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Avoiding Mystery Chemicals in Your Personal Care Products

Updated: Jun 18


It’s not easy to ferret out the truth about ingredients used in consumer products. Even when you’re buying healthy products, which appear to be clean, based on the information you get on the label, it’s possible that that information is misleading at best, or worse, flat-out untrue.


At the same time, consumers are demanding less toxicity in the products they buy and companies know that if they don’t respond, their customers will defect.

So where does that leave us?


Well, it leaves the manufacturers in a bit of a pickle because they still need to produce shelf-stable products. But, truly natural ingredients can’t provide that stability, at least not on any kind of scale, and especially, if there is water in the product, or a combination of oil and water. Because without a chemical intervention, fungus and bacteria will grow in moisture, and oil and water will separate.


That’s the nature of natural, and it is not suddenly going to change to accommodate consumer demand or industry profit margins. It’s a lot cheaper to dilute something with water and then throw in some chemicals to force stability and prevent microbial growth, or to reproduce natural flavors and colors in the lab synthetically, than it is to take the risks associated with using all-natural ingredients. That’s because, actual, unadulterated natural ingredients melt, freeze, rot, discolor, fade, dehydrate, separate, go rancid, etc… On top of which, they are also breeding grounds for microbial growth. So companies rely on fillers (water being the most used and the cheapest), additives and chemicals to drive costs and liability down, and profits up.


Therefore, going all natural (in the truest, most literal sense of the word) takes a huge commitment and a lot of patience and flexibility, which is a luxury companies under pressure to turn profits while delivering affordable products just don’t have. So, they need to employ a new strategy, which is really an old strategy, regurgitated. It’s as simple as it is deceptive: find new words for the same old things.

When it comes to food, we know that truly natural (generally speaking and excluding things like pasta) isn’t typically something that can be boxed to sit on a shelf for months, if not years. But the industry has tried, and with great success, to use marketing jargon to make us think that it can.


Joanna Blythman is an author who went undercover in a food processing plant in the UK, and has written extensively about the packaged food industry. Her latest book, Swallow This, talks about not just the secrecy manufacturers employ, but also, about how they simply change the names of the ingredients that consumers begin to scrutinize to read more friendly. That’s because, the process of manufacturing food has not changed, and probably never will. So, they need ingredients/chemicals and processes that accomplish the same goal: make fake food seem real.


The cosmetic and personal care industry is part of the same system, which operates the same way. It’s called fluff, otherwise known as spin, otherwise known as marketing. In essence, make something sound better than it is by using words that are appealing and pleasing, while leaving out anything that may indicate a truth that would cause customers to start questioning the impact on their health. Or worse, start Googling.

So how are we supposed to keep this all straight? It should seem so easy and straightforward. And to some extent it is, but it depends on how much of a purist you are. In our world, when we make our products, natural really does mean natural; and we believe that you should be able to look at a list of ingredients (that have not been manipulated) and understand what they are. That is our baseline. Beyond that, you can follow these simple rules to help you at least determine if the claims labels make are even within the realm of possibility.

  • Products that are made 100% with butters, balms and oils can be made without preservatives, and other chemicals. The only thing is that they do spoil over time. (But of course they do. They are natural. That’s what nature does.) The solution is just to use it up in a reasonable amount of time.

  • The first thing I do when looking at a product for myself is flip it over and read the back label. (Front labels are useless and meaningless.) If I see water, (it’s usually listed as the first ingredient) I don’t believe an all-natural claim. Or, I don't want the product if it is truly all-natural because all kinds of bacteria and fungus will grow in the presence of that moisture.

  • If you have all dry ingredients like powders, petals, salts, etc… you don’t need preservatives, though you still have to be careful with water getting in. For many dry ingredients, if left sitting in moisture, creepy-crawlies can grow in those too.

  • Water and oil together require chemical intervention because without it, they will separate. So unless you have to “shake well before use,” there has to be something in there to create a consistent formula that stays together. They are called emulsifiers.

  • Super suds are also a sign that the lather in your bath gel, shampoo, body wash, etc…, is getting a chemical boost. They are called bubble/foam boosters, or surfactants, known to disrupt the body's natural physiological functions. Surfactants are toxic, can be absorbed through the skin and accumulate in the body causing damage to the liver. They can also cause other problems like cancer and disrupting the development of an embryo/fetus.

If this concerns you, your best bet is to pick up some Castille soap. It comes in bars and liquid. It is straight up soap that makes a perfectly legit lather.

If you are like me, and care about all the mystery ingredients out there, and don’t want them going into your body via your cosmetics/personal care products, you can apply your own set of rules to overcome the rules of manufacturing, because often, they are really shady. It’s easy: follow the logical behavior of nature rather than words on a label. You can read more about how labeling works here, in my article about the trouble Goop has encountered, legal and otherwise.


So, here’s how you can put a label, and the product it represents, to the test…

* Look for products without water because at least you know it can be done without a preservative.

* Look for products that need to be shaken because at least you know it's possible that there is not an emulsifier being used.

* Look for products that are in single serve packs. The one-and-done delivery eliminates the risk of contamination, and then in turn, the need for a preservative.

* Look for small batches. These are also most likely small-to-medium sized companies. These are also typically products that have shorter expiration dates.

* Look for products that need to be refrigerated. As with food, the refrigeration acts as a preservative. The most natural one money can buy!


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You may also like our post, The Toxins in Your Toiletries.


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