Is there petroleum in your skin care products?

(Credit: Roberto Berna via Flickr.)

Jessica Burman explains why it’s so important to learn to read the labels when it comes to modern skin care products. You can read the full article in the latest issue of EcoParent Magazine, on news stands now.

I’m always surprised when I meet someone that doesn’t know that most skin care products are made from petrochemicals.

This came up recently when I met a trendy 20-something-year-old photographer who worked for a local magazine. I mentioned it fleetingly in our conversation and she looked at me shocked: “They are?!” If a recent journalism grad doesn’t know about this, then who does?

A short walk down memory lane reveals that I didn’t know much about it in my early 20’s either. I spent a small fortune at department store beauty counters (even though I was making minimum wage) and I never questioned what was in the product or where it came from. I suppose I imagined Swiss chemists were creating these magical formulas from rainbows and unicorns and I had 100% faith that I was getting what I paid for. With such shiny perfect packaging, how can you go wrong?

Up until the mid 20th century, a typical facial cream consisted of almond oil, rose water, wax and rose essential oil. Today a typical facial cream consists of countless petrochemicals that are formulated to make a product smell good, feel good and look good with little to no value to the skin. This shift occurred right after WWII, when the wacky world of making consumer products from petroleum became a national obsession.

Petrochemicals in skin care products

The modern skin care industry is dominated by huge multinational corporations that mass produce synthetic products and spend more on marketing and packaging than what is actually going into the containers.

We buy it because Halle Berry or a salesperson told us to. In fact, Canada’s largest drug store only pays a commission to their skin care sales people for a few select brands, all of which are petrochemically based – what do you think they are going to recommend when you visit their store?

When I look around at people, I know that these companies have failed to make good on their promises of beautiful skin. I see so many congested, saggy, droopy faces pancaked in makeup. I just want to rub shea butter on them. But, beyond low-performing formulas, there is an even darker side to this industry.

The same cosmetic chemicals that are doing absolutely nothing for our skin, are actually entering our bodies and putting us at risk of a multitude of health problems. These substances have been found in our blood, urine, breast cancer tumours and even the umbilical cords of newborns.

Like so many polluting industries, you have to wonder where the government is in all of this. Unfortunately, the North American cosmetic industry (including skin care, body care, hair care, deodorants, toothpaste, and sunscreen) has been self-regulated for over 30 years. The governing body, Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), determines the safety of each ingredient that enters the market. They have clearly fallen short of protecting us from hazardous chemicals so environmental groups, such as the Environmental Working Group and Environmental Defence, have had to step in and blow the whistle on products that we always assumed were safe.

The good news is that you don’t have to buy these petrochemical products. There are literally hundreds of safe and natural brands to choose from that will nourish your skin with antioxidants, essential fatty acids and other anti-aging nutrients. A safe bet is to purchase from health food stores and eco-boutiques that you trust. An even safer bet is to learn how to read labels so that you will be able to source potential hazards on your own.

Jessica Burman is the owner and formulator of the natural skin care line, Cocoon Apothecary, based in Kitchener, Ontario. 



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