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6 Time Saving Ways to Navigate the Ingredients List

issue five : a feast for gluttony

How long is the ingredients list in your favourite products, and are they really necessary? The thing that sets untainted beauty brands apart from mainstream beauty products is the ingredients, not to mention the environmental policies, considerations and transparency.

Learning to decipher which ingredients are good and which aren’t so good, however, is an arduous task, even for the most discerning consumer.  The thing that sets UNTAINTED apart from other clean beauty platforms is that I have a slightly different perspective as to what a truly untainted product is. When I began my journey into this world of green and clean beauty, I was unwavering in my stance about only using products that we completely free from synthetics (or so I thought), but I have come to learn over the course of this journey is that just because it’s ‘au naturel’, doesn’t mean its the safest option. Before you think I’ve have gone mad, take a breath and keep reading; I’ll expand on the latter further down this article. 

It has taken me years to be able to scan a bottle and know if I am prepared to apply that product to my face or body, or that of the people I have the privilege of painting. I am still learning. Daily. I still have to have to check myself before I wreck myself when it comes to buying brands that love to wash their product in a bit of that old “green-sheen”. 

I regularly find ingredient names that I haven’t heard of before and I immediately head to my various books and knowledge sources on the matter to learn what I can. Thankfully, I have progressed past the shock, horror and panic stages of “going green” (I hate that terminology, but hey-ho, we all have to bite the bullet sometimes). 

This article won’t be a long list of scary words, but rather some quick, time-saving tips to learn how to read the INCI listing. That is, after all, what this entire issue is about. Is it not?

There are countless blogs, books and websites with long lists of ingredients that are found in our beauty products that would shock you to discover their ramifications, available for your perusal in your own time. There is also a lot of scaremongering out there, so please, do yourself a favour and take it all with a pinch of salt. 

1. don’t drink the Kool-aid 

Just because a bottle shows you a well-designed label (even that’s debatable to be fair) with some over-retouched images of fruit or flowers and an alternative spelling for “organic” does not organic make! This is called “greenwashing“. Nor does the omission of parabens mean the product is free from other bullshit ingredients. There is a host of ingredients that simply do not belong in our beauty products. Period.

Interested in finding out which of your favourite brands might be employing this tactic? Check out this extensive list from Kirsten Arnett’s Green Beauty Team.

FUN FACT: The phrase “Don’t drink the kool-aid” was inspired by the Jonestown deaths. In November 1978 over 900 members of the Peoples Temple, followers of Jim Jones,  committed suicide by drinking a mixture of a powdered soft-drink flavouring agent laced with cyanide and prescription drugs Valium, Phenergan, and chloral hydrate, blindly following their ‘leader’ to the ever-after.

2. alarm bells

I promised this wasn’t going to be an ingredients encyclopaedia – and it won’t. However, I found the easiest way to work out how to read the ‘list’ was to identify the worst of the worst, thereby saving me time on my decision-making. Those ingredients listed with an * are of natural origin.

So, in no particular order other than alphabetical, here you go:

*BISMUTH OXYCHLORIDE – A naturally occurring mineral used in many mineral makeup compositions to add shimmer. While it is not toxic, it has been known to cause skin irritation and made many a consumer think they were allergic to mineral makeup.

BUTYLATED HYRDOXANISOLE (BHA) – High carcinogen concerns, organ toxicity and bioaccumulative properties.

BUTYLATED HYDROXYTOLUENE(BHT)– Moderate organ toxicity and irritation concerns.

*COCAMIDE DEA – Chemically modified from coconut oil. High contamination concerns. Moderate organ-system toxicity.

DIETHANOLAMINE (DEA) and TRIETHANOLAMINE (TEA) – High nitrosamines contamination concerns, skin, eyes and lung irritation and organ system toxicity.

OXYBENZONE – A sunscreen ingredient used to absorb ultraviolet light. Bio-accumulation, skin irritant, endocrine disruption. To name but a few.

PARABENS (ISOBUTYLPARABEN, BUTYLPARABEN, METHYLPARABEN, PROPYLPARABEN)Endocrine disruptors. Known carcinogens.  Moderate concerns about biochemical or cellular level changes. It’s been found in breast tissue.

PETROLEUM/PARAFFIN/MINERAL OIL – Moderate organ toxicity concerns. It’s down-right horrible for the environment.

PHENOXYETHANOLOften found in certified organic formulations as a preservative. It is a known skin irritant and is a highly debated ingredient. In the US and UK, it has a usage restriction of 1% of the total product formulation.

POLYETHYLENE GLYCOL (PEG) – Contamination concerns of Ethylene Oxide and 1,4-Dioxane; both are known carcinogens. 

PROPYLENE GLYCOL – Known irritant to eyes, lungs and skin. Aids other ingredients in skin absorption. Moderate concerns of (non-reproductive) organ toxicity.

SODIUM LAURETH SULFATE (SLES) – 1,4-dioxane contamination concerns (known carcinogen). Skin, eye and lung irritant. Known allergen. Bio-accumulative (non-reproductive) organ toxicity.

SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE (SLS) – Skin, eye and lung irritant. Bio-accumulative (non-reproductive) organ toxicity.

SYNTHETIC FRAGRANCES The word “fragrance” or “parfum” on the product label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system. To name but a few…

This is by no means an extensive list of ingredients you may wish to avoid, but if you are picking up a product with the consideration of its untainted offerings and see any these ingredients (or a combination thereof), I would recommend giving it a second thought. 

3. short and sweet

The shorter the ingredients list, the better. While I don’t personally approve of petroleum jelly, I would much faster reach for a tainted product containing that and nothing else than a product containing an endless list of natural or synthetic ingredients. Why? Because as EVERY ingredient is a chemical (yes, even natural ingredients)and therefore have the ability to react and mutate amongst themselves. So, if you’re struggling to decide which product is safer, also choose those with a less gluttonous approach to ingredients.

