Free From lists

Free From lists

Good evening, and welcome back to another thought filled blog. I really like to think of this place as a space I can write out thoughts and share them with you all.

Today we are going to be talking about "free from" lists and why they have become prevalent tools in the beauty industry particularly the clean beauty industry. I have seen these being used as marketing tools in the natural clean beauty world and I thought it would be nice to take a deep dive into this subject since its everywhere and can be very confusing for consumers.

If you are wondering why I am so passionate about the topic of "clean beauty," the marketing used for it and the misconceptions surrounding it, is because I believed it for so long that when I started finding out the truth it was shocking. When I started doing my own research, which happened when I started focusing more on cosmetic chemistry and formulation- I wanted to start making water-based formulations and expand my products. During that time, I felt a strong desire to learn how to make different types of products that included actives, extracts and water which is much more difficult than making only anhydrous/oil-based products. As a business owner I have realized over the years that I am not someone who likes to be put in a box when creating. That led me to ask the question why? Why can't I use preservatives, or parabens, or Formaldehyde donors?

When I started my business, I was very much wet behind the ears and living an extremely crunchi lifestyle, and because of that I did what everyone around me was doing ie other businesses. I very much labeled and marketed myself as a "Clean Brand" when I started Grassland Beauty then Jen Tallow in 2020. Using minimal ingredients and all the while demonizing the ones I didnt use because they were toxic.

Little did I know at the time that largely due to my desire to grow in knowledge in making products for my business is what would lead me to really take a long hard look at the available data- for myself and to stop listening to the social media influencer machine.

Researching these topics take patience, having a nonbiased perspective and time. You have to be mindful of the many things you are going to come across. Such as a study that could show questionable effects of certain ingredients, but the important thing is to not get stuck on that one study and write off the rest. Or just be satisfied with that one study and stop researching further.

I also started immersing myself in not only the sciences of cosmetic chemistry, but the toxicology side of it as well. I have no formal background or formal education on that yet but if you look to the experts there is so much information out there that you can educate yourself on anything these days. Side note-I will be pursuing a cosmetic chemist license this next year because I have become passionate about formulating and would like to learn as much as I can in a formal setting. There is always a desire to grow in knowledge and understanding.


What are free from lists? These are the lists you see on labels, ads, or on social media posts regarding a product and what it doesnt contain. Usually we see Free From _______ insert here. Typically you'll see free from Phalates, Parabens, Preservatives, formaldehyde, petroleum, pegs, etc. But that doesn't give us any info as to what these ingredients are or why they are listed as free from so let's dive into that.



Lets go over the most common ingredients used in "Free From" Lists starting with phtalates.

What are Phtalates? Briefly defined phtalates are a group of plastics that make products more durable. Yes, it sounds bad but there are several types of phtalates which include Diethyl Phtalate, Dibutyl Phtalate, dioctyl phthalate and Disodecyl phthalate. The one we are going to be discussing is Diethyl phtalate which is widely used in cosmetics-the only one used in cosmetics and so the only one relevant to skincare. The others aren't being used in cosmetics because they actually do have safety concerns.

 The reason the free from claim includes phalates is because some of the other ones listed have shown in several studies to be present in breast cancer tissue. The issue with that is that Phalates have also been found everywhere. Their in soil, in our food, in the air we breath and the largest exposure we have to them is in our food products because they can easily migrate from plastic packaging. The other obvious issue with the few studies that have shown phtalates in breast cancer tissues is that it doesn't prove that it was the phtalates that caused the cancer. It just shows its present. 

Phtalates are pretty prevelant in dirt, soil, dust and the air we breathe because phtalates can easily migrate into surrounding areas from plastics. They are more of an environmental threat due to being used in agriculture today, and plastic packaging which creates much waste. In fact the EU allows phalates at 100 ppm (parts per million) because they are so prevalent in the environment there is no way to ensure they aren't there even if they aren't intentionally added to a product.

 The truth is Diethyl Phtalates specifically have good safety data supporting its use in cosmetics. 

