Consumers are spoilt for choice when it comes to shopping nowadays, or rather, overwhelmed. Before I got into this business, I, like most other consumers, would make my choices based on branding, marketing, packaging, and whatever the sales lady tells me. This is how the brands want us to choose our products, but is this really the right way?
When I got into the business and launched my own brand, the stark reality startled me. As a consumer, you are mainly paying for packaging, marketing and display at prominent locations, or having your favourite spokesperson as the brand ambassador, and relatively little of your proceeds go to the actual product. Corners are cut to ensure longer shelf lives, more attractive smell, textures and so on. These results are mainly achieved using chemicals and preservatives.
Is that a bad thing? It most certainly is, and we should all pay more attention to it.
Let’s start with the basics. Our skin is our largest organ, which forms a protective barrier (first line of defense) between our body and the outside world. What we put on our skin, and what we expose our skin to (including what is in the air, all surfaces that we touch) will all matter. Around 60% of ingredients will get absorbed by the skin, which in turn will go into our blood stream, and through our liver and kidneys.
There are 2 sides to the equation. First is to avoid the bad stuff. Then we nourish with the good ones. For the purpose of this blog, we will focus on the first part and skincare. You can apply these principles to household cleaners, food items and so on.
In order for many brands to ensure products on shelves that look and feel the same and last as long as possible, these results can mostly be achieved economically via the use of chemicals. Unfortunately, our body is not designed to process these chemicals, and therefore, long term exposure can result in some dire effects.
To add to the complexity (for consumers), labelling laws are also very different around the world. In a place like Hong Kong, where most products are imported, we are not exactly comparing like and like when we are selecting from the shelves. Broadly speaking, Australia and Scandinavian countries generally uphold the highest (organic) standards, followed by the EU, Japan and Canada. The US is possibly on the lower end of the developed world. Obviously, this is your first general filter. There will for sure be individual brands that will uphold high standards and integrity when they produce their products.
What to avoid
We would like to highlight a few common chemical compounds found in skincare.
Paraben – this is the most common form of preservative found in skincare products. It is common because it is cheap and extends shelf lives. It comes in over 30 forms /disguises, but the most common ones you will see are: methylparaben, buthylparaben, ethylparaben and propylparaben. These are found in your creams, lotions, shampoo, lipsticks etc.
What is wrong with paraben? Paraben is deemed to be a xenoestrogen, which mimicks estrogen (the female hormone) and disrupts our endocrine system. Research since the 1990s have shown that it is linked to breast cancer and reproductive issues, including sterilization in males and hormone imbalance, as well as early puberty in children. Many forms of parabens are already banned in the EU, but not in the US.
Fragrances – 95% of fragrances out there are synthetic, and are derived from petroleum and natural gas. In the US, a lot of chemicals are “hidden” under this broad term, including benzene derivatives, aldehydes, phthalates and so on. Needless to say, synthetic fragrances are much cheaper than natural fragrances from essential oils.
Generally, synthetic fragrances cause allergic reactions like migranes, asthma attacks, nausea, eczema and so on. However, phthalates have been shown to be carcinogenic, cause damage to our liver and kidneys, lead to birth defects, reduce sperm count, and early breast development in boys and girls.
SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate) / SLES (sodium laureth sulfate) – this is a common surfactant found in self-care products, as it binds oil and water together. Studies have shown that these compounds can cause skin irritation and allergies.
Triclosan – this is an antibacterial agent used also as a foaming agent. This compound has been shown to alter hormone regulation and is harmful to the immune system.
Shop smarter by always reading the label first and understand what you are paying for!