If there’s one thing that the beauty community is never short of, it’s controversy. Everybody has an opinion, and nobody is shy about letting the world know what that opinion is.
Unfortunately, very few people have the patience to listen to logic and reason, especially if someone disagrees with their opinion. This can make it hard to wade through the oceans of beauty advice online because it seems like each thing you read contradicts the last thing you read!
So today, I’m going to talk about five controversial skincare ingredients that are always hotly debated and give you the most balanced view possible so that you can decide for yourself.
At the end of each section, I’ve put a “safety rating,” where 1 is “YES! Amazing! Run out and grab it!” and 5 is “Please, for the love of your skin, find something better!” These are obviously just my opinion, but I hope they give you a little extra insight into these five controversial skincare ingredients.
1. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil has always been contentious in the beauty world. Some people say it’s life-changing, and others say it’s terrible, pore-clogging, and greasy. So how can both things be true?
Easy: We’re. All. Different. People.
Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, which makes it comedogenic, or likely to cause clogged pores and acne. Unfortunately, this also means that it essentially just sits on your skin without providing many benefits. Yes, it’s film-forming, but it’s not preventing moisture loss, so you might still have to deal with dry skin.
If you’re one of the few who can use coconut oil and get great results, then go forth and bathe in it, my friend. Topical use of coconut oil isn’t inherently dangerous or harmful; it’s just not ideal for most people, regardless of skin type.
Coconut Oil Safety Rating: 3
- Highly likely to clog pores
- Minimal topical benefit
- There are better oils out there!
2. Witch Hazel
Witch hazel is a tricky controversial skincare ingredient, and there is no consensus (that I can find) about whether it’s good or bad for your skin.
On its own, witch hazel is an astringent, which means that it will make your skin less oily. Sounds good, but there’s more to it than that. Most witch hazel formulas contain a pretty high percentage of alcohol, which is also drying and can worsen oily skin issues. Some also include fragrance, and while there’s nothing wrong with added fragrance, it’s also sensitizing for many people.
People claim that witch hazel is a cure-all ingredient for acne, bug bites, puffy eyes, burns, and even hemorrhoids! The problem is that there is a lot of conflicting information about how effective it is overall. This article from Berkeley Wellness does an excellent job of summarizing just how little valid, reliable data there is for witch hazel.
At best, it might help with minor skin irritations. If you buy a distillate that’s pure witch hazel without any added ingredients, you might be able to use it as a cheap but mediocre facial toner. Overall, it’s not a great treatment for acne, oily skin, eczema, or itchy, irritated skin. It’s also not sun protective, so don’t even think about using it as sunscreen!
Witch Hazel Safety Rating: 2
- No real harm for most people but no real benefit, either.
People claim that witch hazel is a cure-all ingredient for acne, puffy eyes, and even hemorrhoids! But there is a lot of conflicting information about how effective it is overall.
3. Sodium Laureth Sulfate/Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLES/SLS)
Ah, sulfates. “Sulfate-free” is a trendy marketing phrase, and SLS and SLES are villainized in the worst way by pretty much everyone in the skincare community.
Do sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate deserve their terrible, bad-boy reputations?
Well … yes and no.
SLS and SLES are regulated by the FDA and deemed safe for consumer use. So the problem isn’t that they’re dangerous. The myth that these controversial skincare ingredients are carcinogens isn’t true. The issue is that they’re well-known skin irritants.
Both of these compounds are cleansing agents that create a rich lather. That’s why they’re common in toothpastes, shampoos, body washes, and soaps.
However, the way that they cleanse tends to strip too much of the skin’s natural protective oils, which can lead to sensitive, dry, compromised skin. If you frequently use shampoos with SLS, you might notice that your hair looks dull, brittle, or frizzy. Some people who get chin and jaw acne say that switching to a non-SLS toothpaste makes a substantial difference in their breakouts.
Ultimately, there are plenty of other gentler surfactants that are less likely to irritate. Of course, you don’t have to eliminate sulfates from your life completely, but I recommend steering clear of these two in your beauty products.
SLES/SLS Safety Rating: 5
- Too harsh!
- Too likely to cause irritation!
- Find something better!
SLES/SLS creates a rich lather, but the way they cleanse strips too much of the skin’s natural protective oils, which can lead to dry, compromised skin.
Hydroquinone is a hotly debated ingredient, but there’s good reason for its somewhat sketchy reputation.
Hydroquinone is a skin-bleaching ingredient, which is different than a brightening ingredient. It can actively alter melanin production, so it can change your base skin color. This controversial skincare ingredients works in two ways. First, it inhibits the enzyme needed to produce melanin. Second, it speeds the breakdown of the pigment within the melanin-storing cells of the body.
Much of the controversy surrounding hydroquinone stems from the fact that people of color have historically used it to “whiten” their complexions. This is a valid concern, especially since long-term use can have adverse side effects, but hydroquinone does have some beneficial uses too!
When used safely (in small quantities for targeted areas), it can fade acne scars, age spots, melasma patches, or other areas of hyperpigmentation. If you’d like to try hydroquinone, but you’re worried about side effects, a doctor or dermatologist can recommend a treatment schedule for you.
Hydroquinone Safety Rating: 4
- Use with extreme care!
5. Mineral Oil
Mineral oil gets so much side-eye in the beauty community, but most of it is undeserved.
There are lots of myths about mineral oil:
– It causes acne.
– It’s dangerous because it’s petroleum-based.
– It sucks moisture and vitamins from your skin.
– It causes premature aging.
Nothing on that list is accurate. The only myth that has some merit is the one about acne. Mineral oil doesn’t directly cause acne, but it can definitely exacerbate it for some people, especially if you’re prone to oily skin anyways.
There’s a lot of fearmongering around anything petroleum-based in beauty. Still, the truth is that cosmetic-grade mineral oil is highly refined and held to a high FDA-regulated standard.
Mineral oil is an excellent occlusive, both by itself and in moisturizer formulas. This means that it’s great for sealing in the rest of your skincare routine, especially if you have dry skin.
Mineral Oil Safety Rating: 2
- Great for dry skin
- Potentially pore-clogging for oily skin
What do you think about the controversial skincare ingredients I’ve rated? Do you agree with my assessment, or do you think some are better or worse than I’ve made them out to be? Let’s talk about it!