The truth about key chemicals in beauty products and when to go natural

SYNTHETIC = bad, natural = good has long been the message when it comes to beauty, and the industry has been quick to capitalise on consumers’ appetite for “green” products. But how nasty can these chemicals really be?

While in the past it has been suggested that certain compounds may cause long-term damage, such as skin irritation and even an increased risk of cancer, many beauty experts now preach that such scaremongering is unfounded.

Are chemicals in beauty products really that bad for your skin?
Wilfried Haubenberger

“If a beauty product enters the market in the UK, it is safe for our skin and health due to rigorous industry regulation,” explains consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto. Read on for our guide to the three key chemicals you need to know about.

Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS)

What is it? SLS is a synthetic cleaning agent that removes dirt and oil from skin and hair. It’s the ingredient that makes shampoos and cleansers really foamy and gives us that squeaky-clean feeling.

The controversy: Continual use of products containing SLS has been found to be irritating for some skin types, causing problems such as dryness and redness. It can also strip hair of moisturising oils, leaving it drier and weaker.

The latest update: Although it’s deemed safe to use by many beauty experts, it’s clear that SLS can irritate sensitive skin. “It can occasionally be problematic,” explains Anjali.

“But it depends on a specific person’s skin and whether a product is left on or washed off.”

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SLS, silicones, and parabens: are they really the beauty baddies?[/caption]


What are they? Silicones give products a smooth glide-on texture. They go by many different names – words ending in “ane”, “on” or “one” usually refer to a silicone derivative. Dimethicone tends to be the most commonly used in beauty products.

The controversy: Some experts believe silicones can “suffocate” hair and skin with a cling-film-like effect. So while they initially give skin a smooth feel, in the long run they could be clogging pores and doing acne-prone complexions no favours.

The latest update: Silicone plays a key role in the success of many bestselling cosmetics, and hair and skincare experts agree that newer formulas are effective for hydration and protection.

“When silicones were first launched, they were difficult to wash out and could cause build-up,” says trichologist Anabel Kingsley.

“However, modern silicones – such as dimethicone – are water-soluble and can be hydrating and protective.”


What are they? Parabens are a type of preservative that have been giving our beauty products shelf life since the ’50s. They come in many different guises, but the most common ingredients to look for on labels are butylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben.

The controversy: A small 2004 UK study found parabens in the tissue of women with breast tumours. While it didn’t prove parabens cause cancer, it concluded these chemicals could enter your body through your skin and remain within tissue for years.*

The latest update: “Extensive research shows that parabens are not toxic to human cells and are some of the safest preservatives in current day cosmetics,” explains Anjali.

“All cosmetic products and their ingredients are governed by strict European laws, and the EU has signed off on the safety of the parabens currently in our products. Preservatives like these are absolutely essential in our skincare. If we didn’t have them, we would be smearing bacteria, viruses, fungi and mould over our faces within around 48 hours of our skincare products being opened, risking skin, eye and scalp infections,” says Anjali.

How do so-called clean beauty products stay fresh then? Green brand Lush, for example, uses natural preservatives, such as honey and salt, which eliminate the need for synthetics and chemicals.

Natural V Synthetic

Both lab-derived chemicals and natural ingredients have their benefits, so which way should you swing?

Goal glowing skin: Choose Natural

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The Frances Prescott Tri-Balm cleanses, moisturises and exfoliates at the same time[/caption]

  • Frances Prescott Tri-Balm, £46 – buy now

When it comes to everyday skincare products, opting for natural formulas might be best.

If you have dry skin, you may find that harsh chemicals dehydrate even more. Natural ingredients and botanical oils that work to soothe and nourish, such as chamomile, sweet almond and wheatgerm, could be the answer.

All-natural Frances Prescott Tri-Balm, £42, cleanses, moisturises and exfoliates skin all at the same time!

Goal Frizz-free hair: Choose Natural or Synthetic

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Philip Kingsley Daily Damage Defence Conditioning Spray is great for fine hair[/caption]

  • Philip Kingsley Daily Damage Defence Conditioning Spray, £18 – buy now

If you’ve got thick hair, synthetic silicones should be avoided. “They’re harder to wash out if hair is thick, leaving strands dry, broken and dull,” says hairstylist Michael Van Clarke.

Instead, try Michael Van Clarke 3 More Inches 10 Second Transformation, £24.50, which acts like a lip balm for dry hair. Its natural ingredients, such as olive oil, cashmere proteins and rose oil, help smooth out frizz.

However, the synthetic path is great for normal and finer hair. ”Silicones can be very hydrating and heat-protective,” explains Anabel.

Try Philip Kingsley Daily Damage Defence Conditioning Spray, £18.

Goal a flawless base: Choose Synthetic

Max Factor Miracle Prep Beauty Protect Primer SPF30 is a brilliant product
  • Max Factor Miracle Prep Beauty Protect Primer SPF30, £12.99 – buy now

For a flawless complexion, silicone-based make-up is worth looking into.

“Silicone primers are the beauty equivalent of undercoating your walls,” explains celebrity make-up artist Caroline Barnes.

“They glide effortlessly over skin and smooth over pores, creating an even surface for your base.”

We rate Max Factor Miracle Prep Beauty Protect Primer SPF30, £12.99.

Goal clearer skin: Choose Natural

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Urban Veda Daily Soothing Facial Wash leaves a cleansed, non-irritated complexion[/caption]

  • Urban Veda Daily Soothing Facial Wash, £12.99 – buy now

Some chemicals can be troublesome if you have sensitive skin or are prone to breakouts and redness, so try opting for a natural, more gentle cleanser.

Urban Veda Daily Soothing Facial Wash, £12.99, uses clary sage to balance, lavender to calm and geranium to heal, leaving a cleansed, non-irritated complexion.

  • Source: *Journal Of Applied Toxicology


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