From retinol to squalane, so many of the ingredient names floating around promise to improve the appearance of aging skin. And many of them do. Vitamin C in the form of ascorbic acid, for instance, can prevent damage caused by the sun, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and treat hyperpigmentation. Peptides can stimulate collagen production in the skin, clinical studies have even found the to have a “remarkable antiwrinkle effect.” Niacinamide does an excellent job of penetrating the skin and leaving it moisturized and more elastic.
But do the same products that contain promising ingredients also contain harmful ingredients? Unfortunately, the answer is often yes. Many products that claim to treat or prevent common signs of aging may in fact irritate the skin, or even cause more damage over time. It’s therefore highly important to read the ingredient labels on your skin products, and perform a “patch test” before using any new product. (In case you didn’t know a patch test involves spreading a small amount of product onto a patch of your skin, and waiting 15 minutes to see if any redness or irritation occurs.) Find out which ingredients may be harming your skin below.
Mineral oil and other petroleum derivatives
Mineral oil has a bad reputation in the world of skin care, primarily because it is a petroleum product. Petroleum products can form a byproduct called 1,4-dioxane during the manufacturing process typical for many topical skincare treatments. The FDA considers 1,4-dioxane to be a potential human carcinogen, and acknowledges that the chemical can penetrate human skin if applied in a skin product, such as lotion. Other sources state that 1,4-dioxane is a kidney toxin, neurotoxin, and respiratory toxin. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) found in 2007 that 22 percent of all cosmetics may contain the cancer-causing chemical.
Fortunately, the FDA reports that most products nowadays are not likely to contain more than 10 parts per million (ppm) of 1,4-dioxane. The organization considers trace levels of 10 ppm or less to be safe amounts for consumers. However, using products with petroleum derivatives that cover a large portion of your skin, such as lotion, may still pose a risk.
In addition, while mineral oil is an FDA-approved ingredient and may be helpful in treating eczema or psoriasis, some cosmetic chemists advise against it. Mineral oil can form a dense, oily layer on top of the skin, clog pores, and prevent the skin from “breathing.” It may even halt cell regeneration and result in signs of premature aging. Once it is absorbed into the skin, the body may be unable to metabolize it, which results in the chemical just sitting inside the body.
Other common petroleum derivatives to look out for in your product ingredients list include:
- Paraffin wax.
- Polyethylene glycol (PEG), diethanolamine (DEA), and ethanolamine (MEA).
- ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA).
- Ingredients that contain “propyl” in their names, such as isopropyl alcohol and propylene glycol.
- Parfum or fragrance. (The vast majority of chemicals that make up fragrance are derived from petroleum.)
While chemical sunscreens offer protection from harmful UVA and UVB radiation, they may not contain the best ingredients to put on aging skin. A 2020 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that six common chemical sunscreens are easily absorbed into the blood stream after application. The chemical sunscreens they studied included: avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate. The absorption levels in all participants were higher than the FDA’s safety threshold.
While the FDA recommends that Americans continue using sunscreen to prevent sun damage, the EWG points out that chemical sunscreen will not necessarily reduce the risk of skin cancer. This is because of the wide variation in quality of sunscreens on the market. Plus, those who use sunscreen more frequently are more likely to be out in the sun for longer periods of time, which can increase their risk of cancer regardless.
In fact, chemical sunscreens may actually generate free radicals on the skin, according to a small study published in Free Radical Biology and Medicine. During the investigation, scientists created a skin model out of human skin cells, and tested three UV filters on it: octocrylene, octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate), and benzophenone-3 (BP-3). They found that when exposed to UV light, the filters eventually broke down and no longer protected the skin. The filters also generated more free radicals on the skin in the process. For clarity, free radicals are highly-reactive molecules containing oxygen. As the molecules attempt to stabilize and become less reactive, they cause direct damage to cells. An abundance of free radicals on the skin can accelerate skin aging.
Fortunately, antioxidant-rich ingredients such as vitamin C (ascorbic acid) can help mitigate the damage caused by free radicals. To protect your skin without using chemical sunscreen, try a mineral version that contains titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both.
Alcohols are a common ingredient in moisturizers and lotions because they can make products feel lighter and smoother. They can also help other ingredients penetrate the skin, as they dissolve substances that aren’t water-soluble. Upon initial use, alcohols can make the skin feel tighter and cooler, which may feel good at first for those with oily skin. However, solvent alcohols such as isopropyl and ethyl alcohol strip away the skin’s natural moisture, harming the skin barrier. Note that isopropyl alcohol is often called SD alcohol or denatured alcohol.
This stripping effect can make the skin extremely irritated. The skin may also react by producing even more oil, and an imbalance in the microbiome may lead to acne. What’s even worse? Dehydrated, irritated skin has a difficult time repairing and regenerating cells. This can increase the appearance of rough skin, fine lines, and wrinkles.
It’s important not to confuse solvent alcohols with fatty alcohols. Fatty alcohols work as emollients and can benefit dry skin. Common fatty alcohols that are fine in beauty products include:
- Cetyl alcohol.
- Cetearyl alcohol.
- Stearyl alcohol.
- Isostearyl alcohol.
Sulfates, such as sodium lauryl sulfate, are extremely common in shampoos, toothpastes, detergents, and skin cleansers. They work as foaming agents to create a rich lather while you clean your skin, and can make your skin feel squeaky clean. They are also considered a safe ingredient by the EWG, and the FDA even lists sodium lauryl sulfate as a safe additive to food in small amounts.
Unfortunately, just like solvent alcohols, sulfates can be overly-stripping. They may not pose a significant problem in low quantities, but in high quantities, they can make the skin overly-sensitized and prone to damage. You may find that sulfate products cause redness, itching, and flakiness with repeated use. Chronic inflammation and dryness in the skin can accelerate skin aging.
So, if you still want a good clean but want to skip the irritation, what can you do? You may consider cleansers that contain low concentrations of sulfates. Such cleansers will list sulfates low on their ingredient list. You can also seek out gentler sulfates, such as sodium laureth sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate, and sodium alkyl sulfate.
Otherwise, it may be time to quit sulfates altogether. Other gentle ingredients that will cleanse your skin without stripping it include:
- Sugar cane extract, which gently exfoliates dead skin cells.
- Kale extracts.
- Sodium lauroyl sarcosinate, a gentle foaming agent.
- Sodium cocoyl isethionate, a cleansing coconut oil derivative.
- Alkyl sulfosuccinates.
- Alkyl sarcosinates.
Ultimately, the gentler the products in your skincare regimen, the less irritated your skin may be. With the right ingredients, you can prevent a lot of damage and accelerated aging, resulting in healthier skin.