We face so much misinformation when it comes to skincare ingredients, so much fearmongering used to sell products and, in the case of certain influencers, the illusion of expertise. With skincare routines becoming strangely dogmatic lately, people seem to take someone’s personal preferences very seriously indeed when they clash with their own, and there is a lot of fear around the idea of doing something wrong in your routine.
There is also a strong sense of righteousness regarding information about “bad” beauty ingredients, and sometimes the rhetoric can get downright aggressive around certain substances deemed dangerous or harmful. For the science-loving crowd, the main culprits seem to be alcohol and fragrance, deemed drying, aging, or simply unnecessary. The natural or clean beauty lovers, on the other hand, mostly worry about “chemicals” and “artificial” ingredients such as silicones, parabens, or chemical sunscreens.
So, let’s just have a look at these supposedly “dangerous” beauty ingredients and their true danger potential! As with all skincare advice, it is important to consider your personal history with allergies and sensitivities, because everyone’s skin reacts differently!
There is a strong sense of righteousness regarding information about “bad” beauty ingredients, and sometimes the rhetoric can get downright aggressive.
If you follow any of the larger influencers, they will probably tell you to avoid alcohol in your skincare like the plague. Alcohol is supposed to be drying for the skin and even harmful to the point that it can destroy the skin barrier and actually “kill” skin cells.
So, where did this fear of alcohol in skincare originate from? Well, first of all, let’s make sure we understand which ingredient we are actually talking about here. There are actually two groups of alcohols in skincare, the “good” alcohols and the (supposedly) “bad” ones. Good alcohols are the so-called fatty alcohols such as cetyl alcohol, which have emollient qualities and help to create thicker, richer product textures. They are really good for the skin, providing moisture and protection, thus shouldn’t cause any worry at all.
Now, when people talk about “bad” alcohols, they usually refer to either ethanol or so-called denatured alcohol. Ethanol is basically the form of alcohol we drink (though never drink pure ethanol, pretty please!), while denatured alcohol is ethanol that has been made undrinkable for safety reasons. In skincare, ethanol is used as a solvent, meaning they help dissolve harder-to-incorporate ingredients such as, say, physical sunscreen filters, in a product formula. Ethanol also helps certain ingredients to penetrate deeper into skin and are often used in the preparation of plant extracts as a solvent. In organic or natural skincare, alcohol also sometimes serves as a “natural” preservative, prolonging a product’s shelf life.
The intense fear of “bad” alcohols mostly stems from a misinterpretation of studies done on the dangers of this common beauty ingredient. At first glance, some of these studies do sound alarming: One often-cited experiment drenched skin cell cultures with ethanol, which in turn caused these cells to die—scary, right? But the thing is, in-vitro studies, done in a lab dish containing specific cells, are not the same as in vivo studies, done on actual humans. Also, the dosage of alcohol used was extremely high—higher than anything we would ever put on our skin directly on a regular basis. Alcohol also evaporates very quickly when it comes in contact with skin, meaning there is little time to actually cause any long-term damage.
The thing is, the amount of ethanol in our skincare is pretty much minuscule compared to what many of us ingest during a good weekend outing with friends. So, if you aren’t worried about your daily glass of wine harming your skin, then that little bit of alcohol in your dollop of moisturizer shouldn’t upset you too much either. That being said, it is true that higher concentrations of alcohol can be drying for already dry and irritated skin. Furthermore, its ability to make other ingredients penetrate deeper into skin might be problematic if your skin barrier is already weakened. So, for anyone with sensitive or sensitized skin, avoiding alcohol either temporarily or indefinitely may support healthy skin barrier function.
Beauty ingredient verdict: Alcohol danger level 1.5/5
- Alcohol can indeed be drying, and people with sensitive skin or a weakened skin barrier may need to avoid it. However, the drying effect has been greatly overstated and often misinterpreted.