4. apps and resources

The Nature of Beauty by Imelda Burke

It’s a sad state of affairs when you have to assume that the products that are being sold to us are filled with unnecessary harmful ingredients. That, however, is the world we live in. So, as with everything in life, taking back your power and control over your own health and wellbeing falls on you. 

Skindeep by EWG (The Environmental Working Group) is an excellent resource for learning about ingredients. It has an easy search bar tool to find an endless list of unpronounceable words (as ingredients so often are). The information provided is based on scientific data of each ingredient and each one is provided with a score based on how much data is available for said ingredient. While the breakdown of the ingredient may appear like gobbledygook at times, it’s a good starting point as you become more confident with your ingredients. 

Apps like Think Dirty are a great resource for quick and easy referencing of products and ingredients.  You can scan a product barcode or type it in the search function to get the low down on your favourite product. Using the data from the Skindeep database, it provides a ranking from 0 – 10 (zero being the ‘cleanest’ and 10 being mega toxic). However, I have found these readings can at times be negatively proportioned based on certain words such as “fragrance” – which will show a 9 even if it’s naturally derived. 

The Nature of Beauty by Imelda Burke is an incredible book offering a wealth of knowledge, insight and practical tips for those wanting to make the big switch and go “clean”, as well as the hardcore untainted beauty aficionado. 

A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winder, MS. You can judge this book by its cover! It provides you with complete information about pretty much every ingredient found in cosmetics and personal care products. The good, mediocre and downright disastrous. 

Toxic Beauty by Dawn Mellowship.  An easy-to-read layout and overview of hidden toxic ingredients commonly found in our beauty products. It is very American-centric.

5. logo logistics

If you are just beginning your journey – and trust me, it is a journey – into the world of untainted beauty, the easiest way to ensure you are choosing brands and products that are safer for you and the environment is by looking for certification logos.

Certification logos

In the interest of providing you will all the information you require to make informed choices, I will state that while these verification bodies are doing a lot to ensure the best products enter the market and ensure those laying claim to natural and organic status, it doesn’t mean they are perfect. They are however a very good starting point if you feel you need some kind of guarantee.

The COSMOS Standard

In 2002, the five main European organisations involved in organic and natural cosmetics standards (namely Soil Association in UK, BDIH in Germany, Cosmebio and Ecocert in France and ICEA in Italy) came together and agreed to cooperate over developing a single, harmonised standard for natural and organic cosmetics.

Despite the very different natures and certification bodies, it was agreed that a standardised set of criteria needed to be drawn up in the interest of consumers and companies alike.  This coalition effectively levelled the playing field and provided more efficient operation for companies, clarity and confidence for consumers, coupled with effective progress towards sustainable development. Which, at the end of the day is the most important objective.

It took eight years to come to fruition.

After a public consultation in 2008, the COSMOS-standard was finally published, coming into force in January 2010. However, it wasn’t until January 2017, that it became manditory for brands (or products) to showcase the COSMOS-standard new logos.

New logos showing the COSMOS Standards
New logos showing the COSMOS Standards

You may still see certified products that reference the independent certification logos, and that is because they are still in the process of switching to the new one, according the the Soil Association.

There are many untainted brands that do not carry any certification. Sometimes, they are best quality available on the market. For an array of reasons, they may choose not to become certified. If you are unsure if a brand is worth your cash, drop them an email. The ones that are worth it will always come back to you with answers to your questions because they have nothing to hide.

I know, I know… it’s a minefield out there.

6. a pinch of salt

There is a lot of debate over how safe synthetic ingredients are for us, really. In reality, the synthetic ingredients in our beauty products aren’t going to kill us after one wear or a couple of applications. Sometimes, synthetic ingredients are actually more stable (and therefore safer in our beauty products) than their natural inspiration, advises Dr Pedro Catalá of Twelve Beauty. While they (synthetics a.k.a made from petrochemicals) may not be safe in large quantities or cause harm to the miners or the environment in their extraction, the small quantities in which they are found in our beauty products are very likely, harmless. The issue comes with the bio-accumulation of the ingredients over time. So, if you are someone that doesn’t lather your self head to toe in beauty products on a daily basis, your health will be just fine.

If, on the other hand, you love the daily ritual of beautifying yourself with hoggish abandon, you may want to have a think about how those millions (they add up quickly) of ingredients that you are layering up, day in and day out, are affecting your long term health. Lest we not forget that natural ingredients can also be potentially hazardous. For instance, lathering yourself in nut butters if you have a nut allergy, isn’t exactly a wise thing to do. As the demand for natural products grows, there is more and more evidence to show that there are a number of natural ingredients that can cause uncomfortable irritation. Catalá highlights Sodium phytate (the natural equivalent of the synthetic EDTA)and Potassium sorbate – used as a natural preservative accepted by the food industry, as causing allergic reactions. Surprisingly, menthol and chamomile also make his list of new natural enemies, as both of these ingredients are showing to be irritants for certain skins, despite the longstanding idea that it’s natural so it can’t hurt you.

In truth, only you can decide if something is worthy of your health, principals and hand earned cash. I cast no judgement here, my only aim is to arm you with the facts to make the best choices for your life and circumstances.

Have you read our article on The Colour of Compromise?


Twelve Beauty

Content Beauty & Wellbeing

Green Beauty Team

EWG Skindeep Database

Soil Association


untainted |ˌənˈtān(t)əd| adjective
not contaminated, polluted, or tainted: the paper was untainted by age.

UNTAINTED is a directional beauty platform, pushing the boundaries of clean, sustainable beauty. We are inspired and motivated by the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi.

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