Understanding the ingredients in personal care products

Understanding the Ingredients in personal care products

By C. Leigh Broadhurst, Ph.D.

Skin is a remarkable organ—the body's largest—but it is often taken for granted. Most people are content to let it be until dryness, oiliness, a rash or a wrinkle rouses attention. But once they understand how it functions, many reconsider the importance of the skin and, hence, the quality and content of the skin care products they use. Consider these skin facts:

An adult's skin comprises between 15 and 20 percent of total body weight.
Each square centimetre has 6 million cells, 5,000 sensory points, 100 sweat glands and 15 sebaceous glands.

Skin is constantly being regenerated. A cell is born in the lower layer of the skin called the dermis, which is supplied with blood vessels and nerve endings. The cell migrates upward for about two weeks until it reaches the bottom portion of the epidermis, which is the outermost skin layer. The epidermis doesn't have blood vessels, but does have nerve endings.
The cell spends another two weeks in the epidermis, gradually flattening out and continuing to move toward the surface. Then it dies and is shed. Two billion to three billion skin cells are shed daily. The body expends this effort to replace skin every month because the skin constitutes the first line of defense against dehydration, infection, injuries and temperature extremes.
Skin cells can detoxify harmful substances with many of the same enzymatic processes the liver uses. The unbroken surface also prevents infectious organisms from penetrating into the systemic circulation. As gatekeeper, the skin absorbs and uses nutrients applied topically. Because it cannot completely discriminate, the skin may absorb the synthetic chemicals often present in soaps and lotions, which at best it has no use for, and at worst can be toxic or irritating.

Most of your customers are committed to natural foods and remedies, but many aren't as selective when it comes to personal care products. These otherwise savvy shoppers might purchase any sale shampoo, skin cleanser or lotion. But because new skin is constantly being generated, and because it plays such an important protective role, it makes sense to choose nourishing skin care products. What follows is a primer to help you understand the often confusing ingredients lists and explain to your customers the benefits of going natural.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations specify that ingredients on cosmetic products labels be listed in descending order of percent by weight. To help you decode these ingredient names, the following list highlights the most common, tells whether they are natural and provides scientific support for choosing natural over synthetic. Hair & Skin Care Product Ingredients provides examples of both common synthetic cosmetic ingredients and natural alternatives.

It is important to note that water is the major component of virtually all skin and hair care products. It is a natural and necessary ingredient, but no matter how you pour it, most of what's being sold is water. Consider an after-sun lotion: Many mainstream products are predominately water and rely on marketing for sales. In contrast, various natural after-sun lotions list aloe (Aloe vera) juice and calendula (Calendula officinalis) extract as the first two ingredients. Indeed, these herbal extracts are more than 90 percent water, but aloe
and calendula have been shown to reduce pain, inflammation and skin damage associated with burns and radiation exposure. While water always tops the list, water-based herbal extracts may be a better choice than mere distilled water.


After water, fats, which act as emollients and humectants, are the secondary ingredients in moisturizers. An emollient makes skin soft and supple, and a humectant promotes moisture retention. Fats comprise a large part of the skin's structure: about one-third is ceramides (special amine fatty acid structures), one-third free fatty acids (fatty acids not in triglyceride or phospholipid form), and one-third cholesterol.

Providing the correct natural fats is likely the most important aspect of skin care because, as well as being part of the skin, fats can augment the body's sebum, providing lasting lubrication and softening. Sebum is secreted by sebaceous glands and consists of a blend of fats, waxes and protein . It protects skin from moisture loss and irritation and is strongly antimicrobial.
Sebum also makes hair shiny and soft. Abnormal sebum composition or inadequate sebum production causes dry skin that can create itching and flaking. Chronically abnormal sebum production increases the incidence of skin infections and can cause skin cracking and bleeding or scaly dermatitis.

Natural oils (almond, olive, safflower and sunflower) and waxes (beeswax, jojoba and lanolin) work primarily as emollients because they are soluble in the sebum and are capable of being absorbed and used by skin cells.
In particular, the skin needs omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) because they are not manufactured in the body. Ideally, these should be supplied from both the diet (by eating nuts or vegetable oils such as flax, soybean and sunflower) and lotions that contain almond, safflower and sesame oils. A dietary deficiency of omega-6 PUFA (or of all PUFAs) causes scaly dermatitis, skin lesions and excessive water loss through the skin.

Humectants are designed to slow water evaporation from skin. Mineral oils are often called emollients, but they really act as humectants. While mineral oil can soften healthy skin in the short term, simply keeping water from evaporating cannot help or heal chronically dry or damaged skin. Mineral oil-based products, which are not considered natural, do not penetrate the skin's surface to provide the raw materials for sebum.


Removing the day's dirt or makeup requires a cleanser—choosing an appropriate one depends on what's in it.