Nothing will draw more ire than an influencer, especially one working in the science-oriented space, admitting that they actually think fragrance in skincare is kind of … ok? I am not sure what caused this intense fear and even hatred of fragranced products, but most top skinfluencers will tell you to avoid it at all cost.
Now, just to be absolutely clear here: Fragrance can indeed be a problem for people with sensitive and/or sensitized skin. Especially those of you prone to allergies should be careful when using fragranced products, as they can lead to contact dermatitis or rashes, and in some cases even cause dangerous respiratory symptoms. A fragrance allergy or sensitivity can also build up over time, meaning that with each use of a fragranced product, your risk of getting an allergic reaction or sensitivity issues will increase.
That being said, the amount of people with fragrance allergies isn’t actually as high as the constantly perpetuated terror of it might suggest—I found varying sources here, but it seems to be between 2 to 5 percent of the overall population. True, most dermatologists tend to recommend fragrance-free products, but that is because they usually deal with people who already struggle with skin diseases, and it serves them well to be on the safe side to not risk further sensitivity issues. This is also the reason why many pharmacy brands are fragrance-free, as they will naturally try to avoid the most common skin allergy triggers.
The bottom line here is that if your skin has never reacted to fragrance, there really is no need to cut it out of your routine just because a skinfluencer proclaims it to be harmful. If you enjoy the fragranced products you use and if they have worked well for you, just continue using them. I have highly allergic skin, but fragrance has never been an issue for me—only during hay fever season, when my sinuses tend to be very inflamed and my skin more sensitized than usual.
It is also important to note that “natural“ fragrance, usually won from essential oils, can actually be more volatile and cause stronger allergic reactions than “artificial” fragrance.
Beauty ingredient verdict: Fragrance danger level 2/5
- If you are sensitive or allergic to fragrance, it can cause serious reactions, so it is important to patch test new products to see if you can tolerate them. But there is no true reason to avoid all fragrance in skincare!
I feel that the silicone fear is actually somewhat dying down thanks to amazing science educators such as Lab Muffin. Misinformation about the supposed “dangers” of silicone-based lotions and creams mostly comes from the natural or “clean” beauty space, where silicone-free skincare is a big thing.
I think much of the fear around silicones comes from this idea of them being “synthetic,” which they indeed are, but that doesn’t mean they are “bad” because of that. In turn, the idea that “natural” automatically means safe in skincare is incorrect, and the synthetic ingredients used are often safer and better regulated, as compared to, say, plant extracts. Silicones have been deemed safe by regulatory bodies worldwide (and no, they aren’t “banned in the EU”).
There is also no real proof to the common myth that silicones “suffocate” your skin, or that you need to avoid them if you suffer from acne because they “clog your pores.” Silicones are an occlusive, meaning they help seal in water and thus keep your skin plump and supple, but they do not form an impenetrable wall that doesn’t allow for any air or water to leave your skin. No occlusive is that strong! And as long as you properly remove your makeup or silicone-heavy sunscreen at night, you also do not need to worry about buildup on your skin. Silicones can also be a godsend for people suffering from rosacea, as they tend to do better with a silicone-based moisturizer.
Furthermore, silicones help products glide easier onto skin, which is why they are used in moisturizers, foundations, and smoothing hair products. Especially in hair products, they are commonly added to smooth down frizz and give your tresses back their silky-soft feel. Avoiding silicones in hair care products has become a big trend, and it is true that they can cause buildup after a while. However, not all silicones are made equal, and only some of them, e.g., dimethicone, cause this type of buildup, as they do not fully rinse out with regular shampoo.
People with thicker, coarser hair often do really well with silicone-based products, so again I would suggest to stick to what works for you personally and not listen to so-called experts. You can just use a clarifying shampoo once a week or before dyeing your hair to avoid the buildup causing problems. All in all, silicones in hair care are actually fine to use, especially those that rinse out with water, but experiment to see if they cause buildup or scalp issues.
