What Has Your Skin Had for Breakfast?

In recent years there has been a shift towards a demand for more ethical and environmentally conscious cosmetics.  Very recent and well-publicised legislation has seen the banning of microbeads in “rinse-off” cosmetic products come into effect from the beginning of this year [1] (although campaigners argue this is not enough as microbeads exist in various other exempt cosmetics and also household and industrial cleaning products).  So, it seems the general public, on the whole, agree that such things are poisoning our environment, but what about ourselves?  What else is lurking in the common every day products that we use?

Groups such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics [2] and Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) [3] have been campaigning for the past few years for greater accountability, responsibility and research in the cosmetics industry.  Recently the WEN Forum hosted “The Big Stink” including a screening of the film “Stink” [4], including a debate around subjects such as:

“What do the terms organic and natural really mean?”

“Why are these chemicals used in the first place?”

“What are the health impacts of harmful chemicals on our bodies?”

And more…

As an interest in “organic” and “natural” beauty has grown in recent years, there has been a surge of companies looking to maximise their profits by taking advantage of this trend.  But there is often confusion as to what these terms really mean for the product in front of you. The reality is that many companies use clever wording and advertising, but some of the constituents of their products are less than desirable.

So what undesirable products are potentially lurking in the products in your bathroom cabinet?

What has your skin had for breakfast?

The moment I wake up, before I put on my make up… I brush my teeth (and sometimes use mouthwash). I then might use cleanser or face wash,  jump in the shower using a shampoo, conditioner and body wash.  Certainly after that I’d go for a lotion or body oil and then something for my face.

It’s adding up… and that’s before you get onto make-up and any hair products.

Your skin absorbs about 60% of anything you put on it, with some of these chemicals reaching your organs in less than half a minute.  Studies have show that the average British woman absorbs around 2kg of cosmetic products every year.

So lets have a look at the ingredients (INCI) list of some top-selling cosmetic products:

There’s quite a lot of “red” there.  Without going into a huge amount of details (I’ll save that for later posts) the entries listed in red are constituents that are a concern.  Some are known irritants, others have links as potential hormone disruptors (Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals/EDCs) that may be linked to breast cancer and more.  In addition, some unhighlighted entries also present a potential concern (see Footnotes [1] and [2]).

Even some companies and products that promote themselves as being “natural” (and even organic in places) may contain some of the red highlighted ingredients above!

Let’s have a look at some of those ingredients…

  • Butylene glycol: petroleum derivative.  May be irritating to the skin, eyes and nasal passages.  Included in many products we may apply on our skin every day – the concern is that, over time, exposure may add up to being potential harmful to health.  At present studies have not linked this glycol to any organ-specific toxicity and it is not considering carcinogenic, unlike ethylene glycol.
  • Ethylhexylglycerin: enhances the preservative effect of phenoxyethanol.  Skin irritant.
  • Parabens (methylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, ethylparaben, E216, E218): used as preservatives, found in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and food products.  Studies have shown that they are able to mimic the hormone oestrogen, which is known to have links to cancers such as ovarian and breast cancer.  Tests run on breast tumours have confirmed the presence of parabens and, although at present there isn’t a proven link, it is probably better to exercise caution.
  • Petroleum, paraffin, petrolatum, mineral oil: a by product of the distillation of gasoline from crude oil, these are inexpensive carrier oils used to bulk out a large number of products such as cleansers and serums.  Not readily accepted by the skin, they interfere with the skin’s natural functions, leaving a non-absorbable film that can clog pores.
  • Phenoxyethanol: synthetic preservative – alternative to parabens.
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) & Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): anionic surfactants use to make products that ‘foam’ and also products such as engine degreaser (yes, really!)   Surfactants are used to help water and oil to mix, enabling them to effectively lift dirt and oil and wash them away.  Many people believe that you need “bubbles” to prove the product is “working” – but that squeaky-clean feeling is because the sulfates are stripping your skin of its natural oils!  You many think that that’s what you want, if you have particularly oily skin BUT your skin needs a certain amount of natural oils and if you take them away, your skin will go into overdrive trying to replace what has been lost, thus potentially compounding your original problem.  They can cause severe skin and eye irritation – hence there are often warnings on products including SLS/SLES to avoid the eye area.  Beware “greenwashing” SLES is often disguised in “natural” products with the term “derived from coconut”.
  • Triclosan: a petroleum by-product, used in products as an antibacterial agent, so found in toothpastes and cleansers, but also laundry detergents, wound care products and other products that are sometimes advertised as “anti-bacterial”.  It is a suspected endocrine (hormone) disrupter and may contribute to antibiotic resistance in bacteria.  It can pass through the skin and, again, the concern is that over time exposure may add up.

There are others, but rather than write a lengthy tome, I think one of the better sources for information recently has been Breast Cancer UK [5].  As part of their #DitchTheJunk campaign have produced a couple of excellent leaflets.  Both can be downloaded to your mobile device to act as a handy reference if you’re out and about!  Please visit their website for more information (including references and research).

So what do you do?

