Seriously… have you ever stopped to wonder: Why do skincare brands keep putting nasty chemicals in your skincare products even though you keep telling them that you HATE that stuff? Did no one in the industry ever hear of “the customer is always right”?
Are we, the people who make your cosmetics, just that thick in the head?
Can’t take a hint?
Cause, I mean, you’ve been hinting pretty hard.
“Yo! You there!” says you.
“Who? We?” Says us.
“Yeah you. No more parabens in your formulas!”🙅
“Ahem, roger that.”
“Knock it off with those phthalates too.”🙅
“Oh, and, no fragrances… artificial colors… propylene glycol… formaldehyde… triclosan…hydroquinone…”🙅🙅🙅
Let me guess: Probably.
But does it matter?
The very next time you pick up a brand new jar of miracle goo at Sephora, we’ll be going:
No, seriously, why is it that many skin care brands can’t help themselves?
Why do they include so many ingredients in their formulations which their customers specifically tell them, in droves, again and again, that they really hate to put on their skin?
Sure, some are less controversial than others and not as scary as some fear mongering beauty blogs would have you believe, but there is a more or less general consensus of skincare ingredients to avoid.
So why don’t we avoid them dang it!
You wish beauty brands could see things from your point of view. But that’s not gonna happen anytime soon. So easier if you start seeing it from theirs.
All sorts of loopy things about the skincare market are going to suddenly start making sense.
Table of Contents
- When it comes to skincare ingredients to avoid in cosmetic products, skincare makers think you’re all talk!
- Cosmetic chemists typically don’t know much about skin biology and don’t look at ingredients to avoid in skincare products through the lens of a dermatologist
- Commonplace Practices of Cosmetic Chemistry That Are Ruining Your Skin, Including Ingredients to Avoid in Skincare
- Only You Can Prove Us Wrong
Lemme break it down.
When it comes to skincare ingredients to avoid in cosmetic products, skincare makers think you’re all talk!
The industry doesn’t believe you’re being serious when you say it’s important for you to steer clear of the ingredients you claim to abhor. They think you’re just saying that, but that if the choice were presented, between actually clean products and the status quo, and you had to vote with your wallets, you won’t put your money where your mouth is.
Besides, they don’t think they’re in the business of giving you skin care that actually works. 😧
And, uhm, technically, they’re NOT! 🤯
So here’s the deal.
By law, as in, FDA regulations, none of your skin care lotions, potions, creams, toners, cleansers, masks, and the whole shebang of beautification artillery you spend a small fortune on, in the elusive search for a flawless complexion—I say none of it—is supposed to do more for your skin than makeup does.
Or at least, we, as makers and sellers of cosmetics, are not supposed to claim that our products do. Cosmetics are not supposed to be aimed at treating or curing any skin disease or condition. Or change the structure and function of any part of the human body (skin very much included).
If we did any of that, then we wouldn’t have a cosmetic in our hands. We’d have a drug. And drugs are strictly regulated. So really, we’d have a candidate for a drug, which we shouldn’t be selling willy nilly on the open market. Rather we’d be looking at special testing with the FDA to get market approval. Decades of clinical trials. Stage I, stage II, stage III trials, to be precise. The works.
And ain’t nobody got time and money for that. It’s a completely different territory. Big Pharma’s turf. Not the business beauty brands are or ever want to be in.
So a cosmetic, very much including everything you think of as skincare, is strictly aimed at improving the appearance of skin. As in, increase its attractiveness. As far as the FDA is concerned, at least, that’s all we can promise our customers.
You will notice this everywhere now that I pointed it out: Check out the latest anti-aging treatment at the drugstore or at your favorite retailer. All the marketing language will read:
…visibly reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.—reads the fine print on every cosmetic product label or advertorial
It’s carefully parsed language, and it means (whether you took its meaning that way or not is another story) that the product is only altering appearances: it is affecting how noticeable your wrinkles are to the naked eye (…and maybe under the right lighting). Hence the words “visibly” and “appearance of”. It is not actually promising to reduce the fine lines and wrinkles themselves. To do so would be to change the structure or function of a body part. Cause them wrinkles are very much part of your body, sorry.
Is this starting to make sense though?
