Additives in soaps, shampoos, cosmetics and skin care: safe or harmful?

When you look at the ingredient list of your soap or shampoo, you might notice a number of mysterious ingredients that you can't even pronounce. Why are there so many additives in these products? Some have their uses, but others we could go without. And not all of them are 100% safe. In this article, we take a closer look at the chemicals in soaps and skin care products.

Why would a shampoo, for example, need so many chemical ingredients? It turns out that science has discovered all sorts of additives that make it more pleasant to use: better fragrances, better foaming, etc. These chemicals might improve our enjoyment of the product, but are they safe? Although all of the ingredients in soaps, shampoos, skin care products and cosmetics have to be approved as safe, people with sensitivities or allergies can be affected adversely. So, if you have sensitive skin, or if you just want to be careful, join us as we examine some of the common additives used, and how safe they really are.

Parabens (including methyl-paraben and others): These are anti-bacterial ingredients that make your shampoo, body wash or cream last longer. They have been involved in cases of sensitivity and allergic dermatitis (in other words, if you are sensitive to them, you might develop allergic rashes and other symptoms). They may also pose an environmental problem: according to the EPA, parabens can go through our sewage systems and harm aquatic life.

Sodium lauryl sulfate: This is a very common surfactant ingredient in soaps, shampoos and bubble baths. It helps in trapping oily residues and creates lather. Most people think that more lather means more cleaning power (which isn't necessarily true) so manufacturers add lauryl sulfates to increase lather. In bubble baths, it's essential to creating so many bubbles. However, the chemical has been known to cause skin irritations. It has even been accused of attacking the immune system and of being a carcinogen. By understanding that soaps don't need to lather to work well, you can avoid the trap of sodium lauryl sulfate.

Quaternium 15: This is an ammonium salt and is used as a cosmetic preservative. It releases formaldehyde, which is a very strong irritant and can easily cause skin irritations and dermatitis.

Cocamidopropyl Betaine: This is a surfactant ingredient used for lather, similar to Sodium lauryl sulfate. However, it is not as irritating as the former and is a much better alternative. It is derived from coconuts, but this does not make it entirely safe: it has been linked to allergic reactions in some people.