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The A to Z of beauty goodies
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The Ecologist A to Z of beauty goodies

Priyanka Mogul

3rd February, 2012

You’ve learned to avoid parabens and sulphates but what should you be using instead? The Ecologist takes a closer look at the natural beauty ingredients that can make a positive difference to your skin

As a living organ your skin responds to authentic and natural ingredients in the same way the rest of your body does. 'We apply over 250 synthetic chemicals to our skin everyday via the beauty and personal care products we use,' says organic beauty website Love Lula founder, Lula Braithwaite. 'Some of these chemicals are potentially toxic and can find their way into our bloodstream through our body's largest organ - the skin.

The long term absorption of synthetic chemicals has been linked to diseases such as breast cancer, testicular cancer, kidney damage and reproductive problems.' The effect of synthetic substances on your skin can be drastic with allergies, skin irritation and rashes among the potential side effects. 'You can help to reduce your chemical count by switching to organic and natural beauty products,' continues Braithwaite. 'Organic beauty products use natural plant extracts, natural fragrances and gentle naturally derived ingredients so you can be sure you and your family are getting the safest skin and body care possible.'

But because there are no legal standards for natural ingredients in beauty products, greenwashing is rife with some companies labelling  their products 'organic',  even in cases when the product contains less than one per cent organic ingredients. With labels becoming increasingly confusing, it can be difficult to spot the difference between an ingredient that’s genuinely beneficial and a dodgy synthetic.

'Organic cosmetics are not regulated in the same way as organic food and drink,' says the Soil Association's Clio Turton, 'so certification from the Soil Association or another reputable certifier, demonstrates that a product has been checked and approved to the highest organic standards. It can feel like you need a chemistry degree to understand the ingredient list on some labels so the Soil Association logo is an easy shorthand for cosmetics you can trust.' Limonene, styrax and benzoin are all natural ingredients often wrongly assumed to be synthetic, while on the flipside, the innocuous sounding vitamin A variant, retinyl palmitate, is in reality an unpleasant molecule with photocarcinogenic properties, according to US NGO, the Environmental Working Group. So what should you be looking out for? We’ve rounded up the beauty ingredients that you really do want on your bathroom shelves.

A is for ammonium lauryl sulphate

An innocuous coconut extract, it is used in shampoos as an alternative to chemical surfactants such as Cocamide DEA. The sulphate creates lather and cleanses the hair, separating strands to produce volume. 

B is for benzoin 

A natural gum produced by the south-east Asian Styrax tree. The resin acts as a natural antiseptic and promotes healthy skin. It's sweet, vanilla-smelling aroma is popular in the perfume industry and is used in aromatherapy to soothe and comfort.

C is for chlorella 

A species of fresh water green algae, both chlorella Vulgaris and chlorella Pyrenoidosa are commonly used in beauty products. Vulgaris is often found in skincare, while Pyrenoidosa is used to boost hair. Nica Lewis, head consultant at Mintel Beauty Innovation says, 'Both are taken as health and dietary supplements because they are rich in protein, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. When ingested they help maintain healthy digestion and healthy skin.' 

D is for D-alpha tocopherol and decyl glucoside

D-alpha tocopherol is a Soil Association (SA) approved form of vitamin E, which acts as a preservative and protects the skin from reactive oxygen radicals and UV rays. Decyl glucoside is a natural surfactant made by combining corn starch glucose and natural fatty alcohol. Decyl glucoside is used in shampoos colouring products, shower gels, bubble baths, dermatological liquid soaps, and shaving foams. 'Decyl glucoside is extremely mild surfactant,' says Spiezia Organic's Matthew Machin. 'It's also Soil Association approved and biodegradable.'

E is for evening primrose oil 

Derived from seeds of the evening primrose plant, the oil is a powerful skin protector, guarding against pollution and sun damage. It also helps skin to regenerate, making it ideal for anti-wrinkle and skin ageing lotions.  Also commonly used as a hormone replacement supplement. 

F is for frankincense 

A resin derived from the Boswellia tree, its properties include encouraging skin cell growth and rejuvenation. Frankincense also has astringent qualities, which helps boost tightness and tone. Thanks to its rich aroma, frankincense is also used in perfumery.  

G is for gotu kola 

Gotu kola is commonly found in anti-wrinkle and anti-aging creams, thanks to its natural healing properties. It helps to soothe stressed skin, healing wounds and dermatitis and is known to have detoxifying effects, according to Machin. 

