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The Skincare Ingredient Manual You Need To Avoid Applying Toxic Crap


Kate Michelmore of Skinography, is my Zena in shining armour. In the bottomless rabbit hole of a cesspit that is the cosmetic industry.

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13 SEP - 2018

Being a Beauty Editor may come with credibility, but if you look around, most of us still susceptible to advertising messages.

Previously, Kate was kind enough to share with us a very thorough list of the "11 Ingredients You Should Avoid In Your Self-care Products" to provide a basic understanding for us laymen. Before you get into the below, which will show you how to read the ingredients list on the back of a bottle, I definitely recommend you read the aforementioned post as the 101 will help you get your head around all of this!

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Skinography Mist, NZD$39

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Kate Michelmore

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Kate of Skinography

Most of us have lived as a marketer's dream, blindly buying the beautifully packaged, fragrant lotions and potions. For years, the trend has been about how beautiful the bottles look on our countertops and how the products create a sensory experience so that you LOVE each application and get hooked on using them. Every aspect has been thought through to create an appealing product that you can’t live without.

Now, I’m not saying that every formula and product house does this (but most do). After all, the actual product formulations were obviously created by cosmetic scientists. Every ingredient that is used in cosmetics, has to be declared in the official INCI list which differs from country to country. Unfortunately, legislation is slow at times and the cosmetic industry is very creative! For example, they say, “a rose by any other name… is still a rose.” But in this case, it's not a rose - they're synthetic perfumes that sensitize the skin!

In some countries, it can take years until certain harmful ingredients are even discussed and eventually banned. This time-process still differs greatly between countries and continents. In the EU, some chemicals are already forbidden but are still widely used in the USA. Denmark is leading by example by banning the use of certain parabens in products for children.

There's a multitude of reasons for consumers avoiding certain ingredients in their cosmetics, some of which are ethical - vegans wouldn't use products that have either been tested on animals or contain animal byproducts - some cosmetics have animal derivatives in them like Emu Oil. Environmental concerns like palm oil seek more sustainability from their ranges while some choose to be conscientious due to ingredients being plain old toxic! Some well known, big brands still use ingredients that are carcinogenic, allergy-causing, irritating and endocrine disruptive.

Some ingredients you may already recognize, while others may look like Greek, so I’m going to go through some examples and show you how to look out for hazardous ingredients (a.k.a. INCI) that are potentially harmful and counterproductive for you and your skin.

What’s in your Skincare?

One of the first things that you need to be aware of is if the brand publishes ingredient lists of their products. If they do, great. If they don't, *alarm bells!* By not disclosing the ingredients, it may be an indication of a toxic slurry. But who's to know because they haven't told you what's in there! In some cases, it means they are using cheaper ingredients, which obviously results in higher profit margins but at the cost of your health.

Sales reps/beauty counter consultants are meant to be masters of the products they are selling - but do they have the fullingredients lists (not just the key ones) and can they explain what they are all about? Remember, they are trained in talking about the pros, but not the cons so most of them don't even know what the ingredients are and how they affect the skin. I recently had a brand distributor (who is also a beauty trainer in the colleges!) come into my Skin Studio and talk to me about her range. The first thing I did was have a look at the ingredients on the products and one of the first ones I noticed on the range for pigmentation was SLS!!! She obviously didn't get me as a customer!

Chatty Chung chiming in: Classic Kate. Nothing can get by her. This is why I love her. She knows her shit!

So how do you know what's in the jar? Well, the most practical way is obviously reading the ingredients list. As a ‘Rule of Thumb’ - the more ingredients, the higher the risk that detrimental ingredients are among them. The more suspicious the ingredients I detect at the beginning of the list, the more thoroughly I check the rest.

The upper third of the list are the what the products contain most of - water (aqua), oils and lipids like paraffin, silicones, plant-based oils and sometimes animals fats (Lanolin and Emu oil). To confuse consumers further, they are sometimes listed by their Latin names. For example, alcohols such as Glycerin, Propylene Glycol, Sorbitol and Alcohol denat.

The lower third of the list are additives like colorants, allergenic fragrances and preservatives like Parabens and Phenoxyethanol.

"As a ‘Rule of Thumb’ - the more ingredients, the higher the risk that detrimental ingredients are among them."

Ingredients to look out for

Here’s a list of unsupportive and potentially harmful ingredients that are commonly used in everyday cosmetics:

Paraffin + Petrolatum

Compared to plant oils, paraffin and Petrolatum are cheap, have no fragrance and are not prone to oxidation which makes them a big hit with formulators. When they are properly refined and in lower concentrations, they have no known health concerns, but also no benefits for the skin. When we start seeing higher concentrations in the formulas, that's when the problems start to occur. They form a film on the skin and negatively affect natural skin processes. When petrolatum is not fully refined, which means it can be contaminated with toxic chemicals. Watch out for the ingredients: Mineral Oil, Paraffinum Liquidum, Petrolatum that can be found as the main ingredients in Vaseline/Petroleum Jelly, Ceresin, and Eucerin.


