Reading, let alone registering, what the ingredients on your skincare product labels mean can be nearly impossible if you haven’t studied dermatology, chemistry, or some related field. For commoners like me, we usually end up checking out a product by making sure it includes the ingredients we love and excludes the one or two we hate, and then adding to cart.
As for the long slew of letters clouding our vision and twisting our tongues? We often assume they’re bad, especially nowadays with all the hype around organic, natural skincare. I mean, if the name sounds unnatural, it’s most likely a harsh chemical cooked up in a lab somewhere, right? But we do our best to ignore their presence on the label because they are everywhere, and we just can’t seem to avoid them.
Are they really that evil anyway? Yes, no, and maybe so. Some are definitely harmful. Some are totally harmless — beneficial even! Others have no clear-cut answer but rather a lot of controversial information on the web. So should we believe the hype or the horror? Love ’em or leave ’em?
The web is a complicated mess of conflicting information when it comes to these unpronounceable ingredients, but here’s a quick guide that simplifies what these geeky names mean and breaks it down to just what you need to know. Ahead, your cheat sheet of the most common yet seriously unpronounceable skincare ingredients that pop up on the labels of many of our daily beauty products.
Butylene glycol is a chemical compound with four varieties. 1,3-butanediol is the most commonly used out of these and can be found in nearly every skincare and personal care aisle at the drugstore, as they’re used in a wide range of products from moisturizers to shaving creams and hair spray.
The colorless, organic alcohol is used in skincare products to help active ingredients penetrate more effectively into skin. It also decreases the viscosity of creams and other thicker formulations, which results in a more weightless, comfortable finish. As a popular solvent, butylene glycol also encourages other ingredients to dissolve in liquid, which makes for a more homogenous and smoother texture. Finally, butylene glycol is also used as a humectant that draws moisture from the atmosphere and delivers it to the skin to prevent dryness.
Generally, yes. It earned a low hazard green score of 1 from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), the FDA, and the World Health Organization also ranked it safe for topical use at the concentration level permitted in cosmetics.
However, butylene glycol can potentially irritate sensitive skin, especially around the eyes. Several studies have shown it can also possibly irritate nasal and respiratory passages if inhaled by way of facial mists and hair spray. There’s also the concern that over time, our daily exposure to the ubiquitous ingredient may have a negative impact on our skin and body.
But then again, most skincare experts don’t consider these effects to be serious problems to the majority, and even natural topical ingredients can irritate or inflame skin. So before you dismiss butylene glycol altogether because you have sensitive skin, it may be worthwhile to discuss with your dermatologist to discern whether it’s right for you.
A carbomer is a series of synthetic polymers made from acrylic acid. It comes in white, fluffy powder form and is commonly used in anti-aging skincare products, eye creams, hair gel, shampoo, and other gels or personal care products.
Carbomers work as thickening agents that can help regulate the viscosity and flow of formulations. They also help insoluble solids hold together in liquid mediums and help prevent oils and liquids from separating in emulsions. They can retain water and even grow up to a thousand times their normal volume when immersed in water.
Yes! The EWG gave it a low hazard (green) score of 1, and the CIR concluded carbomers are safe to use in cosmetic and personal care products with a low risk of phototoxicity, photo-contact allergenicity, and skin irritations — even at concentrations up to 100%.
Dipropylene glycol, not to be confused with propylene glycol (see propanediol below), is the more preferred ingredient of the two in the cosmetic industry, thanks to its high boiling point and low toxicity.
The odorless ingredient is widely used as a solvent, viscosity-decreasing agent, and as a fragrance in cosmetics. This clear liquid enhances the slip and texture of formulations and is used in an array of cosmetics and personal care goods like facial creams, makeup, hair dye, hair spray, and antiperspirant deodorant.
Mostly, yes. It turns out this glycol is all bark and very little bite. With a low hazard (green) score of 1 by the EWG, dipropylene glycol has also been assessed with low toxicity. The FDA even cleared it for use as an indirect food additive, if that helps allay any fears.
Yes, the ingredient has been found to be an active skin and eye area irritant, but because such low concentrations are used in most products (except deodorants, which can contain up to 50%), the risk of such side effects is not considered a concern. In fact, studies have shown that it’s minimally toxic and proposes a very low risk to human health.
Disodium EDTA is a type of salt, as you may have guessed, produced by a synthetic process in a lab. EDTA stands for ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid. Say what? Just know that disodium EDTA is a chelating agent, or a substance whose molecules bind to and deactivate metal ions, thereby preventing the deterioration of a given product.
