How difficult can it be to make skincare and makeup that are natural and free of toxic ingredients?
With all the wealth of knowledge we possess in our modern world, it should be a no-brainer for skincare manufacturers to figure out what ingredients are truly healthy for our skin and body and which are not so much, and it seems logical that only the cleanest, healthiest ingredients should be used in formulations that we apply to our skin on a daily basis. But this isn’t always the case.
Unfortunately choosing brands that are more expensive, prestigious and luxurious does not necessarily mean that they will be better for your skin, no matter what skin experts they have working on their research and development teams. This makes the mission to find clean, natural and toxin-free skincare brands a much-much harder task. But do such brands exist? Is clean, non-toxic skincare a beautiful myth or could it still be a reality? Let’s try and figure out!
A Brief History of Cosmetics
The origins of skincare can be traced back to the ancient civilisations. From decorative cosmetics in Ancient Egypt to face masks in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, it looks like skincare was always a part of our lives and from the dawn of time was used by men and women alike.
It began with the use of natural ingredients, such as olive oil, rosewater, cucumbers and animal fat among the others, but it was not always as healthy as applying olive oil to moisturise the skin. For example, the decorative cosmetics in Ancient Egypt often used minerals and metals to create pigmented makeup, such as kohl (or charcoal), copper or even lead.
The beauty standards were continuously evolving, much like they do now, and by the 14th and 15th centuries, it was no longer about simply nourishing your skin to obtain the healthy glow. The definition of the healthy glow itself had changed and people admired pale faces and pink cheeks, which were achieved with powders formulated from wheat that made the face white and crushed berries that stained the cheeks.
By Victorian times simply dabbing on the powder and berry juice was no longer a solution to obtain a clean, blemish free complexion, and people turned to the use of chemicals such as ammonia, mercury and arsenic. However, many of the skincare products were still homemade from natural ingredients at hand, such as cucumbers, oils and glycerin.
From then on many more colours made it to the new beauty standards. Spray tans and bronzers, pigmented foundations and juicy lipsticks are now a staple in almost every makeup bag. But overall the standards stayed the same – we want to see a clear, matte or slightly dewy glowing skin, with as little blemishes and imperfections as possible. Yet the disastrous trend in using chemicals to achieve this dreamy complexion had stayed on top for quite a long time. It’s only in the recent years that natural skincare and cosmetics have started to come back into the trend, colonising many of the shelves in stores and giving rise to new all-natural brands.
Today you can find so many skincare brands to suit every taste and skin need. You see products marketed as organic, natural, eco-friendly, plant-based, cruelty free and vegan just to name a few. Among these some brands are known as luxury brands and professional brands. Some are also medical grade skincare brands that use chemical or medicine based active ingredients designed to treat certain skin conditions. It can be quite difficult to choose which brand to go for, and the claims can be quite misleading. So how do you make that choice?
My personal views
As the heading suggests, these are only my personal reasons behind choosing one brand or another. It's also important for me to note that this post is not sponsored. I am not affiliated with any brand and do not receive any compensation for promoting or giving any opinions on the brands discussed in this post.
When it comes to choosing makeup and cosmetics, I am very picky. I can’t remember the last time someone gave me a makeup or skincare item as a gift for birthday or Christmas, as a good few years ago I had asked people to not gift any makeup or skincare products to avoid disappointment, as for me the choice of skincare depends on a few vital points that I do not wish to sacrifice:
- It must be cruelty free: no animal testing, no animal derived ingredients, no sales to China or other countries where animal testing is required by law.
- It must be predominantly natural: plant-based, with the majority of ingredients being of natural origin.
- It should be ‘green‘ whenever possible: this includes ingredients, packaging and the company’s environmental strategy.
- It should be organic whenever possible.
- It should be local whenever possible.
Before buying any new brand I always conduct my research into the company’s mission, ethos, ethical and environmental policies and strategies. I may sometimes let go of organic, green or local factors depending on the product, as long as it is completely cruelty-free, but I still prefer to tick as many boxes as I can.
