Beyond Sulfates, Parabens, and Phthalates


I’ve had this idea in my head to write this article for quite some time, ever since I happened into a Sephora and struck up a conversation with a worker at the store. I was searching for a clean purple shampoo to help with the brassiness us blondes endure 🙂

The conversation with the (very nice) gentleman went something like this:

Me: Hi! I’m looking for a “clean” purple shampoo. Do you guys carry one?
Worker: Um, what do you mean by clean?
Me: You know, like “not harmful.”
Worker: Oh you mean like no sulfates, parabens and phthalates! Yep we have a couple of those!

He then led me to the area I had previously looked in and pulled a beautifully packaged purple shampoo off of the shelf. It was a lavender color (nice on the eyes) with leaves on the packaging suggesting a more natural product and loud and proud was the statement on the front… “no sulfates, parabens, and phthalates!

I then turned the package around to look at the ingredients and remarked first how I needed glasses to read the teeeeeeeny tiny print but managed to point out to him a few Beautycounter Never List ingredients.

Me: Oh! See this here? It has EDTA which is a binder and has potentially harmful side effects to our organs. Here’s PEG-100,  a thickener that often is exposed to known carcinogens, and most importantly and harmful is fragrance! A product with EDTA, PEG’s and certainly fragrance is definitely not a clean product.

I then went on to share with him, since he seemed intrigued about the dangers of fragrance. He asked me what kind of beauty industry I was in and I shared about Beautycounter’s important mission and work.

Had I listened to this worker’s recommendation I would have gone home with a completely dirty product. He went on to show me 3 more options and by the last one, he was looking at the label for some of our Never List ingredients. I left the store a proud advocate, and without any purple shampoo.

I realized that night, even more so, the importance of us being aware consumers and knowing what is lurking in our products beyond the buzz words that we find on the fronts of many “clean beauty” products at the drugstores. This post is not to say that clean beauty cannot be found at a brick and mortar store- it absolutely can. However, what I am saying is we cannot rely on companies to be 100% transparent and truthful with their ingredients and until there is an update to the current FDA regulations we must educate ourselves. This post should serve then as a quick guide on what to look for. First, let’s brush up on a few basics.

The Never List: At Beautycounter, we’ve committed to a health and safety standard that goes well beyond what is legally required in the United States. The Never List™ is made up of more than 1,500 questionable or harmful chemicals that we never use as ingredients in our products. This includes the over 1,400 chemicals banned or restricted in personal care products by the European Union, plus additional chemicals screened by Beautycounter and found to be of concern.

Greenwashing: Because of major loopholes in U.S. federal law, cosmetics brands are able to boldly make claims like “natural” and “non-toxic” without proper regulations, so most of these terms end up becoming meaningless. This is known as greenwashing. More on this topic and the 5 most commonly used “greenwashing” terms can be found here: Greenwashing

Okay so let’s talk about actual ingredients. Beautycounter provides a “pocket sized” Never List guide of the top offenders- they are found here in this image. I also have copies of this business card sized list and would be happy to send one your way to keep in your wallet. Another great source is both the Think Dirty app and the EWG app. Personally I love the EWG best as it’s more comprehensive and has its own verified seal, but both can be used together and provide a great framework for understanding what is in our products and their potential harm.

ac14d0b7e43011124a822b2e1a197405In this specific post, I am going to address 6 toxic chemicals to watch out for. First, there are those chemicals that we always see on the front of clean beauty products advertised as not included in the product: parabens, sulphates, and phthalates.

1. Parabens (methyl-, isobutyl-, propyl- and others)
A class of preservatives commonly used to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold. Parabens are endocrine (or hormone) disruptors, which may alter important hormone mechanisms in our bodies. Found in: shampoo, face cleanser, body wash, body lotion, foundation.

Parabens mimic estrogen by binding to estrogen receptors on cells. Research has shown that the perceived influx of estrogen beyond normal levels can in some cases trigger reactions such as increasing breast cell division and the growth of tumors.

2. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS and SLES)
SLS and SLES are surfactants that can cause skin irritation (of the eyes, skin and lungs) or trigger allergies. SLES is often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a byproduct of a petrochemical process called ethoxylation, which is used to process other chemicals in order to make them less harsh. Found in: shampoo, body wash, bubble bath.

The main use for SLS and SLES in products is to create lather, giving a stronger impression of cleaning power.

3. Phthalates (DBP, DEHP, DEP and others)
A class of plasticizing chemicals used to make products more pliable or to make fragrances stick to skin. Phthalates disrupt the endocrine system and may cause birth defects. Found in: synthetic fragrance, nail polish, hairspray, and plastic materials.

Let me type that first line again… A class of PLASTICIZING CHEMICALS used to make products more pliable or to make fragrances stick to skin. YUCK.

Not only are these plasticizing chemicals found in beauty products, they are also found in vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes (raincoats), garden hoses, inflatable toys, blood-storage containers, medical tubing, and some children’s toys. I don’t know about you, but I prefer the chemicals that make garden hoses plastic pliable not found in the products I put on my face and body and that of my kids as well.

4. Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA)
A chelating (binding) agent added to cosmetics to improve stability. May be toxic to organs. Found in: hair color, moisturizers.

EDTA can also be taken as a medication and most common side effects are abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, low blood pressure, skin problems, and fever. It is UNSAFE to use more than 3 grams of EDTA per day. Too much can cause kidney damage, dangerously low calcium levels, and death. (from Webmd).

5. Polyethylene glycol (PEG compounds)
PEGs are widely used in cosmetics as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture-carriers. Depending on manufacturing processes, PEGs may be contaminated with measurable amounts of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, which are both carcinogens. Found in: creams, sunscreen, shampoo.

6. Synthetic flavor or fragrance
An engineered scent or flavoring agent that may contain any combination of 3,000-plus stock chemical ingredients, including hormone disruptors and allergens. Fragrance formulas are protected under federal law’s classification of trade secrets and therefore can remain undisclosed. Found in: all types of cosmetics.

Fragrance tends to be one of the trickiest to navigate and therefor anything that has “fragrance” on the ingredient label, I steer clear of.

While in Sephora I was legitimately disappointed in the amount of products marketed in the clean beauty area and I also intend on doing a write up specifically on what to look for and what to stay away from when choosing skin care.

In the meantime, I hope this super quick list (easy to memorize!) will serve as a small cheat sheet on what to stay away from next time you find yourself in a brick and mortar beauty store!

Cheat Sheet:
1. Parabens
2. Sulfates
3. Phthalates (SLS/SLES)
5. PEG
6. Fragrance

As for my “clean” shampoo, I went with the gold star and none other than Rahua. Formulated with Rahua Oil found in the Amazon rainforest. It’s performance and safety are top rated. Learn more here.



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