Last week, we chatted about how to easily find natural store-bought body and cleaning products. This week, we’re going to turn our attention to reading product ingredient lists.
Now, please hear me out. I live in the real world, and while I may take precautions with many cleaning and body-care products, I still come in contact with many questionable ingredients just by walking through a mall (hello, perfume section), using a makeup product that I just can’t give up at the moment, or sitting in a new car. That’s life, and I’m certainly not trying to live in a perfect bubble.
I also don’t want to take the “If I can’t do everything, I’m not going to do anything” approach in life. I want to make as many intentional and informed choices as possible. To do this, I’m learning to simplify my skincare and cleaning products with basic ingredients (like aloe, honey, vinegar, and oil). I’m also learning to read and navigate ingredient lists on store-bought products. My goal for today’s chat is to share what I’ve learned about ingredient lists: common red flag ingredients and how to navigate a list.
I could never create a comprehensive list with every questionable ingredient used in body-care products, so let’s chat about just a few of the common “bad guys” that may lurk in body-care products. Then, we’ll talk more about reading that tricky ingredient list.
Common Red Flag Ingredientsjust a few
1. Synthetic Fragrance
It’s hard to find store-bought products without the word “fragrance” listed on the ingredient list, which is why it’s the first thing I look for. This word is incredibly vague and doesn’t offer details about what’s actually used to create the fragrance. Using a product with synthetic fragrance, subjects my body to a host of unknown, unregulated chemicals (like pthalates).
Look For: Fragrance or Parfum on the ingredient list.
I’m still able to enjoy rose scented products, even from the store, as long as the company uses essential oils or naturally-derived fragrances. This information should be clearly stated by a company on the ingredient list. If not, call the company and ask.
If water is used in a product, there’s a possibility that a paraben will be on the ingredient list. Parabens are used to preserve products, which is a good thing when a product must have a long shelf-life. The bad thing is that some studies suggest that parabens may mimic and disrupt estrogen (read more). My hormones already have enough issues to deal with.
Look For: Words ending with -paraben on the ingredient list (read more).
3. Triclosan and Triclocarban
This ingredient is added to products to prevent bacteria contamination. Products containing this ingredient may include: body wash, antibacterial soap, and toothpaste. Just last year, the FDA issued a ban on using triclosan and triclocarban in hand soap and body washes (this doesn’t apply to hospitals or food service) due to long-term health concerns. Companies have one year to get rid of the ingredients (which means they’re replacing them with new questionable ingredients). In general, I just avoid commercial products making antibacterial claims.
Look For: Products making antibacterial or antimicrobial claims.
4. Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde Releasing Preservatives
A preservative used to kill bacteria in products. Formaldehyde itself is considered carcinogenic by the International Agency on Research on Cancer. Products containing formaldehyde may include, nail polish and fake eyelash glue (read more). Formaldehyde Releasing Preservatives (FRP’s) are commonly found in products, such as: shampoos and conditioners, and leave-on skincare products–lotions, creams, and mascara (source).
Look For: Formaldehyde won’t be listed on a product’s ingredient list. Look for: DMDM hydantoin, Diazolidinyl urea, Imidzaolidinyl urea, Imidazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromi-2-nitropropane-1, 3-idol (Bronopol).
5. Petroleum Derived Ingredients
Yes, gasoline is also made from petroleum, so this fact alone is a big red flag. Petroleum is refined from its original crude oil state. The actual processing is the important factor in the quality of the end product. When it comes to purchasing an ingredient using petroleum, there’s no way to know if the oil was processed properly or not. This is why there are concerns about petroleum being contaminated by carcinogens. (Sidenote: Vaseline takes pride in their processing standards, which you’ll also find reflected in their score on the EWG’s website. This isn’t an endorsement for the Vaseline brand, but it’s an interesting fact.)
Petroleum-based ingredients are used in moisturizers and lip balms to help seal moisture in the skin. This “sealing power” can clog pores and keep the skin from breathing. It’s easy to avoid petroleum-based body-care products, so that’s what I do.
Look For: Petroleum oil and jelly, Mineral oil and jelly, Liquid paraffin, Propylene glycol on an ingredient list. Natural brands will use waxes, oils, or butters.
6. Oxybenzone (2-hydroxy-4-methoxybenzophenone)
This ingredient is found in many sunscreen products. It’s used to provide UVB and some UVA protection. The ingredient is ranked as an “8” by the EWG, which is considered a high overall hazard. The concern is that it may mimic and disrupt the endocrine system (source). It’s one of those ingredients I’d rather stay away from right now, especially since there are alternatives available.
Look For: Oxybenzone on an ingredient list.
The EWG puts out a yearly sunscreen guide. Here’s the 2016 guide with the best and worst sunscreen options.
We could continue with this list and talk about coal tar, phthalates, and other ingredients, but I’ll leave it here (feel free to add to this list in the comments). Thankfully, I’ve discovered that it’s possible to navigate an ingredient list without memorizing a long list of “bad guys.”
How to Read an Ingredient List
Now, let’s chat about how I read an ingredient list without memorizing a long list of questionable ingredients. I learned this trick from reading Adina Grigore’s book, Skin Cleanse, and it’s been so helpful.
First, I’ve learned to look past the fancy, unregulated marketing words like “natural.” The ingredient list holds the truth, or as much truth as I’m going to get from a company about that product.
1. Look for natural ingredients.
A (natural) product’s ingredient list should be easy to read, unlike a synthetic product’s list, because it will contain real ingredient names: shea butter, vitamin E, argan oil, jojoba oil, etc.
There may be scientific-sounding language on a natural product’s ingredient list, because some companies list International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredients. This means a company will use the chemical name of a natural ingredient (i.e. Butyrospermum parkii). Since most of these companies want us to feel confident with their ingredient list, they’ll generally include parentheses next to the chemical name. These parentheses are important because they contain the common name for the ingredient (i.e. shea butter).
