Family Matters

Your Product Is Free of Parabens, Sulfates and Lots of Other Things: Should You Care?

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Roxanne Green is a corporate ingredient-reader. What that means is she gets paid to do what savvy (neurotic?) consumers spend hours doing in the cosmetics aisle.

Green, who works at PCC Markets outside Seattle, follows an extensive list from the nonprofit Natural Products Association (NPA) detailing what ingredients the group prohibits. She scrutinizes every label and tosses any products that don’t meet the NPA’s strict standards. In the course of this laborious work, she’s noticed a new marketing trend: an increasing number of shampoos, soaps and moisturizers are touting what they don’t contain.

Kiss My Face sunscreen proclaims it’s paraben-free. Avalon Organics shampoo boasts it’s got no grapefruit seed extract. Even cosmetics giant L’Oreal has a sulfate-free shampoo line. And here’s a real doozy: Hugo Naturals soap states it’s free of “parabens, phenoxyethanol, SLS, PEGs, propylene glycol, petroleum products, artificial colors or synthetic fragrances.”

But what are parabens? Or grapefruit seed extract? And why exactly is sulfate something you don’t want in your shampoo?

In the current print issue of TIME, we explore the concept of “ingredient anxiety” — that feeling of stress that bubbles up when you learn you should be avoiding a particular ingredient but you’re not exactly sure why. Subscribers can read it here — and try to relax.

After all, even the experts can get overwhelmed. Cara Welch, chief scientist for the NPA, acknowledges that all those polysyllabic chemicals can be really confusing. “Look for ingredients you recognize,” advises Welch. “We know not everyone has a Ph.D. in chemistry.”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.