Look for a recognised certification body (and also pay close attention to who funds that body and their other activity and ethics!) And read, read, read those labels!

NaTRUE was set up in 2007 in response to concern that:

“In an officially undefined sector of a tightly regulated industry, greenwashing and questions regarding the availability of premium raw materials have become a major concern for consumers and manufacturers alike. Consequently, it became essential to create an international non-profit association professionally staffed, to speak up on behalf of the sector and at an international level.  A strict definition of Natural and Organic Cosmetics and ingredient regulation go hand in hand in order to ensure consumers the quality finished products they expect.”

– NaTRUE  [6]

It is an international label that not only covers concerns over “natural and organic” certification, but also the sourcing of those materials.  In addition it requires that certified products are, of course, cruelty free (including any products sold in China being exempt from animal testing – a common “loop hole” some less ethical companies exploit!)

Natrue logo

Amongst NaTrue’s founder members is Weleda.  Weleda is the world’s no1 producer of natural skincare and health products and has almost 100 years experience of doing so.

For Weleda, this isn’t a bandwagon, it’s central to the way the company operates.

Jayn Sterland, Managing Director of Weleda UK (and a panel member at the WEN Forum “The Big Stink”) has long had an interest in natural cosmetics and the importance of good certification schemes to help clarify cosmetics ingredients and the choices available.

“For Weleda, cleaner beauty is more than a mandate to remove “nasties” from products, although that’s a good start! It’s a total holistic approach to wellbeing, understanding that true beauty is more than skin deep. It’s also a firm belief in the importance of honest, authentic, ethical brand values and working practices – clean by name, clean by nature.”

– Weleda UK

And that’s an important thing to note.  Not only have Weleda been in the forefront of the natural cosmetics industry for many years now, they not only win awards for their products, they win awards for ethical and sustainable business too! [7]

In line with concerns about confusion in a crowded and unclear cosmetics market, Weleda recently launched their #cleanerbeauty campaign and I was happy to join them as a Cleaner Beauty Ambassador.

What Cleaner Beauty Means to Me

I’ve had an interest in a more natural approach to my skincare for over a decade and a half (indeed it is one of the reasons I’ve retrained in complementary and beauty therapies).  Many of the brands I choose to use both personally and professionally are certified by NaTRUE, including: Weleda, Dr Hauschka and Lavera.

I find it hard to understand why so many conventional cosmetics companies persist in using ingredients that are known irritants or have potentially damaging effects on the body when there are other, clearly safer, options available.

For me, “cleaner beauty” is about choosing brands that are not only conscious of the ingredients that they use and their impact on our bodies, but also that look towards improving their practice, striving towards a more sustainable approach. This includes fair treatment and accountability along the supply chain and a consideration for the partnerships that they make and work with.  It’s an holistic approach to beauty and healthcare that should be the norm.

Weleda meets these requirements and I hope, in future posts, to expand upon the brands I spotlight to include some of the others I regularly use, plus further explorations of ingredients.

So why not hop over to Choosing Cleaner Beauty where I talk about some of the products I personally use in my steps towards #cleanerbeauty ?

Weleda All the Good, Never the Bad


  1. What complicates things a little is that, Limonene and Linalool are permitted by the NaTRUE standard when they are part of a full essential oil in the formulation rather than synthetic isolated chemical compounds that have been added to a product as a preservative.  The conventional cosmetics industry mainly uses synthetically produced limonene and linalool.  These constitutes are known allergens and they are required to be highlighted in an INCI regardless of their source.
  2. Ingredients with numbers are usually artificial colourants and flavourings, many of which are synthetic coal tar dyes or azo dye, and not considered natural ingredients.  However, some are natural plant colourings.  Some are mineral pigments such as Iron oxide. CI77891, found in the toothpaste, for example, is titanium dioxide.  There are ethical issues around the mining of such minerals (not least of what is at times modern day slavery!) Quality is an issue with mined minerals where they may be contaminated with unacceptable levels of heavy metals and the sustainability of such a practice is a further concern.   For these reasons, NaTRUE permits nature-identical mineral pigments – safer for people, safer for the planet!
  3. A note on “Fragrance” and “Parfum” – these can hide a multitude of sins! Cosmetic companies do not have to disclose the exact details of what is contained behind this label. At the very least look for specification that it comes from natural essential oils. No statement?  Chances are its predominantly synthetic in make up.


  1. Gov.UK Press Release: World-leading Microbeads Ban Takes Effect
  2. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: http://www.safecosmetics.org
  3. Women’s Environmental Network (WEN): https://www.wen.org.uk
  4. Stink! (film): https://stinkmovie.com
  5. Breast Cancer UK: http://www.breastcanceruk.org.uk , as part of their #DitchTheJunk campaign have produced a couple of useful leaflets:  Breast Cancer UK Cosmetics Leaflet & Guide to Cosmetics and Personal Products
  6. NaTRUE: http://natrue.org
  7. Weleda’s sustainability information: https://www.weleda.co.uk/our-story/sustainability

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