I normally keep my skincare and makeup routine minimal as I don’t like overloading my body with either. I have a face cleanser (for which I use the reusable bamboo pads), a couple of face masks, a couple of hydrating serums, a moisturiser, a few body lotions and a hand cream. For makeup it’s a foundation, a blusher, a couple sets of eye shadows, two mascaras – a normal one and a waterproof and a few lipsticks. I have a highlighter/bronzer combo, a powder and a setting mist but I rarely use them – only when I need my makeup to last for hours.
You would think that my make up is top-notch green and mean. But no – even I have fallen victim to the ruthless marketing the companies resort to in order to attract the clients. In fact, I recently found out that most ‘natural’ makeup and skincare are not so natural, and are laden with chemicals that can be toxic in so many ways that it’s scary. But let’s start from the start.
What’s in your skincare products?
I recently decided to do a complete raid through all my makeup, skincare and toiletries and check what ingredients they have and just how natural those ingredients are. That was the beginning of the massive revelation that made me toss half of my makeup bag into the bin and send me on the quest of looking for new brands and analysing their ingredients in great detail. You may think this is crazy and futile, but I will soon explain just why I did that.
To begin, many conventional brands like L’Oréal, Maybelline, Bourjois, etc., and the so-called luxury brands, such as Clarins, Clinique, Guerlain, La Roche-Posay and so on, have very little if any ingredients that are ok for skin. The vast majority of their items contain harmful ingredients that are not only environment pollutants but can also seriously disrupt the natural processes in your body.
Here is an example of a few of such ingredients:
- Aluminium (Aluminum salts): often used in antiperspirants, aluminium salts block the skin pores, disrupting the natural metabolism and excretion of toxins through skin. Continuous exposure can have a neurotoxic effect.
- Benzophenone: known as a sun block, this ingredient is known to be an endocrine disruptor that crosses the skin and behaves as female hormones in the body. It is also a known allergen, and is not recommended for use in creams, especially on children.
- Benzyl Salicylate: used for fragrance, it is an established contact allergen in humans and has to be identified on the product packaging. It is also a suspected endocrine disruptor.
- BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene): endocrine disruptor that can disrupt your thyroid function and sex hormones, may affect fertility and development. May cause allergic reactions and irritation. This ingredient should be avoided, and yet it is widely used in makeup.
- Butylphenyl methylpropional (Lilial, BMHCA): synthetic fragrance compound deemed to be not safe fo use in cosmetics by SCCS (The European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety). It is an established contact allergen and must be listed separately on the product ingredient list. May have genotoxic potential and reproductive toxicity. It may also be an endocrine disruptor with thyroid and estrogenic activity. May induce irritation of the mucous membranes and eyes.
- Cera microcristallina: mineral oil that is produced by the oil refining process and may contain harmful residues. It is prohibited in food products but is allowed in cosmetics. It can damage DNA and act as a genotoxic carcinogen thus contributing to development of cancer. It can accumulate in the body, particularly in the lymph nodes and liver, and cause inflammation. It is present in nearly half of all lip balms, which is especially problematic, since it can be ingested and once ingested, it may never be fully eliminated.
- Paraffin: a mineral oil that has the same effects as Cera microcristallina. May also be present in skincare as Paraffinum liquidum.
- Phenoxyethanol: a preservative that is toxic to liver and blood, may affect hormones and fertility. It is also an eye irritant (which is ironically present in many mascaras) and can cause contact allergies in rare cases. In France, products containing phenoxyethanol may not be used on the skin of young children.
- Polybutene: another mineral oil that is prohibited for use in food products but is allowed in cosmetics. It poses the same risks as paraffin and is a potential carcinogen.
- Propylparaben: a preservative that possesses antibacterial and anti fungal properties. However, this chemical is an endocrine disruptor that may have estrogenic and androgenic properties, meaning that it can contribute to estrogen-dependent tumours, such as breast cancer, and may affect male hormones. May cause skin allergies.
- Octocrylene: a UV filter that is found in sunscreens, including those for sensitive skin. It is a known allergen which can cause sun allergies. It is also suspected to be an endocrine disruptor.
- Synthetic wax: a mineral oil produced through oil refining process. See Cera microcristallina for effects.
This list is by far not exhaustive, but it should give you a pretty good idea of the nasties that can be found in the majority of conventional makeup and skincare. But what about the ‘natural’ brands?
How Natural is ‘Natural’?