H is for honey

A natural antiseptic, honey has been used as medicine for thousands of years, and was famously used to treat wounded soldiers during the Second World War. However, as a result of the introduction of penicillin and other antibiotic drugs, its use as a medicine has tailed off in recent years. It is also used in creams and lotions as a thickening agent. 

I is for iron oxide

A natural mineral that can be used as a colouring agent in cosmetics. It is derived from clays and minerals such as manganese.

J is for jasmine

Jasmine flower oil is used in perfumes and cosmetics like creams, oils, soaps, and shampoos. Jasmine can help treat skin problems such as dryness, greasiness, irritation or sensitive skin. It is also used by aromatherapists for its calming effect and has aphrodisiac properties.

K is for kaolin 

A Chinese clay hailing from Mt. Kaolin, it is used in deep-cleansing face masks because of its ability to absorb excess facial oil. It is also used as a thickener. 

L is for linalool

Despite being regularly mistaken for a harmful synthetic, linalool is actually a natural molecule with some useful properties. Found in bath products, bubble baths, cleansing products, hair care products, lipsticks, moisturisers, perfumes, shampoos and skin care products, linalool is also used to make fragrances and flavours. Inhaling linalool reduces stress, helps insomnia and decreases aggressive behaviour. 

M is for myrrh

Derived from the resin of the myrrh plant, myrrh oil is the oldest perfumery ingredient in the world and is also known to calm the mind. It is used in perfumery, mouth washes, massage, diffuser, and incense. Its preservative properties make it a good natural alternative to parabens and it also helps reduce wrinkles.

N is for neroli

An essential oil derived from the Seville orange tree flowers, neroli was one of two oils used in the first eau de cologne (18th century). It helps prevent acne conditions and rejuvenates the skin. 

O is for oatmeal

A cereal crop, oatmeal’s mild exfoliating action makes it useful in scrubs and facial masks. It has a slight bleaching effect and is used in anti-wrinkle creams where it helps to cure age spots and even out skin tone. It is also clinically proven to increase hydration.

P is for patchouli 

Most often found in essential oil form, patchouli is part of the mint family and is used in cosmetics, perfumes, toiletries (especially soaps) and incense. It is a common fixative in soaps and perfumes and helps to reduce anxiety and depression.

Q is for quercus robur

An extract from the bark of the English, quercus robur is used in body powders. A powerful natural astringent, it helps to improve skin tone and firmness.

R is for organic rosewater

A combination of rose oil, organic alcohol, and distilled water, rosewater is used to make creams and lotions because of its ability to sooth and heal.  According to Natural Cosmetic Supplies, it was used during the Victorian era to soothe the skin and give hair a natural shine. It is commonly used in perfumery and toothpaste. 

S is for styrax 

Obtained from the styrax tree, styrax resin is used an ingredient in skin-conditioners and fragrance. 

T is for tea tree 

A powerful natural antiseptic, tea tree oil is used to combat acne and purify the skin. It is used in both hair and skincare and is particularly beneficial for oily skin types.

U is for urtica dioica 

A natural extract from nettle leaves, urtica dioica promotes hair growth and softens the hair, making it a sought after ingredient in shampoo. It is also used to treat dark circles around the eyes. 

V is for vetiver 

Extracted from the roots of Vetiveria zizanoides, vevetier oil is relaxing, non-toxic and helps the body release excess heat. Aromatherapists recommend it for headaches, heatstroke, fever, premenstrual tension, muscle aches, sprains, stiffness, insomnia, depression and stress. Vetiver is also used in skin care and perfumery.

W is for walnut oil

Commonly used in moisturisers, anti-aging, regenerative and toning creams, when rubbed into the skin, it helps cure eczema and even helps to heal minor injuries.

X is for xylopia aethiopica

A medicinal plant popular in West Africa, xylopia aethiopica has potent anti-bacterial properties and can also help to improve respiratory ailments such as asthma. 

Y is for yarrow

Extracted from the flowers of the yarrow herb, it can be used to heal wounds. It also adds radiance to the hair, making it a popular ingredient for shampoos and hair care products. According to Machin, 'yarrow is similar to chamomile in the fact that it contains azulene and soothes skin irritation.' 

Z is for zinc oxide 

Known in its mineral form as zincite, this substance has astringent properties. It makes an effective sunblock, protecting the skin from UVA and UVB rays.





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