The Nasties Glossary

Oftentimes, you see labels claiming that they are “free” of something. This something has a chemical-y sounding name, which means that I have no clue what it is or what it is supposed to do. You must have heard it as well, sometime: sulphate free, paraben free, formaldehyde free (or three free)… As I am completely clueless, I figured that there should be at least one other person out there who also has not the foggiest notion about what is going on. For you, comrade, I have compiled a list describing what the hell these things are, and why people are going crazy.


Parabens are a group of chemicals that act as preservatives, to stop the growth of microbes (little tiny organisms, for example bacteria or fungi). They can be identified by looking at the ingredients list, they are all long words ending in “paraben”, for example methylparaben, butylparaben, and propylparaben.

The concern over parabens is mainly linked to cancer. Some studies have shown concentrations of parabens in the tumors of breast cancer patients. This is not a clear link at all, they did not investigate paraben levels in the tissue of non-cancer patients, or in other body tissue. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the concern comes from the fact that the chemicals are not altered at all by the body’s metabolic processes, and is free to penetrate the tissue and accumulate there. This may or may not be bad. In addition, the parabens have the tendency to mimic the activity of estrogen, a hormone that the body produces. Estrogen has established connections to breast cancer, around 80% of breast cancer tumors rely on estrogen to grow (Wikipedia). Parabens bind to the estrogen receptors on cells, perhaps leading to breast tumor cells growing and multiplying. According to the FDA, parabens don’t have nearly as much estrogenic activity as actual estrogen, so they may not be able to aid in the growth of the tumors.

Nothing has been proven, and the FDA has investigated the harmfulness of parabens more than once. However, I think it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes with cancer, so I think I will start to avoid parabens.


Here is the place where the beauty community is split right down the center… sulfates are the ingredients in shampoo or body wash that make them foam up. There are three that are most commonly used: sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, and ammonium laureth sulfate. What they do is break down the oils in your hair, stripping your hair. Some say that this is a horrible thing, some say that it is a necessary ingredient for clean hair. Who’s right? LIke in most circumstances, they both are to a certain extent. Based on what I have read, it really depends on the individual. From what I can tell, if you have curly hair sulfates are pretty bad. Curly hair is more porous than straight hair, making it more brittle and more likely to get dry. It also means it soaks up the shampoo better, and the sulfates really dry it out further. Some people actually say that you shouldn’t wash curly hair at all! I assume they mean really curly hair, like African-American hair. So if you have curly hair, sulfates are definitely a problem. Similarly, if you have skin that tends to be dry, or a sensitive scalp, sulphates may irritate that, maybe giving you eczema. For other hair types, sulfates may be necessary to give you really clean hair. But you can’t use it every single day, and you can’t use it without conditioner, if you do it will dry out your hair too much. With these products, there have also been claims that they thin out your hair. I have not seen any evidence to back up these claims, although there may some out there.


Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas that is a cancer hazard and can cause irritation in the nose, eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. It is supposedly found in some cosmetics, most commonly nail products and keratin treatments (it’s one of the “three free” toxins). This is a well established fact that you can read about on the websites of many government institutions, including OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the California Department of Public Health. However, formaldehyde is not what is being used in cosmetics, as it is a gas. Instead, formalin is used, a solution of formaldehyde and water, normally with a stabilizing agent (mostly methanol is used). This is where the debate comes up. Many cosmetic manufacturers believe that the formaldehyde is soluble in water, although the Cosmetic Ingredients Review (CIR)* recently proved that this was not the case. When introduced to water, the formaldehyde produced a new chemical called methylene glycol, which is safe for use in concentration under 0.2%, but the safety of the chemical when used in aerosol cans is sketchy. However, the California Department of Public Health says that formalin is dangerous. It is unclear whether they have taken the methylene glycol into consideration.

*the CIR is an organization that reviews the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics. It is sponsored by, and works closely with the FDA, but it is an independent organization.

**The Nail Manufacturer’s Council is an organization founded by the Proffesional Beauty Association.

Dibutyl Phthalate (DPB)

DBP is one of the “three free” toxins found in nail products. As for acute toxicity (how bad it affects you if you are exposed to it only briefly) is low, even in concentrations higher than is what is in nail polish. According to OSHA, someone who swallowed 10 grams of the stuff got sick, but he recovered completely. There goes my habit of drinking my nail polish…? Anyway, you probably don’t even get 10 grams of nail polish in the bottle, let alone 10 grams of pure DPB. However, a study on the effects of DPB introduced to pre-natal boys found that “environmental levels” of the substance impaired testicular function. They didn’t specify what the “environmental levels” were, so I don’t know if that is more or less than what is found in nail polish. I guess just make sure the area where you’re painting your nails is well ventilated, and don’t use nail polishes containing DPB if you are pregnant. Oh, and don’t drink the nail polish…


Toluene is an ingredient in nail products that makes them easy to apply, the last of the “three free” toxins. It is a clear colorless liquid, and has been found to be highly toxic. According to the National Library of Medicine, exposure to low levels of toluene can result in confusion, light-headedness, dizziness, headache, fatigue, weakness, memory loss, nausea, appetite loss, coughing, wheezing, and hearing and color vision loss. Exposure to toluene can cause birth defects in pregnant women. Yeah, that sounds pretty bad. The concentrations of toluene in nail products were deemed safe for use by the EU, but they recommend that the areas where you do your nails be kept well ventilated. Still, I think I will not risk this: no more toluene for me! Luckily there are some fabulous brands that make toluene-free nail polish…

Three Free/Toluene Free Nail Polish Brands:

butter London (3 Free)

Wet n Wild (3 Free)

Orly (3 Free)

Essie (contains formalin, called formaldehyde resin)

Nicole by OPI (3 free)

Ulta (3 free)

Red Carpet Manicure (3 free)

Revlon (toluene and formaldehyde free)

OPI (toluene and DPB free, some hardeners contain formaldehyde)


Campaign for Safe Cosmetics on Parabens:

FDA on Parabens:

Wikipedia article on Estrogen:

OSHA fact sheet on Formaldehyde:

California Department of Public Health fact sheet on Formaldehyde:

Article by Doug Schoon (Co-Chair of Nail Manufacturer’s Council) on Formaldehyde in Cosmetics:

CIR Council Thing (not quite sure what it is called…):

Report on CIR decision:

Nail Manufacturer’s Council:

Cosmetics Ingredients Review:

NY Times article on Sulfates: on Sulfates:

Environmental Health Perspectives study on DPB:


National Library of Medicine on Toluene:

European Union Scientific Committee on Consumer Products on Toluene:

What You Need to Know About Sunscreen (as told by a common skin paranoiac)

OK, let me tell you something. Sunscreen? I hate the stuff. I hate the texture. I hate the smell. I hate how it separates in heat and then suddenly you are standing there like an idiot with a handful of disgusting yellow oil with the occasional blob of white. But I am also terrified of skin cancer and aging. And sunscreen? It helps with both of those things.

For most of you, this probably isn’t news to you. Yes, sun exposure causes wrinkles and melanoma and blah blah blah. So you wear sunscreen. Big deal. But there is more to the story.

I should probably start off by explaining a bit about sun exposure. The type of light that causes damage is called ultraviolet (UV) light. There are three types of UV rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVC is fairly irrelevant when talking about sun damage, as the rays are filtered out by the ozone layer. That leaves UVA and UVB. UVB rays are much stronger than UVA rays, so for a long time only UVB rays were considered as a serious cause of skin cancer and other skin woes. The SPF rating that we see on sunscreen is an indicator of how much of these rays the particular sunscreen blocks. However, there is increasing evidence to show that UVA rays, the weaker but more prevalent rays, actually can do quite a bit of damage themselves. Unfortunately, the SPF factor does not take the UVA rays into account. What this means is that if you live in the States, you have to check the sunscreens that you buy to see if they offer any UVA protection. Sunscreen with UVA protection is available; you might just have to hunt around a bit. The ones that do normally say on the label. A list of sunscreens with UVA protection will be provided below. It’s also possible that the sunscreen does have some protection in it, but doesn’t say. In that case you can check the ingredients list for UVA blocking ingredients. Again, a list of ingredients will be provided below. If you live in Europe then you can relax, sunscreens contain these ingredients by default.

There is also the matter of sun protection in moisturizers, foundations, lip balms, etc. Using these products is great, don’t get me wrong. A little bit extra sun protection is certainly not going to hurt. But that should not be the only thing you use. These products are even less likely to have UVA protection than normal sunscreens. Also, you typically would not use enough of the product to enjoy its full benefit. Even if a foundation has SPF 10, if you use a thin coat of it then in reality you might only be getting an SPF of 5.

Another thing to worry about when choosing sunscreen is the other stuff in it. Oxybenzone, a chemical used to absorb UV rays, is FDA and American Academy of Dermatology approved. However, there may be a link between this chemical and hormone disruption and skin cancer. Retinyl palmate is also potentially toxic. I will include a link below for the 2012 Sunscreen Guide from the Environmental Working Group, which evaluates sunscreens on their potential harmfulness.

On the other side, there is Vitamin D to worry about. Vitamin D is a vitamin made by your body when it comes in contact to UVB. It is essential to the body, and cannot really be found in foods. A deficiency of Vitamin D can also cause many medical conditions, and getting enough Vitamin D can decrease the risk of  things like osteoporosis, heart attacks and heart attacks, and various cancers. Because sunscreen blocks UVB, Vitamin D cannot be produced whilst the person is wearing it. The Cancer Council of Australia recommends that people not wear sun protection in the winter, when the sun’s rays are not so intense (under UV Index 3), and a few minutes each day in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon are sufficient if the UV Index is over 3, like in the summer. Darker skin tones may need anywhere from 3-6 times this amount. In the summer around midday, nobody, regardless of their skin tone, should go out without sun protection.

Hope you all are well, and WEAR SUNSCREEN!


Here are the various lists, as promised.


Sunscreens with UVA Protection:

Burt’s Bees Sunscreen (SPF 15/30)

Nivea Sun Moisturizing Sun Lotion (SPF 15/20/30)

W.S. Badger All-Natural Unscented Face and Body Sunscreen (SPF 30)

Alba Botanica Very Emollient Sunblock (SPF 30)

(or any Alba Botanica sunscreen)

Clarins UV Plus Protective Day Screen (SPF 40)

(Or any Clarins sunscreen)


Moisturizers with UVA Protection:

The Body Shop Vitamin E Moisture Lotion (SPF15)

Laura Mercier Repair Day Cream (SPF 15)

Laura Mercier Mega-Moisture Cream (SPF 15)

Boots Vitamin E Moisture Lotion (SPF 15)

Yes To Blueberries Age Refresh Daily Facial Moisturizer (SPF 30)

Yes To Cucumbers Soothing Daily Calming Moisturizer (SPF 30)


UVA Blocking/Absorbing Ingredients:



Ecamsule (Mexoryl SX)

Meradimate (Menthyl Anthranilate)



Titanium Dioxide

Zinc Oxide