[beyond skin deep] what the heck does this label even mean? (part 1)

If many beauty product labels have you scratching your head, don’t fret! Here are some definitions to help you understand them a little better.


Have you had your mind boggled by product labels like sulfate-free, silicone-free, and paraben-free? You’re not alone. It sounds like you’ve avoided a world of dangerous chemicals, so that’s great, right? But, what do these labels really mean in the context of beauty, skincare and haircare?

If you find these beauty product labels confusing, here are some working definitions to help get you started. This will give you a head-start before your next beauty splurge, and help you make choices that are better for yourself and the environment.

should parabens be para-banned? (sorry.)

Makeup and other beauty products are very much like food; they all have a shelf life. Chemicals like parabens are used as preservatives to extend the shelf life of products by preventing bacteria or mould from forming. Ethylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben are some of the common names you will find on an ingredients list.

Due to their similar behaviours to estrogen, parabens have been linked with not only hormone problems but also breast cancer. Sounds bad, but are parabens as bad as the beauty industry wants you to believe?

Some scientists will assert that there isn’t conclusive evidence linking parabens and cancer, or argue that parabens are included for safety’s sake. And, they may have a point. Mould and bacteria contaminations are not easy to detect, and these can easily cause infections, especially around the sensitive eye area. However, a more recent study has found inadequate evidence to suggest that use of parabens is indeed safe, and we should instead be more cautious.

Either way, it might be wise to opt out of using products containing parabens, but nonetheless, consider this small caveat. Unless your products are always sealed and airtight, your paraben-free cosmetics will quickly become ripe breeding grounds for mould and bacteria. Just sayin’.

sufferin’ sulfates and silicones.

Washing your hair is usually pretty straightforward. You just pump some shampoo, work up a lather, massage it into your hair and rinse. The outcome? Clean and usually nice-smelling hair.

Sulfates are one of the ingredients that help you achieve that clean feeling and create the foamy lather. Sulfates are a type of surfactant, which help remove oil and dirt from your hair and scalp. (Here’s a nifty little YouTube video that explains how surfactants work.) Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are two more commonly used sulfates found in shampoos.

What about silicones then? Silicone forms a coating on the hair shaft, locking in moisture and also creating a soft, smooth and silky feeling. Silicones come in different types; water-soluble, partially soluble and fat-soluble silicones, and are identifiable with chemical names ending with -cone-thiconol, or -thicone.

So, what exactly is so bad about these compounds?

Sulfates are quite potent ingredients. They can cause an allergic reaction or skin irritation, especially with people who have sensitive hair or skin. Sulfates also deprive the hair and scalp of its naturally secreted oils that help maintain a healthy mane. The end result? Dry and frizzy hair.

Silicones are great at keeping the moisture in, sure, but doing also blocks out any external nourishing ingredients and prevents them from penetrating the hair follicle. And, especially for non-water-soluble silicones, these can accumulate on the hair and result in dryness. Plus, they also leave your hair feeling heavy or flat.

Do you really need to avoid products with sulfates and silicones? Like every purchase, your choices are personal and subjective, and also depend a lot on what you’re looking for. But before you come to a decision, take a moment to consider the impact you might have on the environment.

are they environmentally unfriendly?

Parabens and silicones in particular have been implicated for their environmental impact. Waste water containing these chemicals can seep into the soil or pollute waters, and the damage they do often goes undetected until it is too late. Accumulation of parabens in the soil can lead to toxicity levels that are hazardous for organisms. Similarly, silicone can also accumulate in the bodies of marine creatures that eventually end up on our dinner tables. Maybe this is poetic justice as we inadvertently poison ourselves in a roundabout way, but it doesn’t have to be the case.

Many of the existing environmental dilemmas we are combatting have arisen precisely because much of it went unnoticed. But, if we can, with a little effort at a time, resist and prevent these problems, that small change can go a long way. Before your next purchase, consider the impact you might have on the environment, and let your conscience (and the beauty product labels) be your guide!


We discuss more about beauty product labels in part 2, out now! In the meantime, did you know that many of the products we use are also harmful to animals? Luckily, it doesn’t have to be! Learn more about cruelty-free beauty here.

samantha phua

When she's not busy being the editor of autoapp.sg, Sam has a myriad of unique hobbies to keep life interesting. She also loves cats, bad puns and a good cocktail.

you may also like

CapitaLand present Spring/Summer 2024.

zipblinds direct launches Singapore’s first unmanned zip blinds showroom.

shop sustainably this Easter weekend with the Decathlon Circular Bazaar.

AI-powered hair care: a hijabi’s journey to resolving hair loss with DrScalp.