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A Guide to Skin and Hair Care Ingredients

When it comes to skin and hair care, you can’t choose a product based on the beauty of its packaging, or the confidence of its claims. Instead, it’s up to consumers to read the ingredients list to decide which products will work best for us. Of course, the ingredients list on many beauty products can read about as easily as a chemistry textbook, so we’ve compiled this guide to some good, bad, and iffy ingredients used in skin and hair care products—hopefully saving you some time, money, and breakouts in the process.

The Good

Emollients: Commonly described as ‘moisturisers’, emollients soften and smooth the skin by filling in the gaps between your skin cells. Many emollients also form a protective layer on top of your skin which helps reduce the loss of moisture. Oil-based emollients, such as shea butter, jojoba oil and lanolin, offer a level of protection and hydration which is ideal for dry skin. Water-based emollients are more lightweight and are better suited to normal or oily skin.

Humectants: Humectants are another group of moisturisers which work by absorbing moisture from the air to boost hydration within your skin and hair cells. One of the most widely used humectants is glycerine (glycerol), which is both affordable and suitable for all skin types. Some higher-end products are starting to use humectants such as hyaluronic acid, which is able to hold up to 1,000 times its own weight in water. Powerful humectants like hyaluronic acid can both plump and hydrate your skin, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and leave hair nourished and shiny. A very versatile group of ingredients, humectants can often be found in a range of custom skincare and moisturisers.

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs): AHAs are a group of exfoliating substances which help to shed dead cells from the surface of the skin, offering improved clarity, texture, tone and radiance. Their exfoliating action also stimulates the growth of new, healthy layers of skin which are better able to retain moisture. Glycolic acid and lactic acid are the two best AHAs used in beauty products today.

Beta Hydroxy acids (BHAs): A lesser-known group of exfoliants, BHAs offer incredible unclogging action by working both on the surface of the skin and deep in the pores. BHAs have anti-inflammatory properties and are also oil soluble, making them one of the most effective solutions for oily and acne-prone skin. Although there are several different types, salicylic acid is by far the most popular BHA on the market.

Caffeine: One of the world’s favourite pick-me-ups, caffeine is proving useful in more ways than one. A well-known vasoconstrictor, caffeine is used in eye creams and anti-ageing serums to increase blood circulation, improve elasticity, reduce puffiness, and rejuvenate skin. Caffeine also has antioxidant properties which can help protect the skin against UV damage and free radicals—two of the biggest causes of wrinkles. As if that wasn’t enough, caffeine has also been shown to stimulate hair growth, making it a key ingredient in many hair-loss shampoos and other thinning hair solutions.

The Bad

Sulphates: Commonly found in face washes and shampoos, sulphates are responsible for stripping the oils from your skin and hair. The strength of their cleansing power means that sulphates can damage your hair and make it brittle, and also cause dry, sensitive and irritated skin—especially for those with sensitive skin. Names such as sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), sodium laureth sulphate (SLES) and ammonium lauryl sulphate (ALS) are both easy to find, and best avoided.

The Iffy

Silicones: Used for their silky, slippery texture, silicones can help skin feel supple and hair look shiny. Contrary to popular belief, silicones do not clog pores or suffocate the skin. However, many silicones are very hydrophobic, meaning they don’t wash out easily and can leave hair feeling heavy, limp and greasy. For this reason, people with fine hair should look for water-soluble silicones such as dimethicone copolyol and cyclomethicone, which wash out easily and won’t weigh hair down. On the flipside, people with thick or coarse hair can greatly benefit from the smoothing effect of silicones such as dimethicone in hair products.

Propylene glycol: Just like sulphates, propylene glycol (PG) can be a hazard to sensitive skin. A humectant found in shampoos and conditioners, moisturisers, liquid foundations, spray deodorants and more, PG is associated with irritant and allergic contact dermatitis, as well as contact urticaria (hives) at concentrations as low as 2%. Fortunately, the irritating effects of PG can be avoided by looking for variations such as propylene glycol dicaprylate/dicaprate instead.

Alcohols: Alcohol appears in a variety of forms in cosmetic products, some of which are good and some of which are bad. Good alcohols are derived from natural fats and oils, and work well as moisturisers, emulsifiers, stabilising agents and thickeners. Examples of fatty alcohols include cetyl, cetearyl, stearyl and cetostearyl alcohol, lanolin alcohol, and lauryl alcohol. Unfortunately, many cosmetic products contain denatured alcohol, methanol, ethanol/ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol and benzyl alcohol. These lightweight alcohols instantly degrease and produce a matte finish, which makes them an obvious choice for acne products and people with oily hair or skin. However, this means that they strip away your skin’s protective barrier, thus removing moisture and stimulating even more oil production.

Parabens: Parabens are a group of preservatives which have raised concerns due to their ability to mimic oestrogen in the body. Studies have linked certain parabens to breast cancer and other endocrine disorders, but research in this area is conflicting and inconclusive. Although the jury is still out on the effects of parabens, many consumers prefer to play it safe by choosing paraben-free products.