If there's one thing we learned from the recent horse meat scandal, it's that we don't really know what's in the products we buy every day.
We put all of our trust into the labelling provided, which can be difficult to understand, time consuming to read and - as we've discovered - might not always be 100% accurate.
The good news is that the more consumers begin to scrutinise the provenance of the goods they buy, the greater pressure brands are under to ensure they are meeting, if not exceeding, ethical and legal standards, as well as customer expectations.
However whilst food labelling has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, skincare labelling is still a myth to many.
Whilst it's great to see people choosing natural or organic products when they can, there is a lot of confusion around which products are 100% natural or organic as opposed to those that just contain extracts.
Research company Mintel, which produces an annual report on the natural and organic toiletries market, says, "Although consumers are keen to make the right choices when it comes to their own health and the wellbeing of the planet, they find the natural and organic toiletries market difficult terrain to negotiate, causing many to revert to making their product choices based on the tried and tested values of price or brand name".
It adds: "Manufactures need to work at making it easier for consumers to make informed choices about what they are buying".
As the founder of a natural skin care company, I'm passionate about helping consumers understand labelling so that they can make informed purchasing choices.
Here are my top tips for understanding skincare labels:
- Order of ingredients
As with food products, the ingredient listed first has the highest concentration. The exception to this is when the product contains a drug (such as Retin A), in which case it is always listed first regardless of the concentration.
- SLS (sodium lauryl sulphate)
SLS is a synthetic detergent and possible skin irritant which is found in many mainstream skincare products. If it is the first ingredient to be listed then you can assume that the product will be quite a harsh cleanser.
Parabens are a type of preservative in cosmetics, toiletries and even food. They can cause allergic reactions and are linked to oestrogen overproduction.
Whilst studies continue into the link between parabens, oestrogen overproduction and the development of cancer, Denmark has already banned their use in lotions and cosmetic products for children under the age of three.
- Artificial fragrances
The word 'parfum' on an ingredient label can hide a multitude of synthetic chemicals, which can cause allergic reactions.
Artificial fragrance is junk food for your skin. Some of the problems caused by these chemicals are: headaches, dizziness, rashes, hyper-pigmentation, vomiting and skin irritation.
Many fragranced personal care products contain phthalates, which are carcinogenic chemical plasticisers, solvents and fixatives. The individual chemicals in a fragrance do not have to be listed on the label, under the guise that they're trade secrets. So when you see 'fragrance' or 'parfum' on the label, you don't really know what you're getting. It is far better to use products fragranced with essential oils - not only for their wonderful aroma, but also for their numerous therapeutic properties.
- Artificial colours
Again, an unnecessary ingredient in skincare. Making sense of the ingredients can be difficult for the lay person. Colourings often go under the guise of numbers rather than names. The European Community uses the E number system of giving code number to food additives, some of which are also used is personal care products. This would not be a problem, but for the fact that some of these colours are known to cause allergic reactions in susceptible individuals. Even 'experts' cannot agree on an international 'safe' list of colours, so that a colour may be allowed in one country, but banned elsewhere.
- Mineral oils
Mineral oil (liquid paraffin) and petrolatum are derived from petroleum and cannot be synthesised by the skin. They block pores and diminish the skin's ability to function. Mineral oil is inert - it does not do much and is not active. This can be good from the manufacturers' point of view because it does not cause problems; it does not go off or rancid. It is also relatively cheap to buy and being stable, cheap to handle. It can be used as an occlusive barrier on the skin when, for example, working with material that you do not want to enter the skin. Apart from that, it doesn't really have a place in skincare.
- Stay informed
We should be as concerned with what we put on our bodies as with what we put in them, so take time to read around the subject of skincare labelling (from a variety of reliable sources!) and speak to experts when you have the opportunity. Keep abreast of legislation changes and follow the debates for and against these changes.
It's a complicated subject and the more you know the better placed you will be to make a decision that is right for you and your body.
Next time you have a shower, why don't you check the ingredients label to see what you can find?
If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch.