You're probably familiar with the big, bad skin care "boogeymen"—parabens, sulphates, color cosmetics. These ingredients are known toxins and you most likely have learned to avoid them like the skin care mastermind you are. However, there are other ingredients you need to look out for as well. These ingredients might not be as harmful as parabens, but they're not exactly good for your skin either. We're talking about filler ingredients. Fillers are like the cosmetic equivalent of candy. Devoid of any nutritional value, fillers allow skin care manufacturers to save money while doing your skin no favors. They may not always be harmful, but like candy, they're not good for a healthy diet either.
By definition, a "filler" component of a cosmetic formula is any inert ingredient used to create bulk, texture or lubrication. Typically, fillers are not essential to the active part of a formulation, nor do they make a product perform better. Although they don't enhance the purpose of a product, whether it's anti-aging or anti-acne, they may contribute to the way it feels on your skin. If you turn around the bottle of nearly any drugstore cosmetic, you'll find fillers galore. They are extremely hard to weed out and even harder to avoid. A 411 in artificial fillers is necessary to separate the cosmetic candy from the true skin nutrition.
1. Stabilizers, Solvents and Other Control Agents
These make up the vast majority of synthetic fillers. Disodium EDTA is a multi-purpose ingredient that functions as a preservative, chelator and stabilizer, binding with heavy metal ions contained in tap water. Phthalates, a family of industrial chemicals used as plastic softeners or solvents, are frequent additions to beauty products like hair spray, deodorant, perfume and nail polish. Hundreds of animal studies have shown that phthalates can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system. Diethanolamine (DEA), closely related to cocamide DEA, and triethanolamine (TEA) are both used as emulsifiers and/or foaming agents. Not only can they trigger allergic reactions, dryness and irritation, but they can also form cancer-causing compounds when in contact with nitrates. Some other consistency-boosters include xanthan gum (thickening), sodium hydroxide (pH adjusting), benzyl alcohol (masking) and sodium carboxymethyl betaglucan (binding).
2. Inactive Ingredients
Many inactive ingredients are added because they can be manufactured very inexpensively while prolonging shelf life. By adding cheap fillers to the pure active ingredients, cosmetics companies increase their profits. Propylene glycol is ideally a vegetable glycerin mixed with grain alcohol, but it can also be a synthetic petrochemical mix used as a humectant. This ingredient and its closely related synthetic cousins, PEG (polyethylene glycol) and PPG (polypropolene glycol), are known causes of allergic reactions, eczema and hives. If companies were to discard these ingredients for healthy alternatives, they would severely cut into their profit margins.
3. Our Frenemy, Petroleum
Petroleum is a favorite cosmetic candy of mainstream manufacturers because it is unbelievably cheap. A lip balm touting beeswax might contain a high concentration of petroleum-derived waxes, like paraffin, since it is considerably less expensive to produce a synthetic wax in a factory than to obtain a natural wax produced by honey bees. Likewise, instead of using natural oils from olive, coconut, almond or jojoba, a manufacturer trying to cut costs might resort to petroleum-based oils like mineral oil and petroleum jelly. Besides being known carcinogens, these synthetic oils clog pores, promote the growth of blackheads and may contribute to aging by interfering with the body's natural moisturizing mechanisms.
Petroleum also makes its way into hair products under the toxic chemical hybrid PVP/VA copolymer, which is often added to hairsprays and styling aids. Even the ubiquitous foaming detergent sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, found in everything from shampoo to toothpaste, is often derived from petroleum, though it is sometimes disguised in faux green products as "derived from coconut." It is not uncommon for fillers to be tossed unceremoniously into a formula simply to support the marketing story (see: angel dusting).
4. Colors & Dyes
Fillers are also added to make cosmetics look pretty or smell good. Synthetic colors and dyes, typically labeled as DF&C or D&C followed by a color and a number, can be carcinogenic in high doses. Though it is more common in antiperspirants and toothpastes, aluminum can also be used as a color enhancer. As a heavy metal, aluminum is a neurotoxin with the capacity to alter the metabolism of cells by blocking certain enzyme systems. Fragrance additives are no less evil, containing as many as 200 chemicals that can induce headaches, vomiting, dizziness, rashes and hyperpigmentation.
5. Mineral Makeup Fillers
The two most common fillers in mineral makeup are mica and bismuth oxychloride. A byproduct of lead and copper refining, bismuth oxychloride begins as an impurity chemically related to arsenic and antimony, far from a mineral direct out of the earth. Though it effectively increases luminosity, it frequently causes irritation and sensitization. Nonetheless, both mica and bismuth oxychloride add slip, aid in adhesion and prevent essential minerals (titanium, zinc) and pigments (iron oxides, ultramarines) from sticking to your skin, which can lead to unevenness. Other less common filler ingredients in mineral makeup include rice powder, silk protein, boron nitride, cornstarch, tapioca starch, silica spheres and talc. The latter of these is a respiratory irritant that has been linked to cancer.
Our Two Cents
There is nothing inherently wrong with filler ingredients. On the other hand, a number of the fillers above are not added to a formula with your best interest in mind. It is all too easy to load up on cosmetic candy and imbibe without abandon. And unlike the candy that taunts you from the end of every drugstore aisle and checkout counter, empty cosmetic calories lure you year-round. You know what they say— "You are what you eat." Well, the same goes for your skin.