Confession time: for years after I switched my diet to nutrient-dense whole foods, I was still using conventional makeup and skincare products. I knew that what I was putting in my body was really powerful for my health, but I wasn’t paying much attention to what I was putting on my body. Even after creating my own natural skincare recipes (like my ACV toner), all of my makeup was just the conventional products from the drugstore.
But when I got pregnant with my daughter, I suddenly cared a lot more about what potential dangers were lurking in my lotion and lipstick.
It turns out ignorance was bliss. I was shocked to learn how many harmful ingredients 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 might not be 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 (and my kiddo’s) health, I knew I couldn’t go back to conventional products. And I believe more women need to know this information too.
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 they aren’t regulated whatsoever with skincare and cosmetic products. “Natural” products can contain just as many harmful ingredients as conventional products. Even products labeled “unscented” can contain 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 makeups, are some of the worst offenders because they use a higher concentration of ingredients that contain 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. Heavy metals can be inhaled, ingested, and absorbed through the skin. They build up in the body overtime, and can become a serious threat to the health of your body and brain. For example, aluminum has clear links to breast cancer, and lead is linked to miscarriages, disruption of the nervous system, brain damage, infertility, and hypertension (to name a few).
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).
Choosing Safer Skincare 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 skincare for women, men, and kids. Again, it’s not about blindly choosing brands that are “natural” or “organic” as they can contain harmful ingredients or be contaminated with heavy metals. 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.
Top 10 Ingredients to Avoid in Makeup and Skincare Products
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 skincare 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.
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.
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).
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.
Sunscreens come in two different forms: chemical and mineral filters. The most common sunscreens on the market use chemical filters such as oxybenzone. Oxybenzone is a known endocrine disruptor and can alter thyroid function. It’s also linked to skin allergies. Chemical sunscreens should be avoided at all costs—especially with children. Oxybenzone can also be found in moisturizers, lip balm, and makeup.
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.
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.
How I Choose Safer Cosmetics
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 active ingredients, which are what give products their anti-aging or acne-fighting effects.
The perfect balance to me is cleaner, safer skincare 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.
My Top Safer Skincare Brands
1. Beautycounter is what I use exclusively now for skincare and makeup. In particular, the Countermatch line does wonders for my dry skin, and I use the Rejuvenating line periodically for its anti-aging effects. It’s the only skincare brand I’ve found that actually works and my skin hasn’t felt dry and has been blemish-free since using it. 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. They also do rigorous testing in their color cosmetics for 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 1,500 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 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 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.
And of course, making your own products with high quality ingredients is a great way to engage with safer skincare. Check out all of my natural skincare recipes here.
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.