From the horse’s mouth:
The FD&C Act defines drugs as those products that cure, treat, mitigate or prevent disease or that affect the structure or function of the human body, if a product makes such claims it will be regulated as a drug. Cosmetics are intended to beautify, promote attractiveness, alter appearance or cleanse; they are not approved by FDA for sale nor are they intended to effect structure or function of the body.—the FDA, clarifying the definition of “cosmeceutical” to emphasize that it’s a made-up term that doesn’t mean anything (outside marketing) or afford any legal wiggle room
There’s a kink in all this, something like a gray area:
That is, if an active ingredient is officially proven to work for a specific skin condition, and is also considered safe and effective when used as directed, then it’s considered an Over the Counter Drug, which means, a drug that can be used without a prescription. A cosmetic product can include OTC ingredients, in which case it’s considered both a drug and a cosmetic by the FDA.
Including OTC drugs in a formulation imposes serious restrictions on how the label of a product must be designed, the wording that must be included to go along the OTC ingredient, etc. (Check the back of your sunscreen bottle just to see what I mean). The percentage of OTC ingredients in a product is also tightly controlled. Here‘s just a sneak peak of what the FDA is looking for. Warning: speaking of drugs, you might need some Extra Strength Excedrin to plough through all that info.
So most skincare brands don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole any ingredients that actually work. Because it can get complicated real fast, and someone from the legal department will send a memo to engineering, telling them they might get busted by the feds if they don’t knock off that salicylic acid concentration to stay well within OTC labeling guidelines.
It’s much safer to just focus on appearances—what a cosmetic is supposed to be about in the first place. Because if you play it safe, and parse your wording, you can get away with everything else in your marketing.
- Beautiful shelfie-porn worthy packaging and labeling, unrestricted by the requirements of ugly and label-surface-area-hogging OTC ingredient listings, check!
- Room on the label for sexy, pixie dust ingredients (Swiss-apple stem cells, anyone?), check!
- Room inside the actual container for ingredients that give the actual product a feel, scent, and consistency that will make you believe all the marketing hype, check!
Actually, let’s talk about that.
Because unless we are making actual makeup—I’m talking, foundation or highlighter—how can we even affect your skin’s appearance and boost its attractiveness with a mere skincare cosmetic product?
Makeup at least covers or blurs imperfections and adds color.
A mere lotion can’t do any of that.
All we can control, that the customer might care for, are those aspects of the product’s formula that you will notice right away and be the judge of.
- Does it smell delicious?
- Is the color light and creamy?
- Does it spread well between your fingers?
- Good lubricant?
- Not greasy?
- Not tacky?
- Does it provide a smooth velvety finish?
- Does your skin feel wonderfully luxurious with a layer of product on?
That’s the highest professional compliment in cosmetic chemistry circles, by the way: what they call an elegant formulation.
Because those are all qualities you can immediately judge, if you like them or not. And if it smells and feels good going onto skin, the placebo effect will take you all the way to feeling like a million bucks. So you’ll be happy with your purchase and buy again.
The trick is to make your skin’s appearance more attractive to you, in ways you can touch and smell immediately. That’s the job of a cosmetic. To sell you the placebo effect.
Did you notice, by the way, how the law is a bit skewed in that, if an ingredient is proven to work, we can’t just use it for its intended therapeutic effect to cure any disease or treat any condition (unless it’s an OTC ingredient, and even then, strict rules apply).
But so long as an ingredient is not positively proven to be toxic (and the burden of proof is high), then we can use it at our own discretion in our formulations.
Here’s what the FDA says:
FDA can take action against a cosmetic on the market that does not comply with the laws we enforce. However, to take action against a cosmetic for safety reasons, we must have reliable scientific information showing that the product is harmful when consumers use it according to directions on the label or in the customary way.
Just as it takes a lot of data and clinical trials to prove that a compound has real, measurable, quantifiable positive effects on skin, which would make it a drug, so too it takes a lot of data and clinal trials to prove that a compound has real, measurable, quantifiable, negative effects. Unless a substance is outright banned because the data is incontrovertible, it can be used at the chemist’s discretion.
It’s all a judgment call.
Stop and think of the incentives there for a second. Given the fact that if it’s proven to be effective, you can’t use it in a cosmetic (or you can use it with major limitations), but unless it’s positively proven to be toxic, you can use it…
Is it worth it to aim high or aim low?
