Sulphates, Parabens, Phthalates, Silicones – Why Are These Ingredients Controversial And Should You Avoid Them?

We explain what these ingredients do and how they can affect your body. 

Is it just us or did buying cosmetics become a heck of a lot more complicated in the past few years? 

One upon a time, we smugly walked into our local pharmacy/supermarket/skin care store, tested out a bunch of formulas on our right hand and invested in the serum that smelt the nicest. Now, we’re more clued on – and we’re questioning everything. After all, our skin is our largest organ and a good portion of what we put on it is absorbed into our bloodstream. (Case in point: nicotine patches.) 

Mukti, founder of Mukti Organics, has spent over two decades in the beauty industry, focusing on ‘toxin-free’ alternatives to conventional beauty regimes. To share her knowledge of the potentially adverse effects of certain chemicals, she released a book, Truth in Beauty, as an easy-to-follow guide. For Mukti, one of her biggest concerns is that long term effects of ingredients are difficult to define. “There are some ingredients that are of concern in relation to their unknown bioaccumulative effects and the general premise being that the ‘dose makes the poison’ and safe until proven otherwise.”

Throughout the years, brands have responded to consumer pressure by removing and replacing controversial ingredients. However, it’s important to note that the alternative is not always better. When parabens started to get a bad reputation (more on that later), phenoxyethanol became the new alternative. Mukti flags that she has reservations about phenoxyethanol: “It’s a cheap and effective ‘plug in’ preservation system. Exposure has been linked to eczema and severe allergic and even anaphylactic reactions. Oral exposure in infants can affect nervous system function.”

If you want to know more about the polarising chemicals that could be lurking in your bathroom cabinet, you might find that it’s a confusing area to navigate. There are a lot of players for and against. Here, we’ve compiled a cheat sheet on the most common ingredients to grace ‘free from’ labels.

skincare order


Sulphates are a surfactant or foaming agent; they interact with water and help to transform a liquid into a foam. The most popular sulphates are sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). As Jay Kownacki, Head of Education at evo explains: “Sulphate-based ingredients are found in some shampoos and are mainly used to amplify the effects of the shampoo, helping to create a thick foam that effectively cleans dirt and oil from the hair and scalp.”

Most commonly used in: If it foams, there’s a good chance there’s a sulphate in there – think: cleanser, shampoo, hand wash, dishwashing detergent, toothpaste, the list goes on. 

Why they’re controversial: When they come into contact with skin, some of these harsh sulphates can irritate and/or have a drying effect. Have you noticed that with increased hand washing thanks to COVID-19, your hands have become drier than the Sahara Desert? We have sulphates to thank for that. 

Sulphates are a hot topic in hair care at the moment; you’ve probably noticed a few brands claiming to be sulphate or SLS free. “Some sulphates can be harsh on the scalp, stripping it of natural oils and increasing fading in colour-treated hair,” says Kownacki.

The alternative: If sulphates don’t agree with you or you’d prefer to play on the safe side, there are other options. “Green chemistry has evolved to include many healthier and natural alternatives that are equally as effective although more expensive,” Mukti tells Gritty Pretty. “When it comes to foaming agents, I would be looking at gentle plant based glucosides, soap nut, yucca and soapwort as alternatives to sulphates and laureths.”

All evo products are proudly sulphate-free, says Kownacki: “We choose to formulate without sulphates to prevent the harsh, stripping effects they can have. Instead, we choose low-foaming surfactants that gently clean to help reduce colour fading.”


Parabens – including butylparaben, isobutylparaben, propylparaben, methylparaben, and ethylparaben – are used within cosmetics as preservatives to give them a longer shelf life. 

Most commonly used in: Any cosmetic or personal care product that sits on a pharmacy or supermarket shelf. Without some form of preservative, these products would breed bacteria and go off. Gross. 

Why they’re controversial: Over the past 10 years, parabens have become a polarising ingredient due to conflicting studies. Notably, a 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology found that 18 out of 20 women who had breast cancer had parabens in their bodies. However this study has been criticised by Harvard researchers for not determining where the parabens came from. A 2018 study by The Cosmetics Ingredient Review found that parabens are safe in their current levels.

The alternative: For brands who choose to omit parabens, there are a few alternatives. Mukti Organics uses phenethyl alcohol natural (a naturally occurring alcohol in flowers), glyceryl monoesters, sodium levulinate and sodium anisate (all found in plants).


Phthalates are chemicals commonly used as a plasticiser in cosmetics and as a fixative to increase the longevity of a product. In fragrance, they act as a solvent. They are also used in plastic packaging and toys.  

Most commonly used in: Cosmetics including perfumes, hair spray, nail polish, deodorant, and body lotion.

Why they’re controversial: Phthalates have been accused of disrupting the endocrine system in both men and women. An endocrine disruptor is a chemical that mimics the body’s natural hormones and could have detrimental effects on reproduction and fertility. In light of these health concerns, several phthalates – including dibutylphthalate, diethylhexylphthalate, diisobutylphthalate and di(methyloxyhexyl)phthalate – have been banned in Australia. Research in this area is still ongoing.

NB: Did you know that brands don’t have to list what’s in a fragrance as it is deemed a trade secret? Meaning, your fragrance could have phthalates in it and you wouldn’t know because it’s hiding within a product’s ingredients list under ‘fragrance’. If you do want to avoid phthalates, you will need to switch out any product containing fragrance.


Silicone is a mineral. In cosmetics, silicones are a large class of materials – usually you can spot a silicone by looking for ingredients ending in ‘one’. 

Most commonly used in: Silicones are used in hair care to provide slip and shine, help lock in moisture and smooth frizz. 

Why they’re controversial: “Silicones create a film on the hair that can build up over time, leaving the hair limp and lifeless,” Kownacki explains. “Water-soluble silicones can dissolve in water, however, not all silicones are created equal. Non-soluble silicones can create a barrier on the hair that can affect colour services, if they build up on the hair it can feel dry and dull over time.”

Are there any ingredients you’d like Gritty Pretty to investigate? Let us know in the comment section below.


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