Truths and Lies about Safe Cosmetics. No Bullshit.

Safe Cosmetics

My exploration of the world of cosmetics continues with some guidance from a certified dermatologist, a doctor of organic chemistry and doctor of medical science with years of experience in clinical testing and safety evaluation of cosmetics.

I guess Sweden is one of the most health-concerned countries in the world (at least in my experience), so you could just stop any passer-by on the street and ask them about 5:2 diet, parabens, sulfates, mineral oil and so on and most of them will have a strong opinion on the topic. Also, unlike, say in Russia, Swedish media doesn’t have too many breaking news or scandals to cover, so it seems to me that evening papers and magazines create their own and write first page articles with titles like: ”Chips Cause Cancer”, ”Mineral Powder Ruined Anna’s Skin”, ”Girls Are Poisoned by Make-up” (all real-life articles published by Aftonbladet). And it’s hard to avoid this social hysteria, despite the fact that I don’t read Swedish newspapers and don’t watch Swedish TV. All my friends and former colleagues seem to be pretty damn sure that we should use only all-natural-cosmetics-with-no-preservatives-perfumes-or-colorings. It sounds wise, but is it right?

Not so much!

Sweden is also one of the nerdiest countries when it comes to cosmetics. If someone would calculate the number of beauty bloggers per capita, Sweden would be in the top five, if not number one in the world. Last weekend a local beauty magazine Daisy Beauty organized a conference for bloggers and journalists in the industry to educate them on how the human body, chemistry and cosmetics work, and how they interact and benefit each other. I think this is an extremely noble thing to do, as by educating opinion makers, we are in the long run increasing the quality of information that reaches the masses, and I’m very grateful to Daisy Beauty’s Editor in Chief Kicki Norman for the chance to attend this event. It was truly an eye opening and mind-blowing experience for me, and as reports have it, for most of the other attendees too.

We had three speakers: President of the Swedish Esthetician Organization, a Doctor in Organic Chemistry and a Consultant in Clinical Testing and Cosmetics Safety Evaluation. Their common message to us was to keep calm, avoid the media frenzy and refresh school chemistry knowledge. Here are the most important facts we need to remember when we shop for beauty products:

1)   Everything around us is made of chemicals! Words ”natural” and “chemical” are not antonyms. The element’s qualities do not depend on its origin: whether it was extracted from nature or synthesized in a laboratory has nothing to do with them, – only the element’s structure affects its usefulness or harmfulness. To make this more clear: there are a lot of natural poisons found in plants and animals, as well as there are many industrially made pharmaceuticals that help to fight diseases and make our lives easier. Also, fruits that we consider healthy might contain a bigger number of different chemicals than, for example, a nail polish. Thus, “chemical-free” is just the most ridiculous thing cosmetics companies can put on their packaging.

Original Idea by

Original Idea by James Kennedy, Graphics by Aline Khlebnikova, Beauty Pie

2)   Everything is poisonous if you overdose. The most classic example is alcohol: it is a very common cause of death, but it doesn’t stop most of us from drinking a glass of wine or beer at dinner or a couple of drinks at a party. In Europe, the production of cosmetics is thoroughly researched and strictly regulated, so if you find your favourite beauty product in retail, it’s safe to use (it can of course cause a variety of allergic reactions, but so do almonds, peanuts, pineapples, kiwis, sun…). So be moderate, do not use cosmetics in any non-prescribed ways (even though sometimes you really wanna be creative and drink your anti-age capsules instead of applying them on your face) and test products for allergies before buying.

3)   Some ingredients can neutralize each other when used together. For example, sometimes we see extremely acidic elements on ingredient lists and start to panic, while most of the times there’s a strong base there too, which would react with the acid and result in a useful element. School chemistry 1.0: NaOH (base) + HCl (very strong acid) → NaCl (salt you use for cooking) + H2O (water). Generally, it’s important to remember that the results we get from one or another beauty product is not the work of a single ingredient, but rather the whole cocktail.

4)   A lot of cosmetic products need preservatives, and the notorious parabens are one of the safest and the most researched ones. What would you rather purchase: a water-based moisturizer with no preservatives and a risk that it will start grow tons of bacteria as soon as you unseal the packaging, or less trendy but ultimately safer cream containing methyl- or propylparaben?

5)   Do not fall victim to catchy marketing lines like: Sulfate-free shampoo or Paraben-free make-up remover. Question them! What is used instead of these ingredients to make your hair clean or to prevent your beauty products from smelling funky? Make conscious choices, based on your own knowledge, experience and common sense, or those of people and sources you trust.

What is your opinion on safe cosmetics? Which ingredients or products do you try to avoid? I can’t wait to discuss this issue with you in the comments.

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