What a chemical engineer told me
I had a conversation with a highly educated chemical engineer and it was too fascinating to not share with you. Our conversation revolved around the chemicals found in skincare and which ones we want to do our best to avoid. Our skin is our largest organ and absorbs a crazy amount of what we put on it. Sucks it right into our bloodstream and either helps or antagonizes our hormones. So…what we put on our skin impacts our overall health and moods.
Michelle worked 10 years in the chemical industry in places like oil refineries, rubber plants, and plastics manufacturers. She also helped design a plant that makes solar panels. Cool! The second half of her career as a chemical engineer, was in process safety, which means they were doing everything they could to make sure that people and the environment weren't exposed to harmful chemicals. That ended up being her love in chemical engineering. Here’s what Michelle shared about chemicals in skincare products…
It can be pretty dizzying to read a product label. Half the words look like a mix of three languages, who even begins knows what they mean?
Ironically, some of those foreign words can cause more harm than good for our skin. Even as a chemical engineer, and someone who loves chemistry, it was hard for me to decipher and to know what to look for. And it took me a long time. Reading labels can be really overwhelming and even kinda scary. It’s not something that you suddenly become an expert on. It's a journey. I always suggest just choosing maybe one or two of these chemicals or one type of product to switch out. Let overwhelm take a hike.
8 Top Chemicals to Avoid:
- The main category of chemicals we want to avoid are petroleum products. These come from fossil fuels, basically from the same place as the gas in our car comes from. Look for petrochemicals and hydrocarbons (any super long word most likely indicates a hydrocarbon). These contain contaminants that can be detrimental to our health and beauty (not to mention it’s always a good idea to lessen our dependence on non-sustainable fossil fuels!)
- Phthalates are an ingredient that is used because it’s really sticky so it allows smells to stick to our clothing and whatever else it’s added to. This ingredient is an endocrine disruptor, which means they screw up our hormones. As women, our hormonal system is incredibly delicate and throwing anything into the mix can really cause disruption. This shows up on our skin as acne, premature aging, and rashes. This is often a hidden ingredient included under the term ‘fragrance’. So if you don't see phthalates listed on a bottle, but you see fragrance, then you probably want to avoid it. Unless it specifically says the fragrance is from essential oils.
- Ethanol can be used in cosmetics as a solvent to help mix chemicals that wouldn’t otherwise blend together. It’s another one of those ingredients we put into our cars.
- The next ones are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) which are used as foaming agents. Just a side note: SLS contains a known carcinogen (1,4-dioxane) as a result of the manufacturing processes, but SLES does not. Many companies are beginning to label their products SLS-free. Both of these chemicals are irritating to the skin. If you really struggle with acne or rashes, I recommend using products that are SLS-free.
- Petroleum jelly comes from an oil refinery and many include contaminant byproducts. It can actually make dry skin worse in the long run. The better option is a natural moisturizer such as shea butter or beeswax.
- Mineral oil is a sensitizer, meaning it weakens our immune system and with repeated use you can develop an allergic reaction to it.
- Parabens (many products are starting to state paraben-free). It’s a cheap preservative used in cosmetics. Manufacturers like it since it increases shelf life with a high profit margin. Parabens are sensitizers and endocrine disruptors. So it’ll weaken your immune defenses while causing your hormones to go out of whack. Big no.don’t.want.that.
- Another one of those like crazy chemical words, phenoxyethanol, is a preservative. It can be really sneaky and is often used in even pretty natural looking products. The problem is that it’s a skin irritant. Which, hello, why would people put a skin irritant in a lotion that’s supposed to make your skin beautiful? I guess because it’s a cheap way to increase shelf life.
So you may be wondering why in the world are our safety agencies allowing ingredients that are harmful into our skincare products? The problem with safety studies is that they look at one ingredient at a time in low doses and decide based on that if it’s considered generally safe (the ‘GRAS’ measurement used in cosmetics). They don’t look at the product as a whole with everything in it and how it interacts with our bodies. Let alone everything else we are in contact with each day. It’s pretty tough to avoid all chemicals. After all, we have to live our lives somehow.
Hey, I’m not saying that we should all get panicky and go house-hunting for a cave in some mountain far away.
Simply lessening our chemical intake in ways that we’re able to, will help our bodies thank us. The best bet for our health and beauty is to use natural products with simple ingredients; such as, beeswax, shea butter, cocoa butter, almond oil, jojoba oil, olive oil, essential oils . Look for companies who are honest about their ingredients. It may take trial and error to find skincare that works well for you, since we’re all different. A good source to look up specific products or individual ingredients is the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org/skindeep). Just search whatever product you’d like to learn more about to identify the chemical load (note: Not all skincare products are listed on EWG. Many small handcrafted businesses are not listed.)
The more we can lessen our chemical load, the better off we are.
Michelle Beckner is a Chemical Engineer and a certified nutrition coach who has breastfed three babies with food sensitivities. Michelle lives in the Rocky Mountains where she loves to explore the woods and drink all the tea. She has helped hundreds of moms and babies survive and thrive on elimination diets while resolving symptoms such as eczema and GI issues. You can find her at https://courses.mlbfamilywellness.com/.