Everything that is applied to the skin is absorbed by the bloodstream, circulates with our cells and mingles with our mitochondria. The skin’s brilliant ability to absorb is a gift. When applying the right things, we can literally feed our immune system and skin cells. With the food I eat, I want every morsel to be of benefit, and with the skincare I create, I want every single ingredient to actually be natural, active and key. Everything that goes in and on my body must benefit my cells, and my skin. Every single ingredient matters: each drop must contain boundless, bioactive, botanical beauty. When nature provides such exquisite and effective botanicals that graciously attend to our health and beauty, why use anything artificial?

[1] Bombeli, T. MD BBA. “Colorants for Cosmetic Products.”

10 responses to “Living Beauty: Deciphering Cosmetic Codes”

  1. Chelsea says:

    hi, can anyone help me out:
    i am looking for an all-natural cover-up and mascara. Do you have recommendations? I found online Ecco Bella, but some of the ingredients in the mascara (phenoxyethanol) I was not sure about…
    any help would be appreciated, as I’ve switched over all my other products, but am having trouble figuring out where to get cover-up/mascara.
    thank you!

    • Meghan Telpner says:

      Hey Chelsea-

      There are a bunch of different brands you can check out- I would hop on over to the Environmental Defence’s
      “Just Beautiful” siten ( All the brands listed there are safe and eco friendly. If you are in the Toronto area, you should come visit us at the next Eco Beauty market on November 21st! Thanks for commenting.

      • Chelsea says:

        Thanks, Meghan. Where does the eco-beauty market take place on Nov 21st? I’m in Toronto and would love to attend to purchase some stuff. Can’t seem to find the location online…

  2. Jen says:

    What about coco-betaine from coconut? The EWG has it rated as a low overall hazard. I use a foaming face wash that contains this from 100% Pure.

  3. Paola says:

    Hi, I’m interested in your sources for some of the references above, such as the part about gene-mutating sulfates.
    Thanks in advance!

  4. coffeeforlunch says:

    Going organic and eating clean is an easy choice. Going organic and clean on your skin and body is another! I am overwhelmed and confused. I started using an organic facial cream that makes my skin dry, dull, and I have even shown signs of tiny break outs! I have dry skin and smile lines and I’m only 28. I thought Burts Bees would be a good place to start for skin care…but even reading the following ingredients in my new body lotion reads as follows:

    water, cetearyl glucoside, fragrance, butyrospermum parkii (shea butter), cetyl alcohol, tapioca starch, caprylic/capric triglyceride, glycerin, helianthus annuus (sunflower) seed oil, phenoxyethanol, hyssopus officinalis extract*, juglans nigra (black walnut) leaf extract*, melissa officinalis leaf extract*, rosa canina fruit extract*, rubus idaeus (raspberry) leaf extract*, tocopherol, cetearyl alcohol, xanthan gum, potassium sorbate, citric acid, glycine soja (soybean) oil, alcohol denat. *Organic.

    and my skin is even more dry than before. I would love to know a good place to start in a good skin care line as well as a good makeup line. I’m a nanny so money is a concern. (Also, I’m a bit of a crazy person when it comes to my facial care. I have LOVED using Boots No. 7 skin care and admit that I’m sad to give it up. It’s the only thing I’ve used on my face (including makeup) that hydrates and makes my skin glow). I should also note that I have tried using coconut oil on my body and face. I do use cold pressed organic almond oil under my facial lotion a few times a week. I know – I probably sound like a hot mess!

    • Meghan Telpner says:

      I’m not such a fan of Burt’s Bees. Over here we love Living Libations, Gryadon (Clinical Luxury), Thera Wise to name a few.

  5. Janna says:

    I’ve been on the hunt for a good shampoo for a while. I’ve tried a few, but my hair seems to never feel fully clean and is a bit greasy in spots. Right now I’m using something by Live Clean and its ok, but curious if anyone has found any favourites?


    PS: Meghan- I recently finished your book and it was a great read! Keeping my eye open for your cookbook when it reaches the Maritimes :)

  6. Intern Huishouden | Mindful Huishouden says:

    […] dit artikel op de website van Meghan Telpner eens (in het Engels); hier vind je ook veel info over natuurlijke […]

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