Here’s how to read the labels on your beauty products
Labels like ‘Clean’ and ‘Safe’ sound good. But dermatologist and author Dr Anjali Mahto has taken to Instagram to explain that they’re largely unfounded. There is no legal definition (or list) of what is a clean or safe ingredient or formulation. Similarly, ‘No nasties’ means nothing. ‘Honest ingredients’ is a gimmick (a coconut can’t lie or cheat you).
Cross-check these popular terms
There’s nothing wrong with ‘Natural’, right? Except that there’s no evidence that ingredients are safer, more effective or more environmentally responsible just because they come from the earth. Natural lavender oil, for instance, triggers more allergies than the synthetic version.
Lab-formulated sunscreen has consistently proven to prevent skin cancer better. And by all means, choose ‘Organic’ if you’re going natural. Just check how much of it is in the jar, it’s often around 2%; enough to raise the price, not enough to make a difference.
If a product is ‘Non-toxic’, it only means that stuff declared harmful — lead acetate, coal tar, formaldehyde and substances that cause hormone disruptions and cancer — are not present. In the US, 30 substances are banned in cosmetics; in Europe, that figure is over 1,300. Indian regulations are lax. Fairness creams can contain mercury; lipsticks, high levels of nickel and the heavy metal, chromium. Pick a brand that lists all its ingredients on its labels or its website.
Ignore useless catchphrases
Do you pay more for a ‘Dermatologically tested’ cream? It simply means that skin doctors examined it, as they do every cream licensed to be sold. It’s not necessarily safer than a similar cream without that tag. Similarly, ‘Hypoallergenic’ only means that it contains none of the most common irritants. There is no comprehensive list.
Do you look for a ‘Cruelty Free’ label on moisturiser or lip balm before you buy? Save yourself the hassle. India banned animal testing for cosmetics in 2013. Everything on the beauty shelf, local or imported, is cruelty-free by default.
Watch out for the worst offenders
Essential oils, though natural, have been shown to trigger allergies over long-term use. Alcohols dry out the skin, forcing you to moisturise more. Silicones are cheap, make skin look smooth but clog pores. Triclosan kills germs and fungus but weakens immune systems. Sulphates, which produce lather, strip skin of its protective oils. Chemical sunscreens contribute to coral reef damage when you wear it and swim in the sea. If a brand is cutting any of these out, they’ll advertise it loud and clear.
Laugh away the trendy terms
In her podcast On Beauty, British journalist Sali Hughes advises you to steer clear of the term ‘Chemical free’. Why? All ingredients, from nature or a lab (even water or mother’s milk) are ultimately chemical compounds. Sure, some chemicals are harmful. But a brand that outright lies is suspicious. As for ‘Gluten free’, unless you are allergic to gluten and were planning to drink your shampoo, disregard.
Make up your mind about parabens
Parabens kill fungus and bacteria. Without them, your beauty goods would need refrigeration and still go bad in a week. But a 2004 study showed that tumours in 20 breast cancer patients contained traces of cosmetic parabens. The study could not show that the parabens had caused the cancer, and was discredited. But the fear has stuck. You can choose paraben-free beauty. But they’re also in deodorants, toothpastes and 90% of grocery items.
With inputs by Dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto and Don’t Go To The Cosmetics Counter Without Me by Paula Begoun