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Confession time: for years after I switched to a whole foods diet, I was still using all conventional makeup and skincare products that contained known harmful ingredients. I knew that what I was putting in my body had a profound impact on my health, but I wasn’t paying much attention to what I was putting on my body.

Even after doing a ton of research on harmful ingredients in skin care, all of my makeup was just the conventional products from the drugstore because I wasn’t thinking about the harmful ingredients in cosmetic products.

But when I got pregnant with my daughter 4 years ago, I suddenly cared a lot more about what potential dangers were lurking in my lipstick, and how harmful ingredients impacted pregnancy

It turns out ignorance was bliss. I was shocked to learn how many harmful chemicals are in makeup and skincare products. And I was even more surprised to find out there is little to no government regulation in the cosmetic industry.

According to the Environmental Working Group, the average woman uses 12 products containing 168 unique ingredients every single day. Most contain endocrine disrupters, which can affect hormonal balance and fertility. Some contain ingredients with clear links to cancer.

We put this stuff on our face and lips, we kiss our kiddos with it, and it’s not safe for them or for you.

After researching the harmful ingredients in skincare and cosmetic products and learning more about how it could impact my family’s health, I knew I couldn’t go back to conventional cosmetic products. And I believe more women need to know this information too.

PS: I now write a monthly newsletter centered around understanding harmful ingredients in skin care and cosmetic products. Join my Clean Beauty Community to get it!

Lack of Regulation Is a Huge Problem in Personal Care Products

Think ingredients with proven harmful effects are regulated in personal care products? Think again. There is almost zero federal regulation of the cosmetics industry in the United States.

A product can go straight from manufacturing to store shelves without any type of approval or mandatory safety testing. The Food and Drug Administration only regulates misbranding or false advertising on packages—not what actually goes inside the packages.

There are over 1,300 chemicals banned for use in cosmetics in the European Union due to questions over their safety. In comparison, the U.S. has only banned 11.

But that’s not the only problem. If a product is sold in stores and consumers (like me and you) report problems—like a lotion caused a severe reaction—the company does not have to report the complaint to the FDA. And even if the FDA is alerted of the complaint? The FDA has no authority to issue a recall of cosmetic products.

That means there’s basically no way to be sure a product is safe before it’s sold, and no way to get unsafe products off of store shelves other than through voluntary testing and recalls done by the cosmetics companies themselves.

Self Regulation is the Only Regulation

So do cosmetic companies do a good job regulating themselves? The Personal Care Products Council funds a review board called the Cosmetic Ingredient Review whose job it is to test cosmetic ingredients for safety. Can we trust them to put consumer’s safety over the bottom line of the companies who fund their research?

There are definitely times when self-regulation has failed.

  • In July 2018, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay a $4.96 billion settlement to 22 women who found asbestos in talc in baby powder caused their ovarian cancer.
  • Guthy-Renker, the manufacturer of WEN hair products, settled a class-action lawsuit for $26 million after consumers said it caused rashes and hair loss.
  • After decades of use in soaps, the FDA finally banned triclosan from soap in 2016 over concerns about its long-term safety and contribution to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Unfortunately, it is still used in many products like toothpaste, mascara, and foundation.

And there are lots of other chemicals that are known to be dangerous (like the ten harmful ingredients to avoid in makeup and skincare products listed below), but are still widely used in the cosmetics industry.

“Natural” Doesn’t Mean A Lot When It Comes to Cosmetics

With food, specific marketing terms are regulated by the FDA. But when it comes to skincare and cosmetic products, there is no regulation. 

“Natural” products can contain just as many harmful chemicals as conventional products. Even products labeled “unscented” can contain synthetic fragrances.

The only way to know for sure if there are harmful ingredients in your makeup or skincare products is to read the label. But even then, not every ingredient has to be listed, as some formulations (like for fragrance) are considered “trade secrets” and don’t have to be disclosed. 

And perhaps the biggest misconception in cosmetics, switching to natural makeup isn’t always better. In fact, many natural brands, including mineral cosmetics, are some of the worst offenders. They often use a higher concentration of ingredients that are frequently contaminated with heavy metals, like clay.

Heavy metals are found naturally in the earth, and end up in a lot of household items, including cosmetics. The most common toxic heavy metals are aluminum, cadmium, lead, mercury, and arsenic.

Wondering if your cosmetics contain heavy metals? Check out my in-depth article Does your makeup contain heavy metals? Here’s how to know.

Color cosmetics, including powders and lipsticks, are often contaminated with lead. In fact, Beautycounter tested a wide range of products and found some cosmetic brands contained up to 240 ppm of lead (the FDA encourages manufacturers to limit it to 10 ppm or less).

