With the ubiquity of harmful chemicals like parabens to phthalates, it can be difficult to navigate all of the toxic skincare ingredients to avoid. So, our contributor Madeleine of The Wise Consumer is breaking down what you need to know about the 10 most harmful ingredients in skincare and cosmetics products…
Disclaimer: this post is intended to be used for informational purposes only and does not constitute personal health advice.
According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, as of 2009, the European Union currently bans 1,328 chemicals from its cosmetics. In contrast, as of 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned or restricted only 30 chemicals.
Yikes! That means there are thousands of chemicals being used that may or may not be harmful to our health. And there’s no real way of knowing if we’re applying chemicals that may be harmful, for reasons I’ll cover more below.
Now, I realize many people may not be overly concerned (or aware, perhaps) about the ingredients found in their skincare products. If it works, it works, right? But friend, just because it works doesn’t mean it’s good for your health!
Why? Because most commercial and even some “natural” cosmetic brands contain harmful ingredients that just don’t belong in or on our bodies.
Ingredients such as parabens, formaldehyde, and carbon black — which are unfortunately found in many of our cosmetic products today — have been linked to some pretty serious health concerns such as cancer, hormonal imbalances (endocrine disruptors), and respiratory issues, just to name a few.
That’s a lot of ingredients to be applying to our skin every day. And that doesn’t even take into account the other chemicals we’re likely being exposed to throughout the day, such as pesticides, flame retardants, and air fresheners.
Just think about it: your morning routine alone maybe consists of at least six different personal care products — toothpaste, face wash, toner, moisturizer, mascara, foundation, lotion, deodorant, and maybe a spritz of perfume.
Now, you’re probably thinking, There’s no way my favorite skincare/makeup brand would sell me products containing harmful ingredients, right!?
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Just because a product is on the shelf doesn’t mean it’s safe to use.
This is in part due to the fact that cosmetics do not need to go through a pre-market approval process before being sold in stores, e.g., regulators such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not need to assess the safety and effectiveness of the claims on the products before they’re sold.
In fact, “the FDA steps in only if people actually complain about a product because they suspect it harmed them,” shares Dr. Kathryn M. Rexrode, associate professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Women’s Health at Harvard Medical School. “Prior to that, the onus is on the company alone. Products are tested to make sure they don’t cause short-term problems, such as skin irritation. But they’re not tested for long-term safety.”
Are all chemicals harmful?
Of course not — water is a chemical after all!
But, as Scott Faber, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group, shares, even if the chemicals [in skincare products] are probably safe, “we can’t know for sure because they haven’t been subject to any kind of review by a third party.”
And unfortunately, more and more research conducted by third-party organizations is finding that many of the common ingredients used in cosmetic products today have the potential to be pretty harmful to our health.
So now what?
Don’t despair! There are a few things you can do to help reduce the number of harmful ingredients in skincare you might be exposing yourself to.
Read the labels on the back of your products. What ingredients are being used? If you’re not sure if a product, or chemical, contains harmful ingredients check out EWG, they’ve analyzed thousands of brands and chemicals and categorized them in their “Skin Deep Database.” A few other resources to check out are Made Safe, the Think Dirty App, and Safe Cosmetics.
Obviously, most busy women don’t have time to research which ingredients are safe and which aren’t. So, to make things a bit easier for you, I’ve compiled a list of 10 harmful skincare ingredients you’ll probably want to avoid — and why.
10 Harmful Ingredients to Avoid in Skincare Products (and Why)
Parabens are one of the most common ingredients found in cosmetic products today.
What is it? Parabens are most widely used as a preservative in cosmetic products.
Potential health impact: Endocrine disruptor.
What is an endocrine disruptor? “Endocrine disruptors,” according to the National Institute of Health, “are chemicals that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife.”
Be on the lookout for:
- PROPYLPARABEN: Often found in ‘fragrance’ products such as perfume.
- BUTYLPARABEN: Fragrance Ingredient; Preservative; Masking (used to disguise natural scent of an ingredient)
- ISOBUTYLPARABEN: Used as a preservative in products
- METHYLPARABEN: Fragrance Ingredient; Preservative
- POLYPARABEN: Fragrance Ingredient; Preservative; Perfuming
2. Carbon Black
Carbon black was added to the FDA’s list of banned toxic ingredients, but it’s still found in cosmetic products.
What is it? Carbon black (Uncertified D&C Black No. 2) is a black pigmented powder most commonly found in eyeliner, mascara, eyelash glue, etc. It’s what gives your mascara that dark sleek look.
