What’s a girl to do? All you want to know is what is in your beauty products and the ingredients list looks like a foreign language.
And, in a sense, it is. Most chemical names are based on Latin, Greek or French, which makes them hard to pronounce let alone remember (you try saying phthalate).
The carbon-based molecules that make up many of the ingredients make it even trickier. Those are the chemicals that start with “meth” (for one), “eth” (two), “prop” (three), “but” (four), “pent” (five) and “hex” (six). This is to describe how many carbon atoms are in the molecule.
It’s hard to get your head around, but it’s important to know about the carbon, because it tells you that a molecule came from a living source, such as a plant, because all living things contain carbon atoms. But then again, so do the mineral oils, because they come from coal – and coal was once a plant too.
There is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation when it comes to cosmetic ingredients. Cosmetics companies will always try to put the best spin on their ingredients. They are, after all, in the business of making money.
Mineral powders are a perfect example. The word “mineral” makes you think they are 100 per cent natural, but many contain bismuth oxychloride, which adds a shimmer to the powder and is man made. But is that such a bad thing?
In Australia, regulations require that all cosmetic ingredients must be shown to be safe for humans. The occasional product slips through but it’s usually picked up very quickly and taken off the market as soon as possible.
On the other side of the coin, many ingredients can appear to be synthetic, as well as dangerous, when in fact they’re completely natural and good for your skin.
The alcohol myth
Alcohol in skincare has had a bad rap over the past few decades. Many of us remember applying stinging astringents to pimples, so whenever we see a chemical with the word “alcohol” in it we think it will be harsh and irritating.
In fact, the opposite is often true. Cetearyl alcohol is a good example. It’s a common ingredient in skincare but it’s actually a wax, made from plant oils and natural waxes (usually coconut or palm kernel), and it’s used in skincare products as an emollient and a thickener.
Not all alcohol is the same. In chemistry, an alcohol is any molecule where a carbon is joined to a group of atoms called hydroxyls.
When alcohol as we know it is used, it is usually called ethanol. There are different types of ethanol, such as phenoxyethanol, which has a rose aroma but is used as a preservative and is usually synthetic.
What we think of as alcohol is used in cosmetics but it is “denatured”. This means it has had a substance added to make it undrinkable.
Making it easier
All this makes you wonder why cosmetic companies don’t try to make reading their ingredients lists easier. Well, some have.
Australia’s Pod Puraceuticals lists all the ingredients and their sources on its products. Even the preservatives and fragrances are listed, whereas most brands simply say “parfum”. The John Plunkett brand doesn’t go into as much depth but still offers more explanations than other brands.
What’s in a basic cold cream?
- Glycerin: A humectant – a molecule that attracts water and therefore adds moisture. It can be plant-based or man-made.
- Cetyl alcohol: Made from plants and used as a thickener and humectant.
- Glycerol stearate: Made from palm kernel or soy oil and used as a thickener and humectant.
- Paraffin: A thickener and skin conditioner made from petroleum, wood or coal. Pure paraffin is harmless to skin.
- Sodium hydroxide: Otherwise known as caustic soda, it adjusts the pH levels, reducing the cream’s acidity.
Those are the myths and the science proved stuffs of cosmetics .