Posted on 28th July 2021

Focus on Hair and Make Up: Ingredients

In the third of seven articles taking an in depth look at sustainability in the Hair and Make Up department, we turn our attention to...ingredients

What ingredients should be avoided when sourcing products?

Continuing on from our previous article about the sustainability of the packaging your products come in, what about the actual ingredients inside the packaging?

Hair and make up products can contain many chemicals which can be harmful to both the skin and environment, and/or sourced via unsustainable processes.

In this article, we examine the most common ingredients found in these products, and how they stack up when it comes to sustainability.

  • Bismuth Oxychloride. Listed as CI 77163 and used in loose and powdered mineral formulation to provide shimmer. It is considered a “natural” ingredient (white bismuth is a by-product of the refining of lead, tin and copper), it is the most regular culprit in causing skin irritation in people with sensitive skin. It’s not a particularly beneficial ingredient to anyone and is thought to clog pores.

Tips: Avoid mineral cosmetics containing this ingredient – rather safe than sorry!

  • Mineral Oil. A cheap and convenient by product of the petroleum industry, found in many personal care and cosmetic products. While mineral oil is inert, it doesn’t actually offer any benefit to the skin either and it perpetuates our dependency on the polluting and climate impacting non-renewable petroleum industry.

Tips: There are many nourishing oils, sustainable oils that can replace mineral oil. 

  • Nanoparticles. These are one of those ingredients that deliver some real benefits in terms of the invisibility of minerals such as Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide – however, there is too much conflicting evidence on the safety of these particles. The concerns are based around the micron size of the particles, which can potentially mean they are able to enter the bloodstream through skin absorption. The COSMOS-Standard doesn’t allow for their inclusion in certified products.
  • Oxybenzone, Bensonephone-3, Dioxybenzone.  Most commonly found as an active ingredient in chemical sunscreens. They are also used as a fragrance fixative and penetration enhancer. These chemicals have been found to be detrimental to aquatic environments and have been directly linked to coral bleaching. (more on this in our upcoming sunscreen article!)

Risks: Environmental damage, estrogenicity, produces free radicals under UV light, leading to DNA damage, photoallergen, skin sensitiser. 

  • Parabens. Parabens (methyl, butyl, propyl) ethyl)are a group of man-made chemical used to preserve food and cosmetics by stopping mould and bacteria growth in products. There is still a lot of confusion around the term “preservatives.” Cosmetic products containing water require preservatives to keep products safe for use.  There are many safer preservatives that can be used in their place. 

Risks: Hormone disruptors, a potential carcinogen, skin irritant

  • PEGs. An abbreviation of the petrochemical, polyethene glycol ester/polyethene/propylene glycol (PE). Found on ingredients lists as PEG followed by a number. Studies indicate the higher the number the more risk it poses to people suffering from skin sensitivities. While a number of studies have disproved claims that PEGs themselves are carcinogenic, they are partly designed to be absorption enhancers. Therefore, products containing other known (or possible) carcinogens, hormone (endocrine) disruptors or other questionable ingredients, are able to penetrate the skin’s barrier much quicker and easier. It’s worth noting that some certified natural and organic cosmetics may include propylene glycol in the ingredients list, but the certification would factor in if the PE was made from a natural source (via the processes of fermentation of a renewable feedstock such as corn cob or sugar cane pulp). (Burke, 2016)

Risks: Skin reactions including hives and eczema

  • Phthalates.  The most abundant synthetic chemical found in the environment (Jobling, et al. 1995). Used as solvents and plasticizers which help with adhesion and pliability, they are ever-present environmental contaminants that have been deemed hazardous waste and regulated as pollutants when released into the environment by industry. (Mellowship, 2009).  Sometimes listed as DBP, DEHP, DEP.

Risks: Endocrine disruptor, organ damage and concern that they can participate in causing birth defects. 

  • Silicones. Silicones (not to be confused with silicon)changed the face of makeup. There is no question about it. These polymers are useful and fit-for-purpose, in that they glide onto the skin and deliver colour that stays put. The polymers found in cosmetics are plastic and therefore made from petroleum. While there has been a lot of debate about the skin-health implications of silicones, most cosmetic scientists agree they are inert. However, when these plastic chains are washed down the drain, they are bioaccumulative in the environment. Look out for Cyclomethicone, Phenyl Trimethicone, Trimethylsiloxysilicate and Polymethylsilsesquioxane on cosmetic, skincare and haircare labels. Silica, however, is a fine textured silky powdered derived from the naturally occurring mineral silicon dioxide (two parts silicon, 1 part oxygen). One sustainable source of silicon dioxide is found in bamboo leaves.

Risks: Environmental toxicity, bioaccumulative in aquatic organisms, possible endocrine disruptors. 

