Editor’s Note: For our latest installment in our What’s In My Cosmetics series, we welcome guest contributor Anna Pollock.

Silicone. Sulfates. Phthalates. Parabens. Does reading an ingredient list make you feel like you’re back in 10th grade chemistry class? It sure does for me. Unless you’ve been a careful shopper, these four products can probably be found creeping in your bathroom. Not just in your cleaning supplies, but in almost every cosmetic, skincare, and haircare product.

Even though these chemicals sound intimidating and alarming, are they really that big of a deal? ABC News aired a recent report that showed that putting these chemicals onto a reporter’s skin dramatically increased their incidence in her bloodstream. Although some say you should avoid them, others just say that in moderation there won’t be much effect on any aspect of your life.

For me, these ingredients have been hot button issues, especially for my haircare routine. Although I am no expert at biology or chemistry, through research I’ve learned a couple well-known facts.

Silicones

Let’s start with silicones. Silicones come in many different names, most ending with “-cone,” most frequently found as dimethicone. Silicones’ main purpose in our hair products is to create that smooth, slippery feeling that comes with your everyday conditioner found in your shower. If you’re using any product for straightening hair, it’s likely to contain a silicone. In skincare and lotions, it bonds moisture to your skin.

This has some good and bad effects. Detangling your hair can be good. The bad is that it’s a superficial fix for your hair. It might look shiny and healthy, but that shine is coming from plastic rather than a healthy scalp oils. Also, silicones will build up on your scalp if used over time without a good clarifying wash, which can lead to flaky scalp problems and limp, lifeless hair. If your hair gives a puff of smoke when you blow dry, that’s a sign of silicone buildup. Many brands are working to remove these silicones from their products. And some people feel no difference with switching to silicone-free hair products.

Sulfates

On the flip side, there are chemicals that can strip your hair of its natural oils. Those chemicals are called sulfates. Many, many personal hygiene products have these in their ingredients as Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS). Their purpose is to act as a foaming agent. Suds make you feel like you’re actually cleaning something, right? Well, by stripping your hair of its naturally-produced oils, the sulfates can make your hair more susceptible to damage as well as dry it out and cause it to look…you guessed it, limp and lifeless. It’s all about preferences! Some people with extremely oily skin and hair may benefit from using these once in awhile. And though it’s hard to avoid these chemicals in cleansers for your skin and hair, lots of companies are working to use less of these ingredients as well.

Parabens

Next up are parabens.  Parabens are preservatives that are very close – on the molecular level –  to estrogen. Parabens are in many creams, ointments, and makeup products. In my eyes, these are the most intimidating, but some (usually those selling them) say that parabens have stood up to be the safest and most effective of their kind even after long-term research.

Because of parabens’ similarity to estrogen, they can affect our estrogen receptors, both for males and females, and that can lead to complications with hormonal balance, especially in immature bodies. If you have children or pre-teens, you may want to look for paraben-free products.

Phthalates

One more family of industrial chemicals that’s worth mentioning are phthalates. Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) make plastic soft and pliable. They are commonly found in cosmetic containers, plastic bottles, utensils, bowls, and cups. In cosmetics, they are often used as solvents. Similar to parabens,  phthalates can cause hormonal problems by messing with our estrogen receptors. Although it hasn’t been confirmed 100%, phthalates in particular may cause breast cancer or ovarian cancer in females, and may even cause defects in infants or children who are highly exposed to it – again, for both boys and girls. In fact, phthalates may be even more dangerous for infant boys. In animal studies, phthalate exposure has caused damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system — particularly the developing testes.

Phthalates are also found in fragrances and air fresheners, so it’s often tough to avoid. It may be a bit harder to find products free of this chemical, but they are still out there with a bit of research.

For more research on these topics and exposure risks for adults and children in home, personal care, and cosmetic products, check out SafeCosmetics.org.

In my experience, I truly think changing my hair products to exclude silicones and sulfates has made a difference and has made my curly mane a bit more manageable. As for cosmetics, I’m starting to try and find products without these ingredients. It’s hard to give up cult cosmetics and favorites, though!

Again, it’s all about preference and affordability, as some of these “free” products are usually  pricier. And since I’m not a doctor, and chemistry was my least favorite subject in school, PLEASE feel free to do your own research. There is a lot out there about these ingredients. If you can’t avoid them or don’t have access to better products, at least you can be an informed consumer of what you’re putting on and in your body.

Anna Pollock is a Minnesota native now living in Los Angeles. 

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