2. Research questionable ingredients.
If I’m feeling good about a product based on the ingredient list (explained above), but there are a few ingredients I’m just not sure about (Maybe I’ve never heard of an ingredient and there isn’t a common name next to it. Or, the parentheses contain a source versus a common name, like coconut source or vegetable source.), then I’ll take the time to research the ingredients using the Environmental Working Groups’s Database.
Or, reach out directly to the company and ask about a specific ingredient. When looking for a non-toxic and natural skincare products, choose a product made by a company that’s transparent about ingredients. A company should be proud of the ingredients used and should clearly state these ingredients on packaging and their website. A company shouldn’t hide behind mysterious words like fragrance (talked about above). Instead, a company should be willing to share exactly what’s in a product and how it’s made.
A company should be proud of the actual ingredients used to make the product; not just the ingredients (or practices) not used to make the product. Many companies dwell on removing just a few troublesome (and trendy) ingredients (like parabens) and advertise their product based on this, but when you read the ingredient list you’ll find the product is full of many other questionable ingredients.
A Slow PlanTake Action
When I first started thinking about making the switch to natural products, I felt overwhelmed. Really overwhelmed. I’m sure you can now understand why. Maybe you’re currently feeling the same way.
Now that we’ve talked about some common red flag ingredients, and how to read an ingredient list without memorizing a crazy long list of chemical names, let’s chat about making intentional choices.
Here’s the deal, it’s taken me years to make the switch to more natural products. Years! I’m still navigating the natural product waters. I’m trying to make the most informed and intentional decisions possible.
For natural newbies, my simple advice is to focus on one product at a time. Pick one body-care product from your current stash to scrutinize each month. That’s doable, right?!
The PlanMaking the Switch to Non-Toxic Products
First, take a look at the ingredient list (look for any red flag ingredients).
Next, look to see if the product contains natural ingredients. Look for common names (shea butter).
Finally, research any questionable ingredients (ones without a common name) using the EWG Database or Safe Cosmetics.
If you’ve determined that a product isn’t ideal for you (remember, this is about being informed and intentional, not perfection), it’s time to find a more natural replacement. There may be a simple homemade solution (for example: face wash or moisturizer), or you may need to search the Environmental Working Group’s site or visit a local health food store or online green beauty store (like Detox Market or Follain for skincare and haircare).
Here are a few resources to help you get started…
How Create a Non-Toxic Skincare Routine on Any Budget: Learn how to create a skincare routine using non-toxic products (homemade or store-bought).
Where and How to Find Non-Toxic Body Products: From stores to phone apps that help you easily navigate finding non-toxic body products.
Make the Switch, Non-Toxic Deodorant:From homemade to store-bought options, I’ll walk you through the best of the best non-toxic deodorant options.
Make the Switch, Non-Toxic Toothpaste: From homemade to store-bought options, I’ll walk you through the best of the best non-toxic toothpaste options.
Make the Switch, My Favorite Non-Toxic Makeup: Let’s talk about my favorite makeup products for an easy every day look.
Make the Switch, Shampoo and Conditioner: From homemade to store-bought options, I’ll walk you through the best of the best non-toxic shampoo and conditioner options.
Hello Kristin! I absolutely LOVE your blog and podcast! It has been so helpful and encouraging! Right now my husband and i are trying to find some type of non toxic cologne/bodyspray for him. Do you have any ideas of where to look? It is just so hard with those types of things since you can’t (obviously ha!) smell those things before you buy them if you are buying online!
Thank you in advance!
Hi Kristin, I love your blog in part because you aren’t an alarmist ( but there are many other reasons). I appreciate your research and you’ve helped me to be more vigilant. I’m doing the best I can in eliminating so many yucky products that I used to use without thinking a thing about it. I make most of my products these days. It’s rewarding. My latest is homemade deodorant. I can’t believe all the decades I used anti-perspirants! So glad nothing happened and glad younger people are finding out about products that can be harmful. But like anything else, do your best and that’s enough!
Thanks for all you do.
Thank you so much, Sue! Yes, I really want to avoid being a alarmist. I think real food and natural products really speak for themselves, once people go down that road :). As you said, we all do the best we can! Amen!
I’m in the process of switching over, and dragging along a houseful of boys who just want to do as little extra work as possible in the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room. My replacement strategy for iffy products is “better next time”, meaning that I’ll make the best possible choice I can afford when I run out of whichever thing I’m currently using.
Love that, Lindsay! Great strategy.
I’m a new reader and your blog is amazing!! So much information and great tips, it has been incredibly helpful in learning how to slowly switch over to more natural and safe alternatives for my home. I will be making your DIY Laundry detergent as soon as my commercial one is gone, like you I am having a hard time saying goodbye to my Tide pods lol!
If your hormones already have enough issues to deal with then you should avoid soy, coffee, and the produce aisle as those foods contain higher estrogenic activity than you would ever be exposed to from parabens.
Hey Liz, It was meant to be a lady joke amongst such a heavy post :). As with everything, including our food choices, it’s important to be intentional and informed about what we consume–thank you for the reminder.
Sister you bring the sanity back to all of this craziness. thank you for this practical realistic and well-balanced post.
Thank you, Tami! I’m so glad this was helpful! I really struggled with writing this in a way that wouldn’t feel overwhelming for a reader. 🙂
Thank you so much! I had a wake up call to think “What the hell poisons am I absorbing through my skin!” when I started using bio-identical hormone creams that I rub on my forearms. I started worrying about the less pure things I put on my skin, and absorb right into my body! This is a great guide. Fantastic site. Great work!
Thank you, Suzie! I’m so glad you had that AHA moment.