  • Synthetic Colours. Often derived from coal-tar (still found in colour cosmetics and in some hair dyes) but more recently derived from modified mineral pigment sources or made from petroleum. The reality is, most bright cosmetic pigments cannot be produced from mined minerals and therefore there are occasions that makeup artists will need to use synthetically produced colours. For instance, no “true red” lipstick can be produced ethically without using a synthetic pigment to replace the historic use of naturally-derived Carmine (made from crushed cochineal beetles and appears on cosmetic labels as CI 75470). There is an allowance for some “safe synthetic” (FDA approved as FD&C colours) colours in clean makeup, but they only appear in very small amounts (typically, 0.03 per cent). There are a number of FD & C and D & C colours (denoting Food, Drugs & Cosmetics) that are of high concerns that they are carcinogenic during animal tests, which include, but are not limited too: FD&C Red No.40 (CI 16035), FD&C, FD&C Blue No.1 (CI 42090), FD&C Green No.3 (CI 42053) and FD&C Yellow No.5 (CI 19140) which is an azo dye – also known as tartrazine when used as a food additive – well known to cause allergic reactions, especially for asthmatics and people allergic to aspirin (Mallowship, 2009)

Some are even banned altogether, namely: D&C Orange No.17, D&C Red No. 8, D&C Red No.9, D&C Red No.19, Carbon Black, D&C Black No.2, acetylene black, channel black, furnace black, lamp black and thermal black. These are sometimes found in cosmetics used around the delicate eye area. (Burke, 2016)

Risks: Carcinogenic, Skin irritants

Tip: Avoid cosmetics containing synthetic colours whenever possible.

  • Synthetic fragrances (parfume, perfume). A lot of people have allergies to fragrances without even realising it. While there are “safe” synthetic fragrances (used in place of naturally occurring fragrances they need to be harvested from animals and endangered plants), many synthetic fragrances can contain phthalates, carcinogens and parabens. The issue is more to do with ingredient transparency – or lack thereof – than it is solely to do with synthetic chemicals, as one cannot identify exactly which ingredients are causing the allergy or reaction. It should also be noted that some natural fragrancing chemicals like essential oils (EO) can also cause sensitivities. While somewhat understandable in products like body washes, shampoos and conditioners, does our makeup really need to be artificially fragranced?

Risks: Potential carcinogens,  skin irritant, allergen and environmental toxicity.

Tip: Preference brands that are transparent about their fragrance ingredients.  If you or your actor are sensitive to certain brands, there is a high probability that it is an unidentifiable fragrance ingredient causing that reaction or sensitivity.

  • Talc. While this is a natural mineral ingredient, it does have some risk attached. In the past, there had been cases of talc being contaminated with asbestos, but that is much less of a concern now that talc has to pass far more rigorous tests to be deemed safe for inclusion in cosmetics. It’s a cheap filler and while technically safe for use in pressed powder cosmetics, there are still health concerns associated with using loose talc products. Studies carried out on talc miners have shown implications on lung conditions from continued inhalation of the powder particles, thereby making the ethics behind the extraction of this ingredient questionable.  If you products do contain talc, make sure they have been independently certified as natural/organic for a guarantee that they contain cosmetic-grade quality talc. Imelda Burke of Content Beauty & Wellbeing advises that avoid using any talc on the body or children and babies. There are a number of safer alternatives such as arrowroot, silica (for anti-shine products) and cassava.

Risks: Carcinogenic and respiratory tract implications (in loose form).

Concluding thoughts

Please note that in no way is this is a comprehensive list by any means. Please be sure to check any ingredients that you may be concerned about (including natural ones). EWG Skindeep Database is a great free resource to check ingredients. They use a rating system from 0 -10 and the data is weighted based on human and environmental concerns. 0 – 3 being safe, 4-6 being of moderate concern and 7 – 10 being high risk.

What questions can a makeup artist be asking of suppliers to make sure they’re sourcing the best products?

  • If a product contains palm oil: Where and how is the product sourced and certified? (see below: Certifications to look out for)
  • Why does this product contain toxic or potentially toxic ingredients? Are they essential to the product efficacy? (Note: Some well-known contentious ingredients – such as propylene glycol and SLS’s are being synthesised from plant-based feedstocks, so if it is a brand claiming to be natural/organic/clean, ask them about specific ingredients of concern.)
  • What sustainability measures does the company have in place? What is the policy on water usage?
  • Where are you sourcing your mica from?
  • Why can I not find a full ingredients list on the website?

Khandiz Joni

Multidisciplinary artist + Sustainability Professional

About the author

Khandiz is a qualified sustainability professional and has been a hair and makeup artist for two decades. Prior to studying makeup, she attended art school. Her work marries conceptual art and thought-provoking narratives using eco-beauty alternatives.

She is a founding member of the Conscious Beauty Union and runs VUJÀ DÉ Creative Solutions

Find out more about Khandiz at her website

Khandiz Joni

Multidisciplinary artist + Sustainability Professional