A Quick Word on Chemicals in Cosmetics

When it comes to cosmetics, “chemical” is not a bad word. Chemicals are nothing to avoid or be feared.

You are made of chemicals. Everything that you can taste, smell, or hold—including water, coconut oil, and even dirt —is made up of chemicals.

There is no such thing as chemical-free cosmetics, and “natural” cosmetics are not free of chemicals. What you want to avoid is harmful chemicals in cosmetics, that is, chemicals that have known harmful effects. Just because cometic ingredients are natural, doesn’t make them safe. And just because an ingredient is synthetic doesn’t mean it’s unsafe.

Choosing Safer Skin Care Is Up To Us

Because there is little to no regulation of harmful ingredients in personal care products, it is up to us to choose safer products for ourselves and our families. 

On a day to day basis, we are exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals from all kinds of sources—pesticides, plastics, car exhaust, and more we can’t control. Choosing safer skincare and cosmetic products is something we can control, and it’s a big part of our daily lives, which means removing harmful ingredients can have a big impact.

While they are few and far between, there are a number of companies that are paving the way for transparency, responsibility, and safety testing in makeup and skin care for women, men, and kids.

Choosing safer products (yes—that actually work) involves finding companies that are transparent with their ingredients and committed to safety testing, and knowing what ingredients to avoid in makeup and skincare products so you can make informed decisions.

Note: If you are struggling because you have serious skin issues like hormonal acne and you don’t know if clean or safe cosmetic products will work for you, check out Hormonal Acne: The Root Cause and How to Treat It Naturally.

Top 10 Ingredients to Avoid in Makeup and Skincare Products

1. Parabens

Parabens are preservatives found in everything from soap to lotion to makeup. If it has water in it, it probably has a paraben to keep it from growing bacteria. Examples include: methylparaben, proplyparaben, isopropylparaben, and isobutylparaben. If “paraben” is in the word, avoid it. 

Parabens are known endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic estrogen in the body and can lead to hormonal imbalances, and possibly even breast cancer. For example, a recent study found concentrations of parabens, specifically methylparaben, in human breast tumors. Another study found 99% of all cancerous breast tumors contained parabens.

2. Artificial Fragrance/Parfum

Almost every single conventional skincare and cosmetic product (even “unscented” ones) contains artificial fragrances. Manufacturers aren’t required to reveal what’s actually in their fragrances, so you’ll simply see “Fragrance” or “Parfum” on the ingredients list when it could actually be a cocktail of carcinogens, allergens, endocrine disruptors, and irritants.

3. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate

SLS/SLES are foaming agents used in a slew of personal care products, including skin care and cosmetics, shampoo, and toothpaste. They are surfactants that can cause skin irritation or trigger allergies. Additionally, chemical compounds known as “nitrosamines” are common by-products of the sulphation process. 90% of nitrosamines are believed to be carcinogenic.

4. Toluene

Toluene is a chemical commonly found in nail polish and hair dyes. It is a volatile petrochemical solvent that can be toxic to the immune system and can cause birth defects. If you’re pregnant, be especially careful and avoid nail polish containing toluene entirely.

5. Phthalates

A phthalate is a plasticizer that is added to plastic to keep it from becoming brittle. Phthalates are used in cosmetics primarily in fragrances, and can also be found in other personal care products, such as hair spray and nail polish. Examples include: DBP, DEHP, DEP and others. Like parabens, phthalates are endocrine disruptors and can cause hormonal and reproductive problems and birth defects.

6. Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)

Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) is used is many types of cosmetics as a thickener, especially in lotions, shampoo, and sunscreen. PEG is often contaminated with both ethylene oxide (a known carcinogen) and 1,4-Dioxane (which causes respiratory problems and is banned in Canada).

7. Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is used as a preservative in cosmetics. It’s a known carcinogen that is also linked to asthma, neurotoxicity, and developmental toxicity. It can be found in preservatives such as quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, and imidazolidinyl urea.

8. Oxybenzone (and other chemical sunscreens)

Bear with me on this one—this is HUGELY important.

Sunscreens come in two different forms: chemical and mineral filters. The most common sunscreens on the market use chemical filters such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule. Oxybenzone is a known endocrine disruptor and has been shown to alter thyroid function.

In 2019, the FDA released research that showed widely used chemical UV filters, which have been linked to hormone disruption, negative birth outcomes, reduced male fertility, and possibly cancer, are absorbed in the body in substantial amounts right after application. And in 2020, the FDA released new research that reveals six chemical UV filters are detectable on the skin and in the bloodstream weeks after application.

Blood tests showed concentrations of oxybenzone were more than 180 times the FDA’s level of concern after a single application, and soared to more than 500 times after 4 days of regular use.

