Skincare: four ingredients you should avoid, and is organic the way to go?
After a recent ban on some South Korean beauty products for containing excessive heavy metal, cosmetics and make-up marketed as natural and organic may appear safer alternatives, but they cost more
The number of “natural” beauty brands has exploded in recent years as more consumers look for alternative skincare and make-up products. But what are the benefits of organic cosmetics and why should people choose them?
Before making the switch, we checked some non-organic daily skincare products with Chris Yiu Ho-ching, co-founder of Beautysaur Organics, a Hong Kong retailer.
The product labels list key ingredients in order, says Yiu. So if the first ingredient on the list is “aqua” – as in our HK$500 (US$64) brightening solution – the chances are that, like us, most of your money was spent buying water.
If the recent discovery of unsafe levels of a heavy metal in South Korean beauty and make-up products does not scare you, these common ingredients should.
Also present in our brightening solution is alcohol denat, which, along with methanol and isopropyl alcohol, is a common type of alcohol used in toners and cream. Its volatility gives the formula a quick-drying finish and can promote the skin’s absorption of other ingredients.
But that is only the short-term effect. Alcohol strips the skin of its natural sebum, a protective barrier, weakening the skin and can cause irritation.
Four out of five of our products contained fragrances, which are best avoided, Yiu says. Most countries do not require companies to reveal the formula of the perfume employed, but allergens have been found in fragrances, especially synthetic ones. The most popular include linalool and citronellol, which are known for sensitising the skin.
K-beauty heavy metal scare: 13 products recalled over excess antimony levels, including some sold in Hong Kong
3. Retinol/Retinoic acid
Many anti-ageing products contain retinol, a form of vitamin A used to treat wrinkles. Online reviews claim it can do wonders, but there is a reason most labels advise customers to apply such products only at night – the compound is very unstable when exposed to light. Research has shown retinol is photocarcinogenic, meaning it becomes cancerous when exposed to light.
When US National Institutes of Health researchers applied cream with retinoic acid to hairless mice they found that it increased the incidence of skin tumours, whether or not it was applied under synthetic solar light.
4. Benzoyl peroxide
This chemical is present in many acne treatments because of its antiseptic properties. While it kills bacteria, it also dries the skin and causes it to peel. When applied regularly for a long time, it can be damaging, as you’re essentially over-exfoliating the skin.
So are green beauty products necessarily free of harmful ingredients? Yes, and no. While they should be, there is no official definition of “green” or “natural”, so some brands misuse these words in their advertising without being clear about what goes into their products and where the ingredients are sourced from.
Yiu says he scrutinises niche brands in-depth, and tests each product for two months before deciding whether to import them.
He says many consumers confuse the terms natural, organic and vegan. “100 per cent natural products use plant-based ingredients, but they are not necessarily farmed organically, whereas vegan products do not contain any animal by-products. So any formula containing honey cannot be vegan, but it can still be cruelty-free if it does not test on animals,” says Yiu.
To identify organic products, it is helpful to look for certification logos from trustworthy organisations such as the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program for cosmetics and the UK’s Soil Association.
While certified organic products do not contain questionable ingredients and help the environment by supporting sustainable production of raw materials, one common barrier for consumers is their relatively high price.
Pauline Hili, an organic skincare expert in Britain explains: “All organic manufacturers are inspected annually and need to demonstrate they have operating systems of the highest integrity.
These all add to the cost of producing an organic product,” says Hili, who was the technical director of organic brand Neal’s Yard Remedies for more than 20 years before founding her own skincare brand, Nourish.
“A well-formulated organic product avoids the use of ‘filler’ ingredients, which reduce the cost of the product but have no health benefits for the skin, such as mineral oil. In place of a cheap mineral oil you would expect to find a beneficial ingredient such as argan oil or shea butter, but these are more expensive.”
So what are some of the alternatives for consumers? Yiu and Hili reveal their top picks.
Nourish’s Kale 3D Cleanser (£25/HK$281/100ml)
Most people are familiar with the vegetable as a superfood, but Hili has incorporated it as the star ingredient of her cleansers. Loaded with vitamins and antioxidants to nurture the skin, kale also contains enzymes that can combat environmental damage.
Le Prunier Plum Beauty Oil (HK$590/30ml)
Rich in essential fatty acids and phytochemicals, this multi-purpose oil can be used to hydrate the face – both day and night – and also as a moisturiser for body and hair. It is made from plums harvested on the founders’ century-old family farm in California.
Gressa Corrective Serum Foundation (HK$520/15ml)
One make-up hack to make your foundation more weightless and moisturising is to mix it with a drop of serum. This formula does that for you.
Shake well before use; a single small drop is enough to cover the face. It also contains botanical extracts to heal the skin and gives off a natural radiance.