From Parabens To Sulphates: Are Chemicals In Skincare Products Really That Bad?

photographed by Ana Larruy
Methylparaben, methylisothiazolinone... The phrase "If you can't pronounce it, don't use it" has circulated in the beauty industry for some time now, as more of us become suspicious of the number of synthetic chemicals and ingredients in our skincare products and the long-term effects they might have on our bodies.
Despite being questioned by dermatologists, the natural or 'clean' beauty movement is booming in response, with consumers believing these products to be much better for their health in the long run. But is there any real reason to be worried about synthetic chemicals in skincare? Can they really harm our health? Ahead, experts weigh in on whether they are as scary as we're made to think.

Are Chemicals In Skincare Bad?

Hundreds of chemicals in skincare products have received bad press, but parabens (preservatives, which stop skincare from going off) and sulphates (surfactants, which make products lather) are probably the most talked about, with some studies and articles suggesting they can harm our skin and bodies. But how much of this is true?
"We're living in a world of 'chemophobia' and I think part of the problem comes from an inherent fear of what we don’t know, especially as long chemical names on product labels can be confusing," Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible: Your No-Nonsense Guide To Great Skin, wrote on Instagram. "On its most fundamental level, everything is a chemical. Water is a chemical; we are a walking, talking mish-mash of chemicals."
While it is clear there there is a lot of scaremongering out there, general medicine consultant and aesthetician, Dr Ifeoma Ejikeme explains that there is some truth in chemicals and ingredients reacting with skin. Take methylisothiazolinone, for example. This is a preservative previously proven to cause skin reactions in those susceptible to sensitivity. For this reason it is no longer used in leave-on products, but can still be found in things like wash-off cleansers.
"Sensitising of the skin happens when we put things on our skin that aren’t right for it," explains Dr Ejikeme. "If you have acne for example and you use too much of certain chemicals, your skin can become sensitised. But most of us have a healthy relationship with chemicals. We understand when they are working and also when to pull back." In short, it's worth re-evaluating your skincare routine if certain ingredients cause obvious allergies and skin reactions.
When it comes to skincare, Australia has strict rules and regulations regarding which chemicals and ingredients can be used. The concentration of said ingredients is also very carefully considered, as Dr Mahto elaborates: "For chemicals in general, it is the dose that makes the poison. Many things are harmless to us in low doses but dangerous in higher ones. For example, formaldehyde is found in low doses in apples but this is not dangerous to our health."
Dr Ejikeme adds: "I don’t have a problem with chemicals at all, especially if they help a skin condition. But be careful about putting too much of anything onto your skin without any kind of checks and balances, especially on very young or damaged skin. That said, if your skin is healthy and you’re following a healthy skin routine but you discover one element in your hair wash or skincare routine (for example, sulphates and fragrance) and it isn’t causing a reaction, I don’t see any reason to take it out completely."

Can You Absorb Chemicals Through Your Skin?

Lately, brands, bloggers and natural skincare experts alike have been perpetuating the myth that up to 60% of chemicals or ingredients in our skincare products, such as parabens, can be absorbed into our bodies and then into the bloodstream, affecting our health and even 'disrupting' our hormones. According to Dr Mahto, this argument is weak.
"The skin does not absorb 60% of what you put onto it," Dr Mahto explained. "It would mean that we wouldn’t be able to take a bath or go swimming without swelling like a sponge, for example. The myth is often propagated by well-meaning wellness bloggers at one end, to those who are deliberately fearmongering in an attempt to sell you 'clean' or 'natural' beauty at the other."
It doesn't solely come from natural beauty lovers, though. A study published by the medical journal JAMA found that certain chemicals in sunscreen are absorbed into the bloodstream – further promoting the fear of chemicals – but the British Association of Dermatologists took to its official website this week to clear up any confusion. As Dr Mahto mentioned, it's all in the dose.
"The amounts of sunscreen used in this study are significantly higher than the average person would use in normal circumstances," explained Dr Andrew Birnie, consultant dermatologist and skin cancer surgeon. "Sunscreen has been used by a large portion of the population for a number of decades and there has not been any epidemiological data that suggests users come to harm. People should not make the knee-jerk decision to stop using sunscreen."
In fact, our skin does a pretty great job at keeping things out, as it is essentially a barrier. Confusion may occur when brands talk about skincare penetrating the skin but according to the experts, this is entirely different from absorption. "Penetration refers to whether or not the chemical penetrates the skin barrier, i.e. how much is available at the top compared to the bottom of the skin," explained Dr Mahto. "Absorption is where the ingredient has crossed the skin barrier and reaches the bloodstream where it can travel to other parts of the body. Should this happen, the body usually has important mechanisms to excrete what we don’t need. If it was possible to absorb things into our skin in a meaningful manner, we wouldn’t need injections or tablets."

Can Chemicals In Skincare Disrupt Hormones?

Current research highlights that parabens are safe in skincare but the argument that they can mimic oestrogen and alter our hormones (you may have heard them being referred to as 'endocrine disruptors') still reigns strong. Dermatologists argue that this is mostly sensationalism.
"Many synthetic and even natural chemicals have endocrine activity but there is no convincing evidence that ingredients found in our cosmetic products have the ability to cause hormone disruption and harm our health," added Dr Mahto. Again, the concentration is important here. "Many substances found in our cosmetics that are shown to have endocrine activity are weak compared to the body’s natural hormones. Our skincare and the ingredients within it are highly regulated to ensure our safety."
And as Dr Mahto mentioned, the same goes for natural ingredients. According to Dr Ejikeme, just because a chemical or ingredient is 'natural', doesn't mean it is better than a synthetic one, or even safe. "Luckily, though, we know the therapeutic window of these chemicals and ingredients. We know how much is effective in skincare and how much can cause harm."

What To Do If You're Still Worried About Chemicals In Skincare

Skin reactions may manifest in redness, soreness, itching, dryness, swelling and welts, to name a few symptoms. If you're worried about how your skin is responding to certain chemicals or ingredients in a product, stop using it.
Your second port of call would be to visit your GP or a qualified dermatologist for help choosing skincare products that will benefit your skin without reactions in the future.
And as Dr Ejikeme mentioned, if ingredients like parabens and sulphates in your current skincare routine aren't causing any physical reactions, there is no need to get rid of your products, but both experts emphasise that choosing skincare comes down to personal preference — and of course, your doctor's advice.
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