 Here is a snippet from Jen from The Ecowell whose backround is in cosmetic chemistry and here is what she has to say about phtalates:

"The only phthalate still in use worldwide is diethyl phthalate, which can be used without restriction because of its good safety profile. While there is certainly a concern for some phthalates, particularly with endocrine disruption, the evidence we have to date regarding diethyl phthalate demonstrates safety. DMP and DBP have largely been phased out since 2007. Note, with respect to risks for DBP, perhaps this was a wee bit on the conservative side in light of the evidence we have as applicable to cosmetics (more on DBP below). Regardless, based on the evidence and regulatory restrictions, are phthalates in cosmetics something you need to worry about? No."

Here is a blog she wrote regarding phalates back in 2021 Are phthalates something you really need to worry about in cosmetics? No. — The Eco Well


What are Parabens?

Parabens refers to any compound as it relates to preservation in cosmetics or foods. MethylParaben Butylparaben, Ethylparaben and Propylparaben are the different types of parabens.

"Parabens are derived from para-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA) that occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, such as cucumbers, cherries, carrots, blueberries and onions.

Parabens used in cosmetics are identical to those found in nature, and the human body quickly changes them into natural PHBA and eliminates them.

Parabens have been safely used for almost 100 years as preservatives in the food, drug and personal care and cosmetic industries. Several commonly used parabens have been designated as “Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS)” for such uses by the FDA since the early 1970s."

Parabens - Chemical Safety Facts

 An excellent study on the estrogenic effects of parabens:

A perspective on the safety of parabens as preservatives in wound care products - PMC (

An Exerpt from the study above 

"The European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) repeatedly concluded in its paraben safety reports that there is no demonstrable risk for the development of breast cancer caused by the use of paraben ester‐containing underarm care products and found that the submitted information had too many shortcomings to be considered scientifically valid. 23 105 106 107 108 In its most recent report, it is stated that the use of methyl‐ and ethyl‐paraben as preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products is considered safe for human health."

We highly suggest you read the whole study as it will definitely put things into perspective.



Polyethene Glycol is a well known PEG that we will mostly focus on. Since it is most widely used. Its a petroleum based compund used as a thickener, solvent, and softener.

This is a pretty in depth safety evaluation of several different PEG chemicals tested in animal studies and human skin tests. Its long but worth a look.

Safety Evaluation of Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) Compounds for Cosmetic Use - PMC (

These studies showed no toxicity effects when administered in high amounts to rats and beagles. When skin patch tests were conducted there were a few participants who had slight irritations, but overall it showed no causation for hypersensitivity or toxicity.

The biggest issue with PEGs and why they are often a scapegoat for the non toxic proponents is that they are generally made with the addition of ethylene oxide which is a known carcinogen. So, it is warranted that it should be examined closely for its safety and potential toxicological effects. Most of the concern/risks with ethylene oxide are reserved for those handling it on its own. Breathing in its dust and vapors is where the risk of exposure goes up for cancer causing.

PEGS go through a refining process to remove all trace amounts of ethylene oxide so that there is none remaining in the product. This doesn't fully guarantee that there couldn't be a finite amount that still ends up in a PEG from the manufacturing process. But is it enough to really make a difference? Likely not. 

PEGS are actually pretty valuable in the cosmetic chemistry world. They enhance many formulations due to their ability to increase viscosity, they act as humectants, and emulsion stabilizers. 

Preservatives & Formaldehyde Donors

What are Formaldehyde donors? Im going to let Wikipedia explain this one:

"A formaldehyde releaserformaldehyde donor or formaldehyde-releasing preservative is a chemical compound that slowly releases formaldehyde. Formaldehyde-releasers are added to prevent microbial growth and extend shelf life.[1] The intent of these compounds is that they release formaldehyde at levels that suppress microbial growth but sufficiently low to not threaten humans. The use of these chemicals in cosmetics has elicited controversy."

Small amounts of formaldehyde are produced naturally by animals, plants, and humans. The chemical is also used in many building materials and as a preservative in household products.

Preservatives that are labeled as formaldehyde donors are not actual formaldehyde. No one is putting straight formaldehyde into your preservatives. The combination of chemicals causes a reaction which causes natural formaldehyde released as a gas as a byproduct. 

This is the final report of the safety assessment Diazolidinyl Urea (A preservative that is a formaldehyde releaser). This is an old assessment but is still relevant to today as its still referenced by cosmetic scientists.

