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Ever read the ingredients label on your skin cream or hair care products and wonder what half of those ingredients are?

Two very common ingredients are Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and its close relative Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) are commonly used in many soaps, shampoos, detergents, toothpastes and skin care products. 

Unfortunately, both sodium laureth sulfate and its cousin are also very dangerous, highly irritating chemicals. Far from giving "healthy shining hair" and "beautiful skin", soaps and shampoos containing sodium laureth sulfate can lead to direct damage to the hair follicle, skin damage, permanent eye damage in children and even liver toxicity.

Although sodium laureth sulfate is somewhat less irritating than SLS, it cannot be metabolised by the liver and its effects are therefore much longer-lasting. This not only means it stays in the body tissues for longer, but much more precious energy is used getting rid of it.

A report published in the Journal of The American College of Toxicology in 1983 showed that concentrations of SLS as low as 0.5% could cause irritation and concentrations of 10-30% caused skin corrosion and severe irritation. National Institutes of Health "Household Products Directory" of chemical ingredients lists over 80 products that contain SLS and SLES. Some soaps have concentrations of up to 30%, which the ACT report called "highly irritating and dangerous".

Aside from sulfates, there are other ingredients to avoid.  Here's a list of the primary ingredients to avoid when shopping for skin care and beauty products:

Imidazolidinyl Urea and Diazolidinyl Urea: Used as preservatives to prevent bacterial growth although ineffective against fungi. Known to be a relatively common cause of contact dermatitis. Two trade names for these chemicals are Germall II and Germall 115. Germall 115 may release formaldehyde, a potentially toxic chemical. Potential for low level skin damage in the long term is unproven but appears likely.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate: A detergent common in shamoos and cleaners, where it is relatively safe due to short contact time. If exposure is prolonged is likely to cause skin irritation, dryness and other damage. In fact, sodium lauryl sulfate is sometimes used as a model skin irritant in the experiments where skin protectors are tested. Avoid products with sodium lauryl sulfate unless time of contact with the skin is very short. Even skin cleansers should rather be without it.

Mineral oil: petroleum derived hydrocarbons; used as inexpensive base in some products (less today that in the past). Is moderately comedogenic. Mineral oil may also interfere with normal perspiration and other skin functions.

Synthetic Colors: Whether synthetic colors are completely safe or mildly damaging in the long run is unknown. Since they serve no useful purpose, they are best avoided (except perhaps when avoiding them means foregoing an otherwise great product). They are labeled as FD&C or D&C, followed by a color and a number, e.g. FD&C Red No. 6 or D&C Green No. 6.

Synthetic Fragrances: There are over 200 synthetic fragrances used in cosmetics. There is no way to know which particular ones are in your product, since on the label it will simply say "Fragrance." Safety of most synthetic fragrances is an open question. Best to avoid them since they provide no skin benefits. True, it is good to have a nice smelling cream. However, apart from the questionable safety, frangrance may mask spoilage of your product, an effect you would want to avoid.

Ethanolamines (Monoethanolamine aka MEA, Diethanolamine aka DEA, Triethanolamine aka TEA): common pH stabilizers; when exposed to oxygen/air form nitrosoamines, which may be irritating and/or toxic. The amount of nitrosoamines formed during typical use of skin care products with ethanolamines is unclear.

Parabens (e.g. Methyl, Ethyl, Propyl and Butyl Paraben): Used as preservatives; inhibit microbial growth and extend shelf life of products. Methyl paraben may degrade releasing methanol, a potentially toxic chemical. However, the amounts of methanol that might be released from methyl paraben in skin care products are too small for any known systemic effects. Most people don't have an obvious skin reaction to parabens. However, more research is needed to determine whether they are truly nontoxic or may cause low level skin damage in the long term.

Nanoparticles: Nanoparticles are ultra fine particles that possess certain special properties due to their exceedingly small size. This may include the ability to accumulate in the body, possibly even via topical use, and the ability to trigger potentially harmful chemical reactions. As a result, some experts raise concerns about the use of nanoparticles is skin care and cosmetics. Currently, nanoparticles (such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles) are most commonly used in sunscreens.

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