After I rummaged through my shelves of skincare products and my makeup bag, and disposed of half of my stuff feeling quite disenchanted despite my very best efforts to keep my skincare cruelty-free, plant-based and as eco-friendly as possible, I disembarked on yet another quest: to find the natural skincare and makeup brands that will be good for my skin and environment and will not contain these harmful ingredients. And of course, they have to be cruelty free.
I spent a few days searching the vast horizons of
Is Clean Skincare a Myth?
The ultimate answer is No. Clean, non-toxic skincare and makeup do exist, and I am happy to say that I found a few items among my own collection of skincare products. The ultimate definition of such products is that they don’t contain any chemical ingredients, unless they are essential oils or other natural plant extracts and vitamins. Their ingredients are classified as no risk or, in some cases, low risk – based on the fact that many plant extracts and essential oils are still capable of causing individual sensitivity. If the ingredient can cause sensitivity, it is best to go by what you are known to be allergic to or not. An allergy-prone person in general, I am happy to have no known sensitivities to ingredients like geraniol, linalool and such, which are compounds that are found as naturally occurring in oils and plant extracts such as lavender or geranium. Skincare containing these ingredients will still be classified as clean and non-toxic, but it is good to be mindful about any individual reactions that you may have.
And of course, finding such clean skincare may take sometime and effort among the sea of so-called ‘natural’ cosmetics.
How to check your skincare?
Now that we have established that ‘natural’ or ‘clean’ does not always mean exactly what the word conveys, it is the right time to ask How do I know if this is natural and clean?
Luckily, you don’t have to be an expert in toxicology to check your ingredients. There are many databases at your disposal that list and rate the ingredients in terms of risks they pose. Two of the databases that I can personally recommend (and as I said, I am not an affiliate and do not get paid for advertising them) are EWG and Yuka.
EWG Skin Deep is a website that you can use to check the brands and their ingredients. It uses a visual colour-coded score system and has its own verification system. EWG also has a separate database and a free mobile app for checking the ingredients in foods, which is very handy. However, there is currently no app for skincare and cosmetics.
Yuka is a very handy app, developed by a passionate French trio. The app is completely free and provides you with a barcode scanner which you can easily use when shopping, or whenever you like. It features both food and cosmetics in one app. It also has a colour-coded classification system, which classifies the ingredients into No Risk, Low Risk, Moderate Risk and To Avoid categories. Moreover, you can easily click any of the ingredients and read the background with links to studies and publications. Each product is also scored on a 100 point scale, with a 100 being Excellent and 0 being Bad, which provides a visual guide of how good or bad the product is. As previously mentioned, the app is free and allows you to use the barcode scanner. Each product that you scan is logged and you can see the breakdown of your foods and cosmetics by rating. You can also add your scanned items to favourites. There is an option to pay for the app, starting from €9.99 a year to help develop the app. Paid version allows you to search any product in the database by its name. I personally use this app more than EWG website as it is much handier.
One word of warning: some ingredients showing as low risk will consist of essential oils and plant extracts. They are classified as low risk because with these ingredients there is always a risk of allergic reaction. This will reflect on the overall score, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the ingredient is toxic. This is why it’s important to read through the assessment and use your own judgement.
My key take-aways
My search is by no means complete, and the journey has just begun, but in the last couple of weeks I have learned so much – and that is on top of everything I already knew. However, it is time to draw some interim conclusions and to decide which brands I will keep using and which I would like to use. Although I don’t specify it below, all of these brands are cruelty-free and suitable for vegans.
Brands To Keep:
- The Handmade Soap (local Irish, natural ingredients)
- Kinvara Skincare (local Irish, natural, herbal ingredients)
- Evolve Beauty (UK-based company, natural ingredients)
- Sand & Sky (the serums I use are quite clean but the masks are not. I will keep the serums until I find a suitable replacement)
- Facetheory (UK-based, natural, herbal ingredients)
- Wild (UK-based deodorant brand, natural, eco-friendly)
Brands To Try:
- Leahlani Skincare
- Ilia Beauty
- Vapour Beauty
- UpCircle Skincare
If you have any tried and trusted brands that offer clean, cruelty free and vegan makeup or skincare, please comment below. I am always looking for suggestions!