Liquid soaps and shampoos contain soaps, detergents and surfactants (short for surface active agent). Soap is a sodium salt of medium- or long-chain fatty acids. Detergents are chemically different from soaps but resemble them in the ability to emulsify oils and hold dirt in suspension. Common detergents in skin and hair care products are sodium lauryl sulfate and cocamide DEA, which are also used in dish detergents.
1 Product labels may indicate that cocamide DEA is from coconut oil, but it is a synthetic ingredient that may or may not use coconut oil in its manufacture. DEA, short for diethanolamine, may contain carcinogenic nitrosamines.

Surfactants help wet hair and skin more easily and pick up and remove various soils. All soaps are surfactants, but there are many specialized surfactants available for particular applications.

Foaming agents are often added to shampoos and liquid soaps to increase apparent cleansing and improve rinsing actions. Sequestering agents, which bind metal ions such as magnesium, calcium and iron from hard water, and nonmetal ions such as chlorine, are typically added to shampoos for swimmers and persons with colour-treated hair. Sequestering agents, either natural (corn syrup) or synthetic (ethylene diamine tetra acetic, abbreviated EDTA), clean the skin and hair more thoroughly and minimize soap scum.

Alcohol is the secondary ingredient in astringent facial cleansers as well as toners. The abbreviation "SD" stands for specially denatured and means a small amount of methanol has been added to the ethanol to make it poisonous. Natural astringents are witch hazel extract and ethanol. Deciding between a natural, beneficial herbal extract and a potentially toxic ingredient will be easy for customers once they know their choices.

All Products

Chances are you'll see this last set of ingredients in almost all personal care products.

Emulsifiers and solubilizers keep the ingredients in personal care products combined and constitute the minor ingredients listed on the label. Emulsifiers keep fats dispersed in water-based mediums—oil in skin lotions or hair conditioners, for example. Solubilizers keep ingredients dissolved. By making ingredients more soluble, a solubilizer enables an essential oil to be used effectively in a water-based spray. Product blends typically aren't stable for more than a few days without these ingredients.
There are few effective natural emulsifiers and solubilizers, which makes avoiding synthetics one of the largest hurdles for natural cosmetic products manufacturers.9 Only the staunchest advocate of natural ingredients is critical of a manufacturer for the use of a synthetic emulsifier and solubilizer in an otherwise natural formula. Because these ingredients simply address aesthetic and ease-of-use issues, some natural products manufacturers omit them and instruct users to shake the product well before each use.

Value-added ingredients typically appear next and include amino acids, essential oils, herbal extracts, hydrolyzed protein, protein extracts and vitamins. In general, these constituents are beneficial to the skin and hair, but mainstream products typically contain only token amounts.

A useful, value-added ingredient that some natural products provide is the omega-6 fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which the skin cannot make. GLA in the form of borage, evening primrose or hemp seed oil can be applied topically or obtained through diet. Once the skin has a source of GLA, it can be converted to another omega-6 fatty acid, dihomogamma-linolenic acid (DGLA). DGLA is important to skin health because it is the precursor of several anti inflammatory compounds that help prevent allergic dermatitis.

A newer, natural value-added ingredient is ceramides, which are similar to those in the human skin but are made by a biotech process. Ceramides are expensive but effective topical moisturizers.

Antifungal, antibacterial and preservative agents constitute many of the ingredients toward the end of the ingredients list. Often four to eight preservatives are used. Most personal care products need protection from bacterial and fungal growth as well as from oxidation and other damaging chemical reactions because the bottles are opened regularly. Synthetic antimicrobials and antioxidants are somewhat toxic by nature and are the most likely ingredients to cause irritation and allergic reactions.

Natural or vitamin-derived antioxidants are rarely irritating
9 and in higher concentrations can play dual roles as value-added ingredients. Topical vitamin C (ascorbic acid) does penetrate the skin but is generally not stable in cosmetics. In a clinical study, ascorbic acid was shown to reduce inflammation after laser facial skin resurfacing when 10 percent ascorbic acid was applied in a water solution but not in a cream.Vitamin C can be made more stable and fat soluble by esterification (oxygen linking) with a fatty acid, phosphate or similar derivative.

The fat-soluble forms of vitamin E—alpha-tocopherol, alpha-tocotrienol and gamma-tocotrienol—penetrate the skin rapidly and migrate to the dermal areas that contain the sebaceous glands.

Colours and fragrances are usually added in small amounts. Fragrances can cause allergic reactions, even if they're natural. Eucalyptus, cedar, citrus, clove, juniper, sandalwood and tea tree essential oils are natural scents known to be allergenic.
On the other hand, if allergies aren't a concern, higher levels of these essential oils provide scent as well as natural antibacterial protection for the product.

Scientific analysis has always concluded that natural skin care products are inherently safer and more effective than synthetic alternatives.
However, this message is not being effectively communicated to consumers. The natural products industry must make a concerted effort to teach consumers not to take their skin for granted.