Silicones are synthetic substances and are not organic in any way. All of them leave a huge ecological footprint and resist degradation in the environment for extended periods. As a result of their persistence, when these chemicals are applied to our skin, they bioaccumulate in our tissues. Some are considered endocrine disruptive. In general,
names with the following ending –cone or names with the syllable -sil. There are 2 main types; non-water-soluble silicones: Dimethicone, Cyclomethicone, Cyclopentasiloxane,
Dimethiconol; and Water-soluble Silicones: Amodimethicone, Polysiloxane, PEG PPG-14/4 Dimethicone, Dimethicone Copolyol. They're mostly used in makeup primers and haircare.


Colorants show up at the very end of the ingredient list. The +/- may also mean that not all of the listed colorants are included in the product. There are two main reasons for the use of colorants. For marketing reasons - e.g. a cooling gel in a transparent bottle is coloured blue but introduces no health benefits at all. However, plant-based colorants like Carotene or the deep blue Azulene are used because of their positive properties.

Good Colorants – The Colour Index classifies colorants in different groups: CI from 75000 to 75999 - natural organic colorants.
CI 75120 - Annatto - from the Annatto shrub, red-orange
CI 75130 - Carotene (a natural blend of carotenoids, orange)
CI 75470 - Carmin (animal derived colorant, red, not vegan).
CI 75810 - Chlorophyll (green)
CI 77000 and higher: these are so-called pigments (inorganic, insoluble colorants, e.g. minerals) Apart from the ones that contain heavy metals, they are always rated ‘positive’

Bad colorants:

Azodyes: About 2000 (66%) of all colorants are azodyes and are capable of producing toxic aniline, or contain it in traces. CI numbers in the groups from 10000 to 40799 are mainly problematic colorants. CI 41000 to 75000 also contains many critical colorants.

The most controversial azodyes belong to these groups: CI 19140 (Acid Yellow 23) CI 18050 (Acid Red 1), CI 14720 (Acid Red 14) and CI 16035 (Red 40)


There are 26 fragrances that have to be labeled. There have been discussions to implement far stricter rules. In the future, up to 80 different fragrances will have to be labeled and two will be strictly modified - Oak, Tree Moss and Lyral will soon be banned from cosmetics in the future.

Highest allergenic potential:

Evernia furfuracea extract - tree moss extract (deep woody note). Evernia prunastri extract - oakmoss extract (deep woody note) (atranol and chloroatranol contents have to be reduced drastically in both extracts)
Lyral - replicates lily of the valley and is one of the Top Ten fragrances of the last 25 years and found in over 35% of all cosmetics!

Strongly allergenic fragrances:

Cinnamal (cinnamon)
Cinnamyl Alcohol (similar to hyacinth)
Citral (citrus smell, lemongrass)
Farnesol (flowery, replicates lily of the valley)
Hydroxycitronellal (synthetic lily of the valley)
Isoeugenol (clove)
Moderate allergenic fragrances
Amyl Cinnamal (jasmine replicate )
Benzyl Cinnamate

Weakest allergenic fragrances:

Amylcinnamyl Alcohol, Anise Alcohol
Benzyl Alcohol, Benzyl Benzoate, Benzyl Salicylate
Hexyl Cinnamal, Limonene, Linalool
Other natural sensitizers
Balsam of Peru, third most sensitizing fragrance worldwide and has been banned from cosmetics since the early 2000’s
Lanolin Alcohol (wool wax alcohol) and Lanolin Anhydrid
Propolis or Propolis Cera (bees resin)


Arnica: Arnica Montana Flower Extract
Chamomile: Matricaria Chamomilla or Recutita)
Calendula: Calendula Officinalis


Halogen compounds are highly reactive and extremely strong sensitizers. They can actually alter the protein in human tissue. They are easily recognizable due to the molecules, chlorine, bromine or iodine in their names. Look for:
Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate
Methylchloroisothiazolinone - MCIT Methylisothiazolinone (MIT), Triclosan, Dichloro Benzyl Alcohol and Dichloro Imidazol Dioxolan


Formaldehyde is officially linked to causing cancer since 2004, but is still in use. They are found mainly in nail products, hair smoothing products and even in baby shampoos!!!!
Look for the ‘toxic trio free’ (formaldehyde, toluene and DBP) nail products.
Diazolidinyl Urea*, DMDM Hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl Urea*, Bronopol, Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate, Methenamine. Don´t confuse it with Urea itself, it is an important natural moisturizer.