Beauty ingredient verdict: Silicones danger level 1/5
- Silicones are safe to use on skin. They can cause buildup in hair, so make sure to use a clarifying shampoo if this causes a problem for you.
Parabens are a group of preservatives that many people seem to consider “unsafe,” but most of this fear seems to be based on misinformation. The main fear around parabens is due to one particular study that found parabens in breast tumors, but from what I have gathered, the study was actually highly contested and never fully established a clear connection between parabens being present and them actually causing the tumors. Correlation isn’t causation, and just because something accumulates in the body (apparently the amount of parabens wasn’t even that high to begin with!) does not mean it is the cause of an illness. As with everything, dosage is key here, and parabens are highly regulated substances used in minimal amounts.
This is why parabens are actually such amazing preservatives: They work exceedingly well in small dosages and make sure that our skincare stays free from toxic mold or harmful bacteria. Because here is the thing—many of the so-called “natural” preservatives used as alternatives to parabens simply do not have the same effectiveness, and there have been numerous scandals surrounding natural and organic beauty products going moldy long before their official expiration date. And the thing with mold is: Long before your eye can see it growing on the surface, it’s already been living in your eye cream, potentially causing dangerous infections and skin diseases.
At this point in time, there is no conclusive evidence that parabens are dangerous, and given how much more dangerous a badly preserved product can be for your health, I personally say all hail to a reliable preservative. Oh also: I’ve heard American influencers, especially those in the wellness industry, claim that parabens are banned in the EU. As a German citizen, I can tell you that this is absolutely not true—only a handful of them are banned here, and those are only banned because evidence about them is inconclusive, not because they were proven to be harmful!
Beauty ingredient verdict: Parabens danger level 0.5/5
- I could not find any evidence that parabens are dangerous, but I’ll give a 0.5 rating just to be on the safe side here.
The word “chemical” tends to cause great panic among certain groups, but as any person with a science degree will tell you, literally everything is a “chemical”—water, air, our very own bodies, are all made up of chemicals, since a “chemical” is literally just the building block for, well, any substance out there.
So, what’s the fear when it comes to chemical sunscreens? First, just to clarify the terminology, we usually differentiate between two types of sunscreens: chemical (also referred to as “organic”) sunscreen and physical (“inorganic”) sunscreen. Even dermatologists sometimes misrepresent the way these chemical/organic and physical/inorganic sunscreens work, so I warmly suggest you watch Lab Muffin’s super informative video on the differences between the two.
When it comes to chemical sunscreens, the main chemical filter usually causing panic is oxybenzone, which was suspected of being a hormone disruptor absorbed through the skin. However, there hasn’t actually been any conclusive evidence on oxybenzone causing any harm, or that our skin can even absorb the high amounts that would be needed for it to turn harmful. As with any of these fear-raising “chemicals,” the dosage makes the poison. In one study often used to justify fears of chemical sunscreens, oxybenzone was fed to rats in high dosages that could never be equaled even with daily sunscreen use during the span of one human life. Oxybenzone also is a common ingredient in other cosmetics such as nail polish or hairspray, so you aren’t actually avoiding it fully just by shunning chemical sunscreens.
Are chemical sunscreens fully danger-free then? Well, as with all skincare ingredients, allergies to certain sun filters may occur, so you may want to switch to physical sunscreens if you suspect an allergic reaction or sensitivity. A common reaction to chemical sunscreens is itching or burning eyes, so watch out for those symptoms. As a general rule of thumb, physical sunscreens have less allergic potential, which is why they are usually recommended for sensitive or allergy-prone skin. However, this doesn’t always need to be true, and physical sunscreens tend to have a strong white cast, so choose what option is best for your personal needs.
Beauty ingredient verdict: Chemical sunscreen danger level 1/5
- There is a certain allergy potential, but otherwise chemical sunscreens are just as safe as physical ones, and using sunscreen is a crucial step to protect the skin from cancers and premature aging.