7 Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Diazolidinyl Urea (

According to this safety assessment just to give you a picture of how much formaldehyde is released from this preservative, when .1% of this preservative is used (in a shampoo) 150 ppm of free formaldehyde was measured. Is that a lot? Not when our bodies naturally release 50 grams a day.

While- yes it's true that Europe is slightly stricter with their usage recommendations of Formaldehyde releasing preservatives they still allow them. 

Here is an excerpt from a study revealing that our bodies naturally create formaldehyde through a carbon reaction that creates DNA and Amino acids-

"Dr Ketan Patel, senior author on the paper from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, said: "We've known for a while that we must produce formaldehyde in our bodies, but we didn't know where it comes from. We've discovered that some of it comes from an unexpected source, a key pathway -- called the one carbon cycle -- that's used to make the building blocks of life, such as DNA and certain amino acids. The one-carbon cycle is a fundamental process which is present in all forms of life, right down to bacteria."

Toxic formaldehyde is produced inside our own cells, scientists discover | ScienceDaily

Formaldehyde is a toxin because it can damage DNA. However, our cells have two lines of defense against the danger of formaldehyde that our bodies naturally create or are exposed to. Firstly, an enzyme converts the formaldehyde into a less dangerous chemical, called formate. And secondly, DNA damage caused by formaldehyde can be fixed by DNA repair enzymes."

So, let's understand that formaldehyde in minute amounts is very tolerable to us and not toxic in the least and isn't harmful. It is what preserves our products. The amount of formaldehyde released from a cosmetic preservative would be far less than the amount our bodies release naturally just existing which is roughly 50 grams. 

The alternative is using a "natural" preservative that isn't as effective and allows bacteria to grow which can really cause bodily harm.


So why are free from lists lame? They are lame because the only thing they tell you is what the product does not have and nothing about what the product does have. It's like me making a birthday cake and saying this doesn't have Gasoline, Aerosols, Pesticides, or Cyanide. They are also lame because they create fear around the ingredient's they claim to be free from. They also cause massive confusion for the consumer. It's also kind of icky that they are used as marketing tools, as they create fear and confusion around a list of ingredients, they are supposedly free from and utilize that to sell their products. Gross. It is completely deceptive.

Whether brands do this due to sheer ignorance and lack of understanding of toxicology, chemistry, or the ability to understand the safety data and studies of ingredients, or if they do it intentionally who knows. It's a mystery. I often wonder if it is because bigger 'clean' beauty brands use this marketing tactic then everyone follows suit, and the consumer is now believing that these ingredients are toxic and that drives the market. It's interesting to watch how quickly fear can take hold. We are like a large pack of prey animals like sheep always on high alert for the next toxic predator.

Oftentimes it's also the consumer pushing for cleaner products, but that is because they have been tricked into believing everything is toxic. So, they are naturally moving towards "cleaner" ingredients that they perceive to be safer. There is no doubt that some ingredients can be problematic but to say they're completely toxic is like saying bananas are toxic for everyone and shouldn't be consumed in any amount. Keep in mind also that as new research comes out things could change. There are no absolutes in science.

Instead of using "Free From" lists business should share what their products have and why that makes them special and unique. Let the products sell themselves, its deceptive to capitalize on people's natural inclination to fear to sell your products. If brands stopped giving into deceptive marketing techniques and were more proactive about actually learning about ingredients and reading up to date information then they could educate their consumers without scaring them into making a purchase. This means not relying on sources that dont provide accurate information like The EWG, Think Dirty App, Detox me app, and many others of the like. They provide information that often leaves consumers even more confused. 

What many don't know about the EWG is that they are paid by certain brands to be featured on their app in a favorable light. They get paid to paint a certain narrative. They also rely on donations. They are a nonprofit organization which sounds fine, but when you really think about it they are also reliant on donations and funds from large brands to push certain products. Not only that they dont show accurate information to the consumers. THEY DO NOT REFLECT THE OPINIONS OF THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY

Here is another really insightful blog from Jen at the Ecowell (we reallly love her work). She talks more in depth about the EWG and what the issues are surrounding their operation.

A Case Against the EWG — The Eco Well

Even the clean beauty brands use ingredients that are processed and contain certain chemicals too. Nothing will ever be clean enough, it's like a unicorn that can't be caught. It works against the goal-well what should be the goal of the beauty industry, which is creating safe, effective products that consumers can trust in and not fear. 

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