Common Greenwashed Ingredients in "Natural" Beauty
Most of us in the clean ingredient world know the heavy hitters to avoid. But I want to talk about some common deceptive ingredients infiltrating the movement. Some of them may sound harmless or truly natural until you dig deeper!
Now some of these ingredients may very well be "safer" than a conventional alternative, and that's great. It's when these ingredients are presented consumers as being natural, safe or required do I start to take issue. Many brands simply trust their suppliers/manufacturers with their ingredients and don't actually know how they are produced. This is not ok!
Main objective: Educate yourselves and ask questions!
We may know to avoid parabens (methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, E216, etc.) because of their estrogenic effect on the body.
There have been studies that show the molecular structure of the seemingly “natural” ingredient Japanese Honeysuckle is almost identical to that of a paraben and could mimic the role of parabens in the body.
The active compound, para-hydroxy benzoic acid, found in Japanese Honeysuckle is almost identical to the molecular structure of synthetically produced parabens, namely the presence of a “benzene ring” which bind to estrogen receptors and give “oestrogenic responses in human breast cancer cells.”
Some may claim use of a “safer” Japanese Honeysuckle extract from a trusted manufacturer, but regardless the integrity of the extraction process, this does not eliminate the presence of the benzene ring in the molecular structure.
Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE)
The process to create GSE is far from natural.
- It is first ground into a fine powder, dissolved in water and distilled to remove fiber and pectin.
- It is then spray dried at low temperatures forming a concentrated flavonoid powder.
- This powder is then dissolved in vegetable glycerin and heated under pressure along with ammonium chloride and ascorbic acid. The amount of ammonium chloride and ascorbic acid remaining in the finished product is 15-19% and 2.5-3.0% respectively.
- The mixture then undergoes catalytic conversion using natural catalysts, including hydrochloric acid and natural enzymes. There is no residue of hydrochloric acid after the reaction. The slurry is cooled, filtered and treated with UV light.
Additionally, this extraction process is isolating components from the Grapefruit Seed, which is another controversial process used in the natural beauty movement, which I will go into detail on next.
If a company insists their GSE is clean, I'd ask them what is used to produce the extract and if they have any testing to provide which confirms the absence of contamination.
Furthermore, it's an unfortunate fact that plants alone are not an effective preservative for products as they aren't powerful enough to kill microbes in products unless their shelf life is under 6 months. I wish it were this simple!
Isolates are created when an ingredient, such as an essential oil, is dissected in a manner to extract a particular constituent. While this may seem relatively harmless, as we saw above with GSE, it isn’t a natural process and there is the potential for cross contamination.
Due to potential allergies, the most common essential oil constituents you might see on a label can be, but not limited to:
Even if these constituents are not isolated from the essential oil, the European Union (EU) regulations require them to be labeled separately if they appear at high concentrations. This has been the source of much debate within the clean beauty industry because some brands registered with the EU do not list the constituents and are called "non-compliant" when in fact, their essential oil concentrations may not be high enough to warrant disclosure. On the other hand, brands who list the constituents (and are in "compliance") may very well be using a loophole to include an isolated constituent or synthetic and blame it on the labeling laws.
If one is using an isolated component, I would say it is unwise to believe it is just as safe as the original ingredient as a whole. Once a constituent is removed, it is no longer reacting to the surrounding components within its natural environment.
Some chemists believe it is not actually possible to isolate a pure compound like essential oils and that they are always synthetically duplicated. Whether or not this is true, regulations state that as long as the molecular structure is identical to the natural component, it can be labeled “natural” even if it is synthetic.
So basically, even with these labeling laws, we will not know if the ingredient been oxidized (may go or be rancid), is synthetic (and potentially cross-contaminated), isolated or in its original, non-isolated form.
I've gone down the rabbit hole looking for clear cut answers and the best I can find is this: EFEO/IFRA Guidelines on Essential Oils and The European Commission Regulations, like this amendment, which coincidentally enough instructs the ingredients d-limonene, dl-limonene, methyl-4, cyclohexene, mentha-1, 8-diene lemonene, p-methadiene, all to be listed simply as Limonene. It just goes to show how muddled this all can become.
So what do I do? I am extremely cautious of products listing essential oil constituents separately.
I rely on the smell, primarily, because I am highly sensitive to ingredients, I usually sense if an essential oil is synthetic; it’s almost like asking someone to do a smell test between fresh strawberries and a strawberry shortcake doll – my sense of smell is incredibly sensitive and my reaction is immediate, usually resulting in a headache. Does this apply to isolates? I can't be certain.
Secondly, I have to trust the brand owner. I need to know how close they are to the ingredient sourcing and manufacturing process.
When chemicals are produced using ethylene oxide, this creates an ethoxylated compound.
Ingredients processed with ethylene oxide can be contaminated by the bi-product 1,4 dioxane, both of which are carcinogenic
Ethoxylated compounds are harder to spot because they don’t say so on the label, so look out for ingredients such as (but not limited to): PEG aka Polyethylene Glycol (PEG-40, PEG-200 etc), Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium cocoyl isethionate, Cetereath-20, Polysorbate (-20, 40, 60, 80, etc.), Steareth (2, 4, 10, 20 etc.), Phenoxyethanol, Read more about it here.
Do you notice how most of those ingredients include the use of "eth"? I know I didn't list them all, but have a look at your shampoos, body washes, toothpastes and other things that lather and research how it is produced. Don't be distracted by phrases such as coconut derived, because in reality, it may have started out as coconut, but underwent several steps of chemical processing (much like Grapefruit Seed Extract) and the end result's molecular structure no longer resembles coconut at all.
Just because it was derived from nature doesn't make it natural.
If you see a potential ethoxylated ingredient on the label I'd encourage people to ask the brand. If they say the ingredient is not ethoxylated, ask them what they are using instead of ethylene oxide to create the ingredient. The answers should make sense to you, and if you don't feel satisfied, keep asking!
Phenoxyethanol (aka PhE, Euxyl K 400)
Phenoxyethanol is a popular preservative choice in many “natural” beauty products. This ingredient, similar to ethoxylated compounds, is also treated with ethyl oxide. Phenoxyethanol is a synthetic ingredient is linked to neurotoxicity, skin irritation and allergies and I would avoid it completely.
I hope this post wasn't too confusing. I hope it helps start a bigger conversation about what is being used in our clean beauty products. We don't want to be manipulated. Let's keep asking the questions! Any other ingredients or information to add?