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healthy bytes: what’s in our skincare regimes?

Being as it is we live in quite a polluted environment. Sure, it’s not as bad as some other parts of the world but a range of toxic and potentially harmful substances in our air, water and even soil, constantly surround us. But what about the ones we intentionally put on our skin?

Have a quick look in any bathroom and you will find shampoos, conditioners, moisturisers, cosmetics and other products we use on a daily basis. Many of us don’t have the time to find out, or don’t understand, what is in these products. Increasingly, however, there is a shift to healthier lifestyles and a seeming preoccupation with organic products and food. Personally, I’m glad that this kind of awakening is happening in my lifetime and women are becoming more aware of the ingredients in their products but also about animal testing and ethical testing and procuring of products.

While there might be a debate surrounding these so-called ‘toxic toiletries’ and the effects of the different chemicals on us, I think it’s quite simple. Before the industrial revolution and labs and scientists getting involved in our lives, we used herbs, fruits and other plants for remedies, skincare and sustenance. Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of knowledge about how to use these to their full potential and even more sad is the fact that we have destroyed, either through pollution or ‘breeding out’, the things we used to rely on. It’s easy to cover up the effects of these chemicals on us because we simply don’t know what they are or what they do.

So I’ve decided to have a look at some common chemicals you might find on an ordinary label.


What is it?
Formaldehyde is essentially a preservative. Contemporary artist Damian Hirst used it in his installation The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1992) to preserve a dead shark in a glass and steel construction. The ageless shark is still in its glass cage so I think we can safely assume formaldehyde is a powerful chemical.

In terms of cosmetics, it is used mostly in nail polish but it can be found in other beauty products under names such as methanal, methylene oxide and formalin. It has been known to show up in water-based body products such as shower gel, bubble bath and shampoo and it might contribute to dry or sensitive skin.

According to Dawn Mellowship, health journalist and author of Toxic Beauty, formaldehyde is known as a common skin, eye and nose irritant and suspected carcinogen. The good news is that in Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Authority (TGA) controls the presence of this chemical in products. If higher levels of “free” formaldehyde are present in products they have to have a warning label.

The Conclusion
While it might be considered safe at low levels by the TGA I would definitely suggest doing your research. While “free” formaldehyde is controlled, when it is combined with other chemicals or under different compound names it could pass under the radar. What’s more, if you use shampoo, shower-gel and nail polish all in one day, which a lot of us would, that can add up over time. My advice? Why build up levels of something you don’t need and doesn’t naturally occur in nature or in our bodies?


What is it?
Talc is a mineral-based ingredient used most notably in talcum powder for babies and in a range of other products, including eyeshadows and face powders. It’s also used in paper making, plastic, chalk, paint and coatings, rubber, electric cables and as a food additive and anti-caking agent. Drug dealers also use it as an adulterant to heroin to expand volume and weight thereby expanding its street value.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) it is considered safe in small quantities. Studies have shown, however, the dangerous effects of talc inhalation but only in large quantities. Most baby or talcum powder products have a clearly stated warning on them against inhalation or using around the eyes, nose and ears.

The Conclusion
If I see a bottle with a “Warning, Toxic” label on it I’m definitely not that keen on testing it out on myself. If even the companies that produce this stuff admit that it can be harmful, then why bother? There are plenty of other talc-free products out there. It is concerning that this stuff is mostly used for baby-rash. Also, watch out for talc in other compounds.

Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS)

What is it?
It is a powerful cleansing and foaming agent used mostly in shampoos, shower gels and toothpastes as well as to create any type of “bubbles”. It is also a component of many domestic cleaning products because it is derived from inexpensive coconut and palm oils. Sodium comes from the salt family and sulphates also known as a salt or sulphuric acid. Wait…what? How can sulphuric acid be safe or good for us?

It has been reported to cause eye irritation, skin flaking and dryness. Studies have also shown that it causes mouth ulcers when present in toothpaste.

The Conclusion
So in other words, it is a cheap chemical allowed to pass under the radar because it is used in small doses in all of our products. I would look carefully at the labels of shampoos, especially the ones that claim to be anti-dandruff and if SLS is present I would definitely avoid it.


What is it?
Parabens are essentially a group of preservatives generally used in cosmetics, skin care products, deodorants and antiperspirants. The four main parabens are methyl, ethyl, propyl and butylparabens.

Average levels of 20 nanograms/gram of parabens have been detected in a small sample of 20 breast tumors.These findings, along with the demonstrated ability of some parabens to partially mimic estrogen, a hormone known to play a role in the development of breast cancers, have led some scientists to conclude that the presence of parabens may be associated with the occurrence of breast cancer. The lead researcher of the UK study, molecular biologist Philippa Darbre, reported that the ester-bearing form of the parabens found in the tumors indicate that they came from something applied to the skin, such as an underarm deodorant, cream or body spray, and stated that the results helped to explain why up to 60 per cent of all breast tumors are found in just one-fifth of the breast – the upper-outer quadrant, nearest the underarm.

A 2004 study at Northwestern University found that an earlier age of breast cancer diagnosis related to more frequent use of antiperspirants/deodorants and underarm shaving. However, there are no definitive links or decisive studies to suggest they are dangerous and once again, they are supposed to be safe in small doses.

The Conclusion
If, like me, you have started seeing a repetition in the advice given by governing bodies on these chemicals, then I suggest staying away from them. It is always “inconclusive” and “safe in small amounts” but if day after day, year after year, you are using products with “safe” doses of these chemicals they start to build up and possibly make you very ill. Why risk it?

My general conclusion is that there are always organic, natural products that can be used for everything. Products and compounds that existed before all these chemicals were lab-produced. It is noteworthy that there were fewer instances of cancer and other ‘modern’ diseases as recently as 100-200 years ago. Of course, we can’t solely blame these particular chemicals but our lifestyles and living conditions in general. My advice? If you can avoid it, why use it? I use completely natural shampoo, conditioner, cleanser and face cream among other things and I feel better off for it. Making small lifestyle changes like this will greatly contribute to your overall health and if it comes down to the money issue – think of it as an investment in yourself. Just be aware of products pretending to be organic or natural and do your research.

(Image credit: 1.)

3 thoughts on “healthy bytes: what’s in our skincare regimes?

  1. Lip, normally I love reading your articles.
    However, this is, frankly, and incredibly naively, ignorant and misleading written article. It would do your readers and yourselves better to do more rigorous scientific research, even wiki, on what the “chemicals” you mentioned actually are and their toxicity levels. Not to mention using data that is 8 years old, in science literature terms you may as well be looking at a text book from the 60s.
    For example; SLS? That’s soap. Humble soap. Yes some people allergic to it, but that means nothing in this day of everyone has a allergy.
    Methyl, ethyl etc are generic names for groups added to the end of any molecule.
    Please, do more research or contribute science articles from someone with more than a high school science knowledge, as to not mislead your readers.

    Kara Boyle.

  2. Hey guys,

    Thanks for your feedback. I realise this is a contentious issue and as so, even in the article I say that this is a debate. As such, every debate has two sides. I am simply presenting my side of things, which comes from listening and talking to naturopaths, homeopaths and other people who are more into natural, organic and “alternative” views. The gist of this article is simply: why use chemicals when there is an alternative? In regards to using older studies I do point out that there are no decisive conclusions as there will always be two sides to an argument. There are scientific studies and views either way and I think as discerning readers it is up to us to make up our own minds. This is simply my view and I’m sorry if it has offended anyone.

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