Finding the right products to suit our individual requirements isn’t always easy, but if part of your self-care pledge this summer includes spending a little extra time taking care of your complexion, learning which ingredients to avoid and which to include in your skincare routine can make all the difference.
My skin has always been problematic. Whilst school friends enjoyed dewy, flawless complexions, I battled teenage acne. My mum would buy me spot cleansers and creams, which rarely seemed to make much of a difference. Despite the pimples, my skin never really felt greasy. In fact, if anything, it was more on the dry and sensitive side. I was on a constant merry-go-round of products tailored for combination skin and brittle, damaged hair.
By my early twenties, I’d resorted to bulk ordering vast quantities of prescription products for my skincare routine. Whilst friends at uni cooed over the nourishing benefits of high street hair masks, there I was massaging in medically prescribed coal tar shampoo to keep my scalp psoriasis at bay. My bath and shower options centred mostly around paraffin based emollients, whilst my body lotion came in gigantic 500g tubs with pump action lids. I always ordered unscented – although anyone who has used aqueous creams regularly, will be familiar with the smell. It’s difficult to describe, a sort of plain, greasy scent, slightly sweet like emulsion paint.
At first glance, these bland, fragrance- free creams seem rather innocuous. Specifically designed for those of us with skin conditions, you’d assume they’d be the safest thing to apply as part of our skincare routine. It’s only years later, and with a better understanding of ingredients, that I have learned many of them should be used sparingly and others preferably avoided at all costs.
When it comes to looking at the products in your skincare routine, it’s important to know that cheap, thick moisturisers and balms share similar properties. Petrochemical ingredients feature regularly, rendering them ’occlusive’. This means they form a barrier over the skin’s surface, trapping moisture in the top layer, giving us short term relief from dryness. Whilst initially this hit of hydration feels really good, long-term skin function can often be disrupted, causing existing conditions to worsen over time. The UK government notes that aqueous creams may ‘cause skin irritation’, whilst a study conducted by scientists at Bath University reported thinning of the skin and increased water depletion following the application of aqueous emollients.
Another significant health concern with petroleum products is their ability to generate 1,4-dioxane – a substance known to potentially contribute to some cancers. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that an alarming 22% of all conventional personal care products contain unsafe levels of 1,4-dioxane. Paraffin wax, paraffinum liquidum, mineral oil, toluene, and benzene are all petroleum -derived ingredients to look out for in your skincare routine. They seal off the skin from air, water and anything else getting in or out. If you have very dry or sensitive skin, it’s especially important to avoid them.
Leave out the Lanolin
Lanolin is another cheap ingredient used in cosmetic creams to lock in moisture. It’s often marketed towards healing eczema, burns, scrapes, psoriasis and extremely dry skin. Yellow and greasy in appearance, it’s secreted by sheep through the skin to condition their wool. Just like petrochemicals, lanolin creates a barrier upsetting the already compromised balance of our skins natural oils and blocks pores so that our skin can’t breathe – not a great addition to a skincare routine. Incidence of lanolin intolerance are rapidly increasing. A recent allergy study of over one thousand children with eczema found that 66% of them reacted to lanolin.
Whilst the importance of cosmetics seems logical for those of us with sensitive skin, what we massage into our hair should be considered equally significant. A shampoo not only cleans the scalp and hair as its primary function, it also serves to condition and nourish, and acts as an adjunct in the management of various scalp disorders.
Amongst the ingredients that go into the making of a shampoo are detergents, conditioners, thickeners, pH adjusters, preservatives and additives. Don’t forget, shampoo doesn’t just get massaged into the scalp, it comes into close contact with the palms of our hands and the delicate skin around our eyes as well, so understanding the impact of these ingredients is vital.
Parabens and Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) are commonly highlighted as two haircare ingredients we should avoid. Major high street brands have cottoned on to our universal dislike of them and often market their products as ‘paraben- and SLS- free’. But what are they and why are they a problem?
Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS)
Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) is a chemical that’s commonly used in soaps, shampoos and shower gels. Its purpose is to trap oil-based dirt so that it can be rinsed away with water. As an effective foaming agent, it’s also the stuff that helps shower products lather. SLS is an incredibly harsh compound that makes hair strands swell up, and causes the outer cuticle layer to open. Once this happens, natural moisturisers seep out. This is an issue for everyone, but can be especially problematic for those of us with dry / brittle hair, a naturally curly texture, colour-treated or chemically-processed hair, or for anyone suffering from skin conditions such as eczema, dermatitis or psoriasis.
Parabens are preservatives that have been used not just in shampoos, but also makeup, deodorants, lotions, lipsticks, scrubs, and more. Parabens are thought to disrupt hormone function by mimicking oestrogen. A rise in oestrogen can trigger an increase in breast cell division and growth of tumours, which is why parabens have been linked to breast cancer and reproductive issues. Parabens can also sensitise the skin, causing allergic reactions.
Here are my top tips when shopping for skin and hair care
- Look out for beauty ranges free from petrochemicals, parabens and SLS
- Shop at health and wellbeing stores that support natural brands and clear labelling
- Be prepared to invest a little more in the products you purchase. Premium ingredients are more expensive, but you will often find yourself needing less of the product to soothe, cleanse or hydrate
- Check ingredients for listed allergens. Even natural essential oils such as lavender can trigger an allergic response in sensitive skin
- Always patch test new products on the inside of your elbow or wrist to check for sensitivities
Switching to a Natural Skincare Routine
When the correlation between how we nourish ourselves internally and the health of our skin finally clicked for me six years ago, I also made changes to my external skincare regime. Whilst the market is awash with cheap, synthetic ingredients, there are equally some amazing botanicals with scientifically proven benefits.
Rather than preventing my skin from breathing through applying thick, greasy emollients, I began to look into simple essential oils and plant-based ingredients that would complement my skin’s pH, natural oil balance and support healing. I began by working with a local aromatherapist to tailor a selection of natural skincare. Harnessing the best of what plants have to offer requires intrinsic understanding of their complex molecular makeup and I eventually collaborated with the UK’s leading scientists to work on my range.
I wanted my skincare products to offer more than just another natural wellbeing line. Yes, sustainable packaging and cruelty free, vegan formulas were important, but my mission was to go over and above by creating topicals which addressed the very real struggles I’d experienced in battling with my own skin. Something to stop the incessant itch, something to soothe a flaky scalp, something to minimise the scarring caused by skin disease and a list of quality ingredients that would not only create minimal disruption for our skin’s natural oil balance, but equally support the healing process.
I didn’t want my creams to smell bad, or leave skin feeling greasy. I’d become so fed up over the years of boil-washing my bedsheets to try to rinse the oil out, it felt important to create something light, soothing and effective.