This ingredient not only works as a preservative to extend shelf life, it also improves the foaming and cleaning powers in skincare solutions. When it attaches to metal ions, disodium EDTA prevents the metals (even the ones in tap water) from penetrating into the skin, scalp, or hair.
This mega multitasker is widely used in rinse-off personal care items like shampoos, hair dyes, and bath soaps, as well as moisturizers, lotions, and sunscreens.
Yes for the most part, but the jury’s still out. The EWG graded it as low hazard with a (green) score of 1, the FDA permits it to be utilized as a food preservative, and the CIR claimed it safe in personal care products. Tests have shown that the permissible standard concentration of disodium EDTA in cosmetics is so low that there is no real concern of penetration, irritation, or sensitization.
But it’s safe to consider that though disodium EDTA itself doesn’t seep well into skin, it actually helps other ingredients in the product do just that. This can be great if the formula contains beneficial ingredients, but as you can imagine, not so good if there are harmful ingredients that you wouldn’t want breaking into your skin barrier. So just be cautious if you see this hard worker in the ingredients list and make sure to check the other ingredients out.
This all-star crew of alcohols includes glycol, cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, and cetearyl alcohol and is different from regular alcohol or the typically man-made varieties derived from liquid petroleum. Also known as “wax” alcohols, these are usually extracted from natural fats and oils from sources like coconut and palm oil.
They’re packed with fatty acids that are good for skin, so the beauty industry loves to use these alcohols as emulsifiers to mix water and oils, which make for smooth moisturizers. Fatty alcohols are also used as naturally moisturizing emollients and thickening agents for rich, luxe creams.
Yes. Despite the temptation to judge them as the bad guys, fatty alcohols are not harmful for skin. With a low hazard (green) score of 1 by the EWG, this class of alcohols actually moisturizes and relieves dry skin.
However, some camps say sensitive skin types should be cautious since fatty alcohols have a high fatty acid content that can potentially irritate or clog pores. One study, for instance, indicated that sensitization to oleyl alcohol was “not rare” in the patients who had contact dermatitis induced by cosmetics or topical treatments.
Bottom line? These fatty alcohols are not to be confused for their notorious drying counterparts. However, if you have sensitive skin or dermatitis, you should be mindful of using these guys, as you should with any ingredient.
Glycerin is a popular humectant that attracts water to itself. Our skin already has this replenishing, restoring ingredient, which helps skin stay healthy and hydrated. Glycerin can be found in all natural animal- or plant-derived fats, but can be both naturally and synthetically derived.
The colorless, odorless liquid pulls water from the environment and deposits it on the surface layer of skin. Studies show this helps improve the hydration of the outermost layer, protects skin against irritants, speeds up the repair and recovery process, and soothes inflammation.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see why glycerin is such a popular ingredient in soaps, lotions, creams, toothpastes, and other skin and hair care products. Its sweet taste also makes it a common ingredient in foods.
Yes, thankfully. The EWG gave it a low hazard (green) score of 2. Plus, not only does glycerin moisturize, it can even alleviate irritations like minor itching and burns.
Just be careful not to use the synthetic form of glycerin manufactured from petroleum byproducts. This can generally be avoided by turning to brands you trust or selecting products formulated with organic or all-natural ingredients. Also, beware of using the 100% pure form of glycerin, also known as glycerol, as it can end up dehydrating the deeper layers of the skin by attracting moisture up towards the surface.
In short, phenoxyethanol is a chemical preservative that manufacturers started to use as an alternative to parabens when the latter started receiving bad press. This glycol ether is an organic chemical compound found in chicory and green tea, but for cosmetic and pharmaceutical use it’s actually manufactured synthetically in a lab.
The colorless, oily liquid possesses aromatic properties that can improve a product’s scent and can counter yeast, bacteria, and mold growth; hence, its use as a preservative and stabilizer in bottled beauty products such as perfumes, sunscreens, and moisturizers.
Opinions vary — wildly. The EWG gave it a moderate hazard (orange) score of 4, and oral and topical exposure to this controversial ingredient has been linked to all sorts of adverse reactions ranging from eczema to nervous system dysfunction.
This calls for a bit more context. The Material Safety Data Sheet reports phenoxyethanol to be harmful (even reproductively) if swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin at 100% concentrations. The level used in cosmetics is significantly lower, 0.5% to 1%. So the glaring question is whether this lower dosage makes phenoxyethanol safe.