Now, I know this is far from the impression you get, of what you’re supposed to expect from your skincare’s performance, based on the way your favorite brands’ advertising makes love to your brain.
Day in and day out.
And none of this is to say that skincare brands are evil or manipulative.
It’s just that it’s hard for one hand to know exactly what the other is doing. The marketing department is in charge of creating demand for the products the company sells, and probably has no understanding of how those formulas are actually made.
Their job is to hype them up. Not to understand the fine weeds of chemistry.
The legal department doesn’t know either how the products are made or marketed, but is telling both makers and marketers to play it safe.
To the marketing department, that means, stick to phrases like “visibly alters the appearance of >> insert name of skin problem / condition.” Or “helps achieve dope looking skin.” Because “help” is vague enough, that you can get away with sticking any verb to it.
To the cosmetic chemists it means, keep the formula straightforward, nothing too fancy to get us in trouble as passing the product off as a drug.
That’s the perfect cocktail of incentives to guarantee low performance from most skincare products.
And just to complicate things a little bit more…
Cosmetic chemists typically don’t know much about skin biology and don’t look at ingredients to avoid in skincare products through the lens of a dermatologist
Most of their art and science lies in creating stable emulsions of acceptable viscosity and ph. That, in and of itself, might not sound like rocket science, but in practice it can be pretty close. Every emulsion with different components is a unique experiment. There is no sure way to know in advance the ratios of ingredients that will work together to yield a product that’s cosmetically acceptable and stable over time.
Trust me, it’s no joke.
I have more failed experiments under my belt than I care to admit. My hat goes off in utmost respect to anyone who owns the Hydrophilic-Lipophilic-Balance Calculator like a boss. It takes mad skillz to be a good cosmetic chemist.
It would almost be unfair if, on top of those skills, cosmetic chemists were required to stay abreast of the most recent research on skin biology. Those are entire fields of study onto themselves, in dermatology, microbiology, biochemistry, etc. It takes a PhD in each, and a lifetime of study, to master all there is to know from that particular field of knowledge. And still, every year or so a breakthrough finding comes out that changes the game in that field forever.
Remember, cosmetic chemists are not in the business of making products that actually work miracles on your skin, so all the knowledge of skin biology they need are the basics, just enough to be able to formulate products that don’t harm skin.
But here’s the thing.
The cornerstone practices of cosmetic science are harming skin. In ways that were not understood until recent advances in skin research. And it’s taking too long for that information to travel downstream.
Both to consumers and to cosmetic chemists.
Commonplace Practices of Cosmetic Chemistry That Are Ruining Your Skin, Including Ingredients to Avoid in Skincare
#1 The Use of Surfactants to Formulate Cleansing Products
Surfactants are the class of molecules that make soaps, dish detergent, face wash, and shampoo bubbly and foamy. They’re what enables their cleansing action.
That is, when a drug needs to permeate the skin barrier, it’s often combined with a surfactant (or the surfactant is used on the skin right before that drug, to “prime” it), so that the skin barrier can be temporarily destroyed, to allow the drug to penetrate from the outside in.
The science is clear that they’re very harmful to skin. In fact we wrote the definitive guide on it, that should answer the question, “should I wash my face in the morning” once and for all.
All this is know about surfactants.
Yet these are the substances that you are probably using right now to cleanse your skin. And not just for that. Surfactants make up the emulsifiers that are the glue that hold together the formulations of every lotion and cream on the market.
And the FDA doesn’t seem to mind. Probably because we’ve used surfactants daily for the past 150 years, starting with soap, so it seems inconceivable to cleanse any other way.
In fact soap is its own category for regulatory purposes, as you can see from this FDA walkthrough, “Is It a Cosmetic, a Drug, or Both? (Or Is It Soap?)” Yes, the bar of soap has set the bar pretty low for all surfactants.
Alright, so yes the FDA doesn’t care.
But shouldn’t a great skincare brand care? To teach its customers how to do this skin care thing right, that is?
Because caring for your skin and using surfactants in products that go on skin daily, are not mutually compatible.
#2 The Use of Preservatives in Almost Every Formulation
This is crucial.