Chemical sunscreens should be avoided at all costs—especially with children! Oxybenzone can also be found in sunscreen, SPF lotions, lip balm, and makeup. If you’re using a tinted moisturizer or foundation with SPF, it likely has chemical UV filters (Here’s the safe tinted moisturizer I recommend that has mineral sunscreen.)

Stick with mineral sunscreens, for both yourself and your children. Mineral sunscreens create a barrier on the surface of the skin to physically bounce or reflect the sun’s rays away from the skin, which means they do not penetrate the skin.

To find mineral-only sunscreens, you need to check the ingredients. Even sunscreens labeled as “mineral sunscreens” may contain both mineral and chemical UV filters. This is the mineral sunscreen I recommend, which uses Zinc Oxide and has no parabens or other harmful ingredients.

9. Diethanolamine

Diethanolamine is a foaming agent. It’s a known carcinogen and respiratory toxin, which is why the EU has restricted its use in personal care products. Despite this, it’s still used in bubble bath, body wash, and shampoo in the US. It’s often abbreviated as DEA on cosmetic labels.

10. Triclosan

Triclosan is an antibacterial agent once used in antibacterial soaps. In 2016, it was banned from soap used in health-care settings, but it is still allowed in personal cosmetics. Not only does triclosan contribute to antibiotic resistant bacteria, but it’s also an endocrine disruptor and was shown to contribute to gut inflammation and promote tumor growth in mouse studies. Not good.

a guide to harmful ingredients in makeup and skincare products

How I Choose Safer Cosmetics

Want to stay up to date when it comes to the clean beauty industry? Join my Clean Beauty Community! I send out pretty hefty emails all about safe skin care, cosmetics, and household products.

Besides reading labels, one of the best resources I have found to evaluate the safety of products is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database. Each product is given a score based on the ingredients it contains. It’s a super easy way to figure out if the products you are using on yourself and your children are safe.

I also have spent the past few years searching for brands that are trustworthy and make products that work really well. This hasn’t been the easiest task, as many “natural” brands don’t actually test their materials or are completely void of high-performing, safe active ingredients, which are what give products their anti-aging or acne-fighting effects.

The perfect balance to me is cleaner, safer skin care that contains both natural and organic synthetic ingredients that are safe and actually work. I only support brands that are transparent, do not use any harmful or questionable ingredients, and recognize the need for safety testing of ingredients.

If you’re looking for a good place to start, check out my Guide to Clean Beauty Brands: Where to Start and What to Avoid for a comprehensive list of different clean beauty brands, and where they stand on ingredients and testing for heavy metals.

I’ve also put together a comprehensive review of the 8 Best Natural Deodorants: 2021 Testing and Review.

My Top Safer Cosmetics Brands

1. Beautycounter

Beautycounter is what I use exclusively now for skin care and makeup. In particular, the Countermatch line does wonders for my dry skin, and I use the Countertime line for its anti-aging effects. It’s the only skin care brand I’ve found that actually works and my skin hasn’t felt dry and has been blemish-free since using it. (Many people with sensitive skin are actually sensitive to the harmful ingredients and contaminants!)

I’m a makeup junkie, and it’s the only makeup with a safer label that doesn’t make me breakout and has a beautiful pigment. I love the Lip Gloss in Spice… it is everything! They also do rigorous testing in their color cosmetics for heavy metals like lead.

Beautycounter has committed to a health and safety standard that goes well beyond what is legally required in the United States, and doesn’t include any of the 1,800 known harmful ingredients in their products. They are the only company I know of that tests both raw materials and finished products for contaminants and heavy metals, and go above and beyond to advocate for better legislation in the beauty industry to protect people and the environment.

2. Primally Pure

Primally Pure is a brand that makes natural skincare products with ingredients that are sourced with the utmost attention and care. If you’re looking for a natural deodorant that works—the Charcoal Deodorant is it! I use it daily and it’s great for sensitive skin. I also love the Everything Spray and use it nightly as a toner and throughout the day to freshen up my face (great for after a workout).

3. Dr. Bronner’s

Dr. Bronner’s is an organic soap brand that only uses pure organic and Fair Trade ingredients. No synthetic preservatives, and no detergents or foaming agents. They make the most magical Pure-Castile Liquid Soap that can be used for just about anything. I also use their All-One Toothpaste and Pure-Castile Soap Bars.

My goal in sharing this information is to empower you to make better decisions for yourself and your family. Hopefully, one day there will be better regulation in the cosmetics industry and all personal care products will be safer. Until then, check product labels for these 10 harmful ingredients in makeup and skincare products, and find cosmetic companies you can trust, like Beautycounter.

Be strong,

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