The FDA stated that the ingestion of phenoxyethanol can be toxic and harmful for infants and those already in poor health conditions. Due to these possible dangers, the concentration of this ingredient in any product, including cosmetic, should not exceed 1% of the total contents. The FDA also issued a warning that breastfeeding mothers should also avoid products containing this chemical just in case it’s accidentally transmitted to the baby.
Bottom line, if you are allergic, have poor health, or are breastfeeding, play it safe and avoid products that contain phenoxyethanol. Better safe than sorry.
Propanediol is a glycol that can be naturally derived from corn or synthetically manufactured. It can be found in two forms, 1,2-propanediol (aka propylene glycol) and 1,3-propanediol, although propanediol has come to be synonymous with the latter form. They differ in molecular structure but both hydrate, soften skin, and boost other ingredients’ absorption capabilities.
As a skin conditioning agent, humectant, fragrance, solvent, and viscosity-reducing agent, propylene glycol (the 1,2- version) is used in moisturizers, foundations, mascaras, shampoos, and conditioners.
Similarly, 1,3-propanediol is mainly used as a solvent and viscosity-decreasing agent in cosmetics.
The EWG credited propanediol with a low hazard (green) score of 1, but it seems the difference in molecular structure makes a difference in safety, too.
Propylene glycol is typically synthetically made and more associated with skin irritations and dermatitis. However, the FDA has approved it for use in cosmetics at low concentrations that are believed to render the possibility of negative side effects negligible.
On the other hand, 1,3-propanediol is mainly derived from the fermentation of corn sugar and is considered to be generally safe. While the ingredient is known as a skin and eye irritant, it poses no significant health risks.
There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer out there, but all things considered, 1,3-propanediol seems to be the “safer,” more marketable option if we had to choose. But as always, when it comes to skincare, playing it safe is better than paying for it later, so consult with your dermatologist if you have sensitive skin.
1,2-hexanediol is a synthetic preservative and moisture-binding humectant. As a solvent, the clear liquid ingredient also helps to dissolve other substances.
It’s popularly used in personal and skincare products as an emollient, humectant, and moisture-boosting agent.
The CIR concluded the ingredient was safe as used in cosmetic and personal care products, as did the EWG with a low hazard (green) score of 1.
Although there are no official safety warnings for 1,2-hexanediol, it has been known to potentially cause dermatitis and irritations especially around the eyes. Nevertheless, because it is highly effective as a cosmetic ingredient, only low concentrations are needed, which decreases the likelihood of irritations and sensitivities.
PEG-100 is a water-soluble ester made either by combining natural oils with stearic acid or by combining Oxirane (ethylene oxide) and fatty acids.
It’s often used as a moisturizing agent that fortifies skin’s natural barrier and helps prevent moisture loss. This in turn makes skin feel softer. PEG-100 is also used as an emulsifier to prevent the separation of oil and water molecules, which helps preserve the desired consistency and texture of the product. It can also serve as a surfactant, increasing the ability of skin’s surface oil to blend with water and be easily washed away. Hence, its widespread use in creams, facial cleansers, and shampoos.
Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer for this one either. EWG assessed it as a moderate hazard (orange) score of 3. Despite its many benefits, PEG-100 has been linked to toxicity buildup in the body, reproductive health issues, and even cancer.
However, when applied topically, PEG-100 cannot penetrate the deeper layers of the skin, so it does not pose significant dangers when properly formulated for cosmetic and skincare purposes. There is concern, though, over this ingredient being applied to broken or damaged skin (i.e. dry, cracking skin or even acne zones), whereby the natural barrier of skin is compromised, creating an open pathway for PEG-100 to penetrate and develop toxicity in the organs.
Because of the conflicting opinions even amongst experts, it’s best to discuss with your dermatologist whether this ingredient would benefit your skin.
It’s pretty clear that there’s just no clear-cut answer to these tricky ingredients. Whether they’re good or bad can depend on various factors like how they’re made, how much of it is in the formula, what other ingredients accompany them, and so on.
But that shouldn’t stop us from learning as much as we can so we can make informed decisions that won’t harm the health of our skin and body.
Are there any other unpronounceable skincare ingredients that you’re curious about? Any controversial ingredients that you decided you’re OK with or that you’d never use? Let us know in the comments!