We’ve put together the following guide to help you make it easy to make the right choices for you and your family. A three-point guide to some of the most common ingredients to look out for – or indeed avoid – when shopping for family skincare that we’ve christened amongst ourselves: The Good, The Bad and The Maybes.
The what-were-we-thinking (aka ‘The Bad’)
Just because an ingredient’s manmade doesn’t mean it’s automatically ‘bad’ (hello ‘Maybes’ – see below). However, some of the synthetics and synthetic chemicals used in many bath and skincare products are now viewed as being badder than others when it comes to skin irritation and more. The following are at the top of our hitlist to avoid.
- SLS and SLES (aka sulphates) are synthetic cleansing agents and can be prime irritants for sensitive skins. With plenty of gentle, effective, naturally derived alternatives to choose from, they’re best avoided completely – particularly as children’s skin is naturally more sensitive than adults.
- Phthalates are a group of chemical compounds routinely used in a huge array of everyday products – including cosmetics, shampoos and soap – that research results have revealed as being potentially harmful to humans (e.g, by being carcinogenic and/or as hormone disruptors). Many are already banned for use in the Britain and the EU, so you don’t have to worry about them in products you buy here. If you’re buying product further abroad, however, they may still be licensed for use so it pays to keep them on your radar.
- Silicones are used to create luxe textures and leave a silky finish on skin and hair by creating a barrier that’s hard to wash off. Children’s hair doesn’t need this, particularly as their hair is so new. Best avoided, then.
- Parabens are synthetic compounds used to prolong shelf-life. The use of these has dropped off in some countries – including the UK – in recent years. The effects (if any) of these preservatives remain a subject of scientific debate. However, with multiple alternatives readily available, we – like a lot of beauty brands today – simply choose not to go there.
- Artificial colourants are just one more product ingredient that children may be sensitive to, so our advice is to avoid synthetic dyes full stop. They don’t deliver any skincare benefit and there are plenty of effective natural alternatives – such as beetroot and beta carotene – to choose from. Why even go there?
Nature’s bounty (‘The Good’)
The following plant derivatives get a solid green from us for being skin-kind and family-friendly. Some are even good enough to eat!
- Oats are, quite simply, your friend. Thanks to the clever chemistry of one of their key molecules – a group of alkaloids called avenanthramides –they have a proven reputation for their calming effect on skin and for soothing itching and sensitive skin, particularly. No wonder oats have been used in skincare for centuries (as far back as 2000 BC, no less).
- Chamomile doesn’t just make for a soothing cuppa – it contains powerful anti-inflammatories that are especially good at soothing and calming skin. Calendula – derived from the same plant family as marigolds and chrysanthemums – is another one to look out for help relieving irritated skin.
- Vegetable glycerin is a natural moisturising agent (or humectant) that doesn’t leave an oily residue and draws moisture into the skin. Derived from plant oils, it moisturises and replenishes without weighing down hair or stripping the skin or scalp. (FYI: glycerin can also come from animals and petroleum, so be sure to check which type a product contains).
- Plant oils, such as evening primrose, jojoba, moringa, safflower, grapeseed and sesame, can be gentle bases for a variety of skin moisturisers, including – when used in low levels – for children. The choice and type of oil will be dependent on your child’s skin, which doesn’t need to be overloaded to benefit.
And those on which the jury is still out (‘The Maybes’)
A bit like life, many ingredients used in skincare can’t be designated as being straight-down-the-line ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Like any decision you make for your family, it’s important that it’s an informed one and whether – or how – you want to use the following common ingredients will depend on a host of factors, from skin sensitivities to simple preference.
We recommend assessing and researching the following ingredients on a case-by-case basis to make your own decision on what’s right for your family. Fortunately, the internet is awash with articles from reputable sources to help you do just that – we suggest looking to leading science magazines and well-informed parenting titles as good first ports of call.
The fragrance debate
When it comes to scent, the argument around synthetic vs natural rumbles on – and we believe there’s merit on both sides. Synthetic scents, for example, have been controlled and regulated for longer and in far more depth than many of their natural alternatives. In some ways, then, synthetic fragrances in the right products are a good, easy option for many of us, because they come with robust research and reassurance that the fragrances are safe and unlikely to cause skin reactions.
Natural fragrances, on the other hand, are by their very nature more variable than their synthetic counterparts. That’s because the factors that influence the specific chemistry of an essential oil vary from year to year, with everything from climate to hours of sun – and even the soil they’re grown in – contributing to the oil. That’s led to a lot of chat about how safe they are on skin. However, when formulated for a product intended for use by a child or all the family, how natural fragrances are used – right down to dilution – is highly regulated and they are safe to use.
The petrochemical debate
Some brands choose not to use ingredients derived from petrochemicals – such as petroleum jelly (aka petrolatum), mineral oil and Vaseline – citing the unsustainability of the ingredients, as well as practices of the industry they’re drawn from.
Yet this family of ingredients is known for creating strong barrier protection and being highly effective at keeping water and the world out. They are very bland, safe and inactive, and unlikely to prompt a skin reaction. As such, they can prove to be a life line for a child with reactive or extreme skin sensitivity.