In response to the Skincare Ingredients Blacklist! - Really Ree
By Ree

In response to the Skincare Ingredients Blacklist!

24 Feb 2015 (Updated: 21 Jan 2019)

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When I saw people tweeting about this post about skincare ingredients to avoid, I took a look at it – and my heart sank. I don’t know Marie, and I’ve got nothing against her personally, but some of the information in that post is just plain wrong – and it’s not just about conflicting opinion.

I’m a journalist and I write a lot about the science behind beauty and, like Marie, I want people to be making educated choices. If you would rather use a product that only contains organic lavender oil, that’s fine, but you should know that natural doesn’t always mean safe and non-irritating – in fact one very small study even suggested a link between lavender and tea-tree oil and teenage boys developing breast tissue.

Equally, I don’t want people to be scared of ingredients when there’s no need for it. Not everyone can afford to buy organic lavender oil, even if they wanted to, and I don’t see why these people should be made to feel bad – or worried – about using a product that contains, say, parabens. So rather than whingeing about the post, like I normally would, I asked Ree if I could write one in reply and she said yes…

First of all, I’d encourage anyone worried about an ingredient, or something they’ve read in the press to go to the CTPA’s Facts About… website. Yes, the CTPA does represent the beauty industry, but they also base the information they put out there on credible scientific research from a whole range of sources.

(And, people, seriously, we have to get over this idea that big beauty brands would use ingredients that aren’t safe. These days we live in such a litigious society that I just don’t believe that there’s any way that a company would knowingly include a dangerous ingredient just because it was cheap.)

As Nausheen Qureshi, a biochemist who founded her own skincare line Elethea points out to me “if an ingredient really posed that serious a danger to health, it would be illegal to manufacture – the EU Cosmetics Regulations would most certainly have an issue with it too.”


First of all parabens occur naturally in certain fruit – such as blueberries – as this rather cute poster from a series about the chemicals found in natural fruits shows. This means even your fresh, organic strawberry contains parabens.

The study which Marie references is this one which looked at 20 different breast tumours and found that there were parabens in them. But there’s nothing that proves the parabens caused the tumours. And, because parabens have also been found in women who don’t have breast cancer, it’s a bit like saying that because you’ve found dust under the bed of 20 people who have flu, the dust has caused the flu!

The author of the study suggested a link between underarm deodorants containing aluminium and parabens, went on to do more research which also found parabens in breast tissue – but seven of the forty women she tested had never used an underarm deodorant, and older women didn’t seem to have more parabens than younger women.

I could wang on, but instead I recommend reading the American Cancer Society’s post on the topic and Sam Farmer, who has produced his own range of toiletries aimed at kids, writes very eloquently about parabens – and why he’s not worried about them – here (click the fifth question down).


Phthalates are a group of chemicals – the CTPA likens them to mushrooms – some are dangerous, some are not. Marie is right to say that some of them have been banned – as you’ll see here. But the main one you’ll find in cosmetics is considered to be safe.

Artificial colours & fragrances

Of course they don’t need to be there, and if you have sensitive skin, it makes sense to avoid them. As I found out when I wrote this piece some dermatologists think that fragrance in a product is the leading cause of reactions. But that’s not a reason to blacklist them entirely.


Sodium Lauryl Sulphate is a really good foaming agent as Nausheen Qureshi told me. “No other substitute gives quite the foam it does which is important because the more foam you have the more encapsulated dirt you have to transport away. SLS does clean better.” She admits that it can be irritating – “but no more so than some essential oils” – and if you don’t moisturise afterwards, it could aggravate anyone prone to dry and sensitive skin. But she refutes suggestions that it poses a risk to health saying that PubMed (the database of published scientific research) has “no substantial evidence linking SLS to any serious health issues.”

Making informed choices is hard work, because it means a lot of research. And often it means going back and reading pretty impenetrable scientific papers, not just taking at face value someone like Gwyneth Paltrow saying something is bad. I know that not everyone’s going to agree with me, so if you want to tell me I’m wrong, feel free to do so in the comments – or find me on twitter. (Thanks, Ree!)

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2 thoughts on “In response to the Skincare Ingredients Blacklist!

  1. Hello,

    Thanks for commenting, Andy and Stephanie, to address a few of your points….

    – I’m all for avoiding risk if something is inconclusive, but I’m not sure what safer preservatives you’re suggesting in place of parabens. In many cases, in their rush to remove parabens because of the public perception of them as “bad”, beauty brands have replaced them with methylisothiazolinone (MI) which has caused well documented reactions.

    – I wasn’t trying to “make parabens sound fluffy and safe” by saying they were in fruit, I was addressing something that Marie had said. In her original piece, she said “would you rather eat an organic fresh strawberry or one that had parabens?” And when I was talking about “plain wrong” it was this statement I had in mind. My point being that an organic fresh strawberry contains parabens. As I think is obvious other comments I’ve made, I wouldn’t ever suggest natural = safe.

    – Elethea doesn’t use sulphates in their formulations but Nausheen doesn’t think they’re wrong. Personally I felt that made her a far better person to quote than someone from a brand that makes a point of using them or not using them – she has no axe to grind either way.

    – I absolutely understand the importance of the barrier function of skin and I’ve acknowledged it’s an irritant, but there’s no clinical evidence to say it poses “serious health risks” – I’m thinking cancer, heart attacks etc, which Marie suggested. Also, like it or not, some people like their shampoo/cleanser to foam. (In fact I was speaking to a manufacturer the other day who said that consumers missed foam so much in products without foaming surfactants that he was actually using ingredients that create fake foam!)

    I would never suggest that products that don’t contain these ingredients can’t be effective, or begin to question Marie’s skills as a therapist, but I’m afraid I do get angry when misinformation about things that can be scientifically proven is disseminated. As those who are fans of evidence frequently say: the plural of anecdote is not data.

    Anyway, thanks again for your comments.

  2. Thank you so much for this, Claire. I have recently started taking more of an interest in the products that I’m buying, rather than just grabbing whatever is on offer or has the prettiest bottle. I research every other purchase I make, so it was only a matter of time before I started on beauty products too. In this research, I kept finding lists of ingredients that I should be avoiding (parabens being the key offender), yet with no explanation as to why. This made me very sceptical as I’m not one to follow advice blindly – I’m a mathemetician, I like reasoning! This article does confirm what I had suspected, that it is mainly scaremongering, although forgive me if I don’t take your word as a given too :-). I feel it is important if people are going to take an interest in something (and they can definitely be forgiven for not wanting to – that’s what legislations are there to protect against, hopefully), to read evidence from both sides before making an informed decision of their own. This is the first article I’ve seen on a beauty blog which is more positive regarding these ingredients and I feel that it is important for people to see.

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