in our second look at skincare ingredients Dawn Mellowship, journalist, complementary therapist and author of Toxic Beauty: The Hidden Chemicals in Cosmetics and How They Can Harm Us (Gaia Books), give us her views on synthetic versus natural emollients.
Emollients are used in cosmetic products to form a protective waterproof layer of oil or wax on the skin preventing the evaporation of water from the skin’s surface. This causes the outer layer to swell as it draws moisture from the lower layers of the skin, leading the cells to swell and press against each other, which temporarily reduces the cracks in the skin’s surface. Emollients don’t provide additional moisture, they merely prevent it from escaping.
Synthetic emollients are often produced under energy-intensive conditions at high temperatures, which destroys nutrients, antioxidants and essential fatty acids present in the vegetable oil-derived substances used and may leave the ingredients contaminated with petrochemicals or metal catalyst residues.
Synthetic emollients can clog pores and cause skin irritation, contact allergies, blocked hair follicles, inflammation of the hair follicles (folliculitis) or boils and rashes. If the pores and hair follicles are blocked, dirt and bacteria build up causing blackheads and acne. Excessive use of facial moisturisers containing synthetic emollients can worsen acne or cause an unpleasant rash known as perioral dermatitis, which is characterised by small red or pink lumpy spots around the mouth.
The sourcing and producing of both petrochemical and oleochemical (synthetic chemicals derived mainly from vegetable oils) ingredients results in toxic air emissions (such as the neurotoxic substance hexane), and creates toxic waste which contaminates rivers and kills aquatic organisms.
Natural emollients such as certified organic cold-pressed almond oil, jojoba oil, sunflower oil, olive oil, hazelnut oil, avocado oil, safflower oil, wheat germ oil, apricot kernel oil, and natural waxes such as unrefined beeswax, shea butter and cocoa butter, are a preferable alternative as they do not restrict the skin’s respiration in the same way as synthetic emollients and do not contain residues of toxic metal catalysts or petrochemicals.