Let me try to explain without either fear mongering or mincing words.
First off, a broad-range preservative is absolutely a must for almost any skincare product that’s water based. Dangerous molds and bacteria will grow in standing water (which is what a jar of cream is) unless a biocidal preservative is mixed in. And there have been cases of people getting very sick, even dying, from infections they caught from contaminated cosmetics and shampoos.
Going preservative free in a water-based product is far more dangerous than using even the most controversial preservatives.
Do we have to formulate products that need preservatives?
Here is where we circle back to the issue of appearances.
A skincare product does not have to be water-based. Yet in practice it almost always is, because you, the consumer, have been conditioned to expect a certain texture and smooth spreadability that are impossible to achieve in an anhydrous (water-free) formula.
And here is where most of us cosmetic chemists simply don’t believe you really want what you say you want. At least not bad enough to put up with the alternative.
You say you want preservative-free products, but if we actually made products that were self-preserving, they would fall short of the whipped-silk-into-a-cloud consistency you have come to love, expect, and judge a skincare product on.
It’s as simple as that. So we don’t do it.
It’s not about Parabens
It really isn’t.
As far as preservatives go, parabens are actually among the safest. No, they won’t give you cancer. They are mild endocrine disruptors, and that’s a problem, but so are tea tree oil, rosemary oil, and most essential oils, which most consumers who have a beef with parabens typically don’t mind using.
No, the real problem with parabens is the same as with every other preservative on the market.
And it’s this:
All chemical preservatives used in the cosmetic industry are biocides.
They kill everything they touch.
Molds, spores, gram positive and gram negative bacteria. That means they also kill your own skin flora. All the germs that are natural denizens of your skin and do important, thankless, unacknowledged work to keep it in good shape.
Killing your own skin flora makes your skin susceptible to invasion by pathogenic organisms that are growing resistant to these biocides.
Biocide resistance is the little sister of antibiotic resistance, which is sure to drag human life expectancy back to the Stone Age in this century, unless we smarten up real fast to the threat.
Biocides are added to many consumer goods such as cosmetics and detergents to kill bacteria or inhibit their growth. They include disinfectants, preservatives as well as antiseptics and are widely used in animal husbandry, food production and health care.
There is concern that this widespread use of biocides may lead to the emergence or proliferation of harmful bacteria that are resistant to both biocides and antibiotics.the EU Commission on Human Health
For the complete resource on understanding what your skin flora does for your skin, and how preservatives in cosmetics affect it, check out our definitive guide.
#3 The Use of Fragrances in Cosmetic Formulations
There is a ton of research that shows fragrances are skin sensitizers and sources of contact dermatitis (eczema-like skin reaction) and other allergic reactions. But without added fragrance, cosmetic formulations carry their own peculiar scent from their constituent ingredients, and that scent is not particularly delicious.
So basically the only reason fragrance is ever added is because cosmetic chemists don’t think you’d actually buy a product that’s fragrance-free. The way the marketing ties to make fragrance palatable is by claiming “no artificial fragrance,” which means anything natural is game. But natural fragrances are derived from essential oils, and those are some of the most powerful irritants on the planet.
Again, if we focused less on appearances and more on substance, we could explain this research to the end customer so the skincare market is weaned off the expectation of perfume in a jar once the tradeoff is actually understood.
Only You Can Prove Us Wrong
Cosmetic chemists make these compromises because they don’t believe you, the consumers of skincare products, are serious about your priorities.
Despite the FDA-imposed limitations on what a cosmetic may claim to do, in terms of legal bragging, it’s not impossible to formulate drug-free products that deliver real improvements to your skin.
But first you, the end customer, need to make it clear that you will not stand for junk in your skincare products.
Again, wonderful scents and textures you can judge immediately.
Results on skin take time to make themselves seen and felt, and by the time they do, you will have no idea which one to thank or blame, among all the products that you’re using at the same time.
So it’s up to you to put your money where your mouth is.
Will you choose true quality even though it doesn’t smell of roses or feel like velvet, and takes some time and patience to see results?
Or will you settle for the skincare equivalent of get-rich-quick schemes?
If you put your money where your mouth is, then no one will disbelieve your priorities. Certainly not any skincare brands that want your business.