Ever wonder whether some hot-button ingredients are really bad for you? We look at four big ones…

Navigating the ingredient list on your beauty products can be daunting. Usually the names of ingredients are totally unfamiliar and unpronounceable and you have no idea what they actually are. Sometimes you recognise an ingredient as something you’ve read about that could be harmful, but you aren’t sure why.

Here’s the lowdown on four common beauty ingredients that have a bad reputation in some circles


What is it? Sulphates (or sulfates) refer to sodium lauryl sulphate and sodium laureth sulphate. These are foaming agents that are used in a lot of cleansing products – think toothpaste, face wash, body wash, shampoo and foam bath. 

The controversy: Sulphates have a reputation for being drying and sensitising. If you have dry hair or sensitive skin, you may want to look for sulphate-free products, but if you’re happy with the products you’re currently using, there’s no need to panic if they contain sulphates. Most people tolerate sulphates just fine!

Related: Sulphate-free hair products you need to try

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What is it? Parabens are preservatives used in cosmetics in small quantities. The most commonly used variants are butyl paraben, methyl paraben and propyl paraben. They extend the shelf-life of beauty products by preventing the growth of bacteria and mould.

The controversy: Research has shown that parabens can be absorbed into our skin, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re bad for us. In large quantities, parabens have been flagged as endocrine disruptors (this means that they interfere with normal hormone functioning, which could increase your risk of contracting cancer). 

But the small quantities used in topical cosmetics applications are considered safe. In fact, as parabens have been so intensively researched, they are likely to be safer than the paraben-free alternative. 

If you choose to avoid parabens, make sure that the alternative preservatives in your products have been thoroughly tested.


What is it? Plant extracts or synthetic components are used to create fragrance components that are added to cosmetic products. 

The controversy: Fragrance is a known irritant, and in this case the hype is true. Both synthetic and natural fragrances can cause irritation, which leads to anything from dryness, itching, and burning to long term low-level irritation. As fragrance has no skincare benefit itself, it’s best to avoid it wherever possible, especially if you have sensitive skin. 

artfully – @123rf.com

Mineral oil

What is it? Cosmetic mineral oil is a by-product created during the refining process of turning crude oil into petrol or other petroleum products. It’s a pure emollient and barrier agent. 

The controversy: Mineral oil has a bad reputation due to its association with crude oil and petrol. After all, you wouldn’t put petrol on your skin! It’s rumoured to be toxic or just vaguely ‘bad for skin’. It is, however, a perfectly safe and non-sensitising moisturising agent. If you’re suffering from dry skin, it’s one of the most moisturising ingredients out there, forming a barrier between your skin and the air and keeping skin hydrated. Even better, it’s really cheap!

Some people have found that mineral oil exacerbates blackheads or acne, but this isn’t generally a problem associated with cosmetic grade mineral oil.

Now read: The beginner’s guide to comedogenic ratings