Totally avoid Parabens, they are preservatives used in a wide variety of personal care products and foods to prevent the growth of microbes. These endocrine-disrupting chemicals can be absorbed through skin, blood and the digestive system.

Look for:

- Ethylparaben, Butylparaben, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Isopropylparaben, and other ingredients ending in -paraben
The so-called “long chain” parabens (Butylparaben and its alternative form, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben and propylparaben) have the strongest estrogenic activity among those widely used in personal care products. Ethylparaben showed lower levels of estrogenic activity and methylparaben shows almost no estrogen activity.
A 2004 UK study detected traces of five parabens in the breast tumours of 19 out of 20 women studied. This small study does not prove a causal relationship between parabens and breast cancer, but it is important because it detected the presence of intact parabens – unaltered by the body’s metabolism – which is an indication of the chemical’s ability to penetrate skin and remain in breast tissue.


Chemical UV-filters are suspected to be endocrine disruptive, linked to cancer and organ system toxicity and environmental issues. This includes Benzophenones and similar compounds such as Homosalate and Octinoxate.

In terms of environmental impact, UV filters such as oxybenzone were found to destroy coral reefs. 80% of the coral reefs in the Caribbean are already destroyed.


SLS and SLES are strongly irritating surfactants that only serve to upset all scalp types, with the corresponding consequences for the hair. Im not even mentioning the environmental impact!!

Alternatives to SLS and SLES:

APGs or alkylpolyglucosides are very mild sugar-based surfactants. Alkyl glucosides are
probably one of the oldest synthetic surfactants and were first made in 1893. They have
always been of interest because of the concept of being made from natural materials and
renewable resources, i.e. glucose and palm- or coconut oil-based alcohols. They have
proved to be highly effective surfactants in washing and cleansing preparations. Look out for names containing “glucoside”.
The latest development in surfactants is the so-called "amino-acid-based" surfactants (acyl glutamates) that are derived from sugarcane and coconut oil. These are the best
the surfactant market has to offer. Unfortunately, they're several times more expensive than other surfactants. Look out for names containing “glutamate”.
Both APGs and glutamates have conquered the biggest problems of replicating the positive requirements from surfactants; they are mild, sustainable and produce a nice lather.

Chelating agent EDTA

The chelating agent EDTA, ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, is an un-biodegradable
compound used massively worldwide as a penetration enhancer. That means it breaks
down the skin’s protective barrier, making it easier for other potentially harmful
ingredients in the formula to sink deeper into your tissues and perhaps even into your
bloodstream. They come in the forms of Disodium EDTA, Tetrasodium EDTA, Sodium EDTA or just EDTA.
EDTA is a complexing agent that connects easily with other substances,
Australia has already banned EDTA. Phytic Acid derived from rice is a plant-based
alternative used in certified organic cosmetics.

Butylated compounds (used as antioxidants)

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) are used as preservatives in a variety of personal care products. Both of these chemicals are also used as preservatives in foods. They are responsible for endocrine disruption and organ-system toxicity (blood, thyroid, liver, immunosystem). They also accumulate in humans and cause developmental and reproductive toxicity, cancer and irritations.

They are often combined with EDTA.
Natural, widely available alternatives are vitamin C, vitamin E, (tocopherols), flavonoids and carotenoids. These make any further use of BHA/BHT completely incomprehensible.

PEG compounds + 1,4-dioxane

1,4-Dioxane, a carcinogen linked to organ toxicity, is found in thousands of cosmetic products, but you won’t find it on ingredient labels. That’s because 1,4-dioxane is a contaminant that is created when common ingredients are mixed together to react and form the compound. 1,4-Dioxane is already banned in Canada.
They're commonly found in products that create suds, such as shampoo, liquid soap, bubble bath, hair relaxers etc.

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Kate at Skinography

Avoid products containing:

Sodium Laureth Sulfate
PEG compounds
chemicals that include the clauses -xynol, -eth (e.g. Ceteareth and Oleth)
Phthalates or plasticisers

Phthalates are linked to endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and cancer.
Look for: Phthalate, DEP, DBP, DEHP, SD Alcohol (Alcohol denat.) and Fragrance.
DBP and DEP widely used in personal care products:
- DBP* is used in nail polish and is listed by the EU as an endocrine-disrupting compound of high concern.
- DEP is widely used in scented products to help the scent linger, although it is rarely found on labels because it is a constituent of the ubiquitous ingredient “fragrance.”
- A third one, DEHP* is found in eyelash glue, and is widely used in other consumer products.
- Avoid products containing “fragrance” or alcohol denat., because they might hide
phthalates.*) These phthalates have been banned from cosmetics in the European Union,
but still remain prevalent in U.S. products.

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