How To Actually Decode Your Skin Care Labels: 8 Ingredients To Watch

mbg Associate Editor By Jamie Schneider
mbg Associate Editor
Jamie Schneider is the Associate Editor at mindbodygreen, covering beauty and health. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.
Woman Applying Lotion

How well do you know your beauty labels? You may steer clear from a few noteworthy flags (parabens, phthalates, and the like), but the beauty world is so vast and complex—not to mention, we're learning right along with the research. It can be tough to keep up, which is why we had our beauty director, Alexandra Engler, help break it down on the mindbodygreen podcast. (She'll also chat more about it on our new beauty podcast, Clean Beauty School.)

Of course, you can always seek out clean beauty retailers that set strict, high standards—if reading labels is just simply not your thing, most of the time you can trust that each brand they carry adheres to their stringent guidelines. But not everybody has access to these retailers, which means you might have to peer at inky lists yourself (plus, it's always a good idea to stay well-informed, no?). 

Ahead, Engler walks through a few beauty ingredients to have on your radar. Soak in the info, and feel free to refer back anytime you need a refresher—and we'll be sure to update alongside new research.

1. Cyclic silicones

Silicones are tricky. Technically, silicones are not inherently bad. Linear cyclical silicones, like dimethicones or your MFA codes, are not dangerous to human health or the environment.

However, some brands stay away from them altogether because they don't really have a health-forward standpoint point—in skin care, they make lotions feel nice and silky; in hair care, they provide a superficial coating around the strand and make it feel smooth and shiny. But they don't provide nutrients or moisture, and they tend to stick on hair and skin.

"So it changes user behavior in a really interesting way," notes Engler. "If you are using a hair cream that has a dimethicone in it, it doesn't rinse out of the hair all that easy, and then you have to be super aggressive when you're washing your hair." Same goes for skin: "If you're using a face cream that has one of these silicones, you're going to have to be kind of aggressive to get it off, or it's not all going to come off, and then it might clog pores," Engler adds. We digress. 

However! There is a class of nonlinear silicones, called cyclic silicones, that do actually build up in our waterways. Some examples are cyclotetrasiloxane (D4), cyclopentasiloxane (D5), cyclohexasiloxane (D6), and cyclomethicone. The more you wash and style with these silicones, the more they bioaccumulate in our water supply when they swirl down the drain. Read up on silicones here.

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2. Formaldehyde releasers

Most clean beauty fans know that formaldehyde is a huge red flag. But did you know there is a category of ingredients that release formaldehyde when they break down? "These are often found in a lot of hair strengtheners and nail strengtheners," says Engler, and they appear as bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, and quaternium-15 on the label. 

3. PEGs

Next, we have PEGs (or polyethylene glycols). These are petroleum-derived products, and they're typically used as emulsifiers and thickeners. "They can be super, super irritating to the skin," says Engler. "They can be quite disruptive; they can cause allergies; they can cause sensitivities." 

But PEGs are interesting—they used to be only petroleum-derived (and contribute to the host of skin issues noted above), but now formulators have found a way to create the structure from botanicals. While relatively new, these aren't as irritating as their petroleum counterparts.

Take propylene glycol, for example: When derived from petroleum, it can be incredibly harsh on the skin (it was even selected as the American Contact Dermatitis Society's "Allergen of the Year" in 2018); however, plant-derived versions do exist (converted from glycerin rather than petroleum), and these have not been found to be as sensitizing.

But just because you see propylene glycol on a clean beauty label doesn't mean it's automatically plant-based. "If it is not indicated that it is plant-based, you can safely assume that it is petroleum-based," Engler explains. "But if the brand has noted that it is plant-based, it's safe." 

4. A few natural ingredients to keep in mind.

At mindbodygreen, "clean" beauty is so much more than how your skin reacts to a certain product. Engler puts it perfectly: "When we talk about clean, we're talking about safe beauty. We're talking about beauty that is not going to harm you. It is not going to be agitating to your skin. It is not going to harm the environment around you. It is not going to harm the environment when it goes back into the environment, and it is not going to harm the environment when it is taken out of the environment. You have to think about all of those things that go into it." 

That said, there are a few natural ingredients to keep in mind that have a history of not-so-stellar harvesting practices. Below, a few examples:

  • Palm oil: Palm oil is a popular ingredient in many shampoos and soaps, but it's "connected to deforestation in a pretty major way," says Engler. Now, it is possible for brands to source responsibly produced palm oil, but you might want to do some extra research. 
  • Mica: Mica is a shimmery mineral that's primarily used in makeup to give it that highlighter-esque glow. The problem is, it's typically sourced in socially and economically challenged regions where there's risk of poor work conditions, inadequate pay, and child labor. Many brands have joined the Responsible Mica Initiative (RMI) to combat this issue, and some have even started to use synthetic, lab-made mica. If you see it on a label, though, you might want to look further into the brand's supply chain.
  • Bakuchiol: Bakuchiol is a natural ingredient beloved by many, as it has similar activity to retinol. But, says Engler, "It's actually an endangered plant. Now, there are some brands that have done a really good job of harvesting it in a sustainable way, but you really do need to keep an eye out for it."
  • Sandalwood essential oil: It's a similar story with sandalwood—especially Indian sandalwood, which is endangered. "You can get away with using an Australian sandalwood or even a South American sandalwood, but if you're seeing sandalwood essential oil, it can be hard to trace back where that comes from," says Engler. 
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The takeaway. 

This list scratches the surface, but it's a solid place to start. As Engler notes, "I could go on, but I think we'll leave it at that."

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