Potential health impact: Though some argue that in small doses (concentration of less than 10%) carbon black may not be a serious health concern, more studies are finding that carbon black may in fact be linked to increased cases of cancer, neurodevelopmental effects in offspring, harm lung function in healthy humans, and impacted hormone production in vitro. EWG rates this ingredient a 10 (on a scale of 1 being the best and 10 being the worst)!
3. Petroleum Jelly
Petroleum jelly is often found in lotions and skincare products and used as a moisturizing agent.
What is it? Refined properly petroleum jelly, also known as mineral oil, isn’t harmful to our health. Unfortunately, in the United States, it is common for most mineral oils to NOT be refined properly, creating the potential for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. You are most likely to find petroleum jelly/mineral oil in balms, lotions, lip products, and makeup remover.
What are PAHs? According to the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, PAHs “are a group of more than 100 chemical compounds that are prevalent in the environment and food. They are formed from the combustion of organic materials.”
Potential health impact: Several individual PAHs, as well as other chemical mixtures containing PAHs, have been classified as human carcinogens and are known skin irritants.
Be on the lookout for: Products containing ingredients such as white petroleum soft paraffin, mineral oil, paraffin oil, white mineral oil, and liquid paraffin.
Fragrance is found in most conventional products on the market today — from shampoo to laundry detergent.
What is it? Fragrance, according to Made Safe, is “an umbrella term for up to 100 different chemical ingredients that make up that scent.”
Potential health impact: The primary health concern with this ingredient is that no one really knows its identity. They’re additives, and mostly unknown additives for that matter, that often contain endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, developmental toxins, neurotoxins, and more.
Be on the lookout for: Products containing ingredients such as fragrance, eau de toilette, perfume, essential oil blend, and aroma on their labels.
Oxybenzone is most often found in sunscreens.
What is it? Oxybenzone, shares the National Library of Science, “absorbs UVB and UVA II rays, resulting in a photochemical excitation and absorption of energy. Upon return to the ground state, the absorbed energy results in the emission of longer wavelength radiation and decreased skin penetration of radiation which reduces the risk of DNA damage.” Meaning, it helps to protect your skin against UV rays, such as UVB rays and UVA rays.
Potential health impact: More research needs to be done but oxybenzone has been found to be an endocrine-disrupting compound, i.e. interferes with your hormones. Note: Hawaii has banned oxybenzone from sunscreens because of its harmful effects on the coral reef, specifically its bleaching properties.
Be on the lookout for: Sunscreens containing oxybenzone and benzophenone-3.
Phthalates are found in cosmetic products from fragranced lotions to nail polishes.
What are they? According to the CDC, Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break.
In cosmetics, shares the FDA, “you’ll find phthalates such as:
- dibutyl phthalate (DBP), used as a plasticizer in products such as nail polishes (to reduce cracking by making them less brittle);
- dimethyl phthalate (DMP), used in hair sprays (to help avoid stiffness by allowing them to form a flexible film on the hair); and
- diethyl phthalate (DEP), used as a solvent and fixative in fragrances.
According to the FDA’s latest survey of cosmetics, conducted in 2010, however, DBP and DMP are now used rarely. DEP is the only phthalate still commonly used in cosmetics.”
Potential health impact: Like most ingredients on this list, phthalates have been linked to endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and cancer.
Be on the lookout for: Products containing ingredients such as phthalate, DEP, DBP, DEHP. and fragrance.
(& Formaldehyde releasing preservatives)
What is it? Formaldehyde, according to cancer.org “is a colorless, strong-smelling gas used in making building materials and many household products.” In cosmetics, and even in some foods, this chemical, which is a known carcinogen, is used as a preservative to help prolong shelf life. And, while not all products contain the ingredient formaldehyde, some may contain and/or use formaldehyde-releasing substances.
Formaldehyde releasing substances have been found in shampoo, soaps, lotions, etc. According to data provided by the FDA, nearly 1 in 5 cosmetic products contains a substance that generates formaldehyde.
Interesting fact: In the European Union, if a product contains a concentration of formaldehyde-releasing preservatives of more than 0.05% the product must be labeled with the notice, “contains formaldehyde.” Not so in the US.
Potential health impact: Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen by multiple organizations such as the National Toxicology Program and IARC.
This chemical has also been found to cause skin irritations and allergic reactions in some individuals. You can read more about the health concerns from the American Cancer Society.
Be on the lookout for: the EWG and the American Cancer Society recommend avoiding products containing DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Diazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol ), 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane, Hydroxymethylglycinate.
Ethanolamines (TEA, MEA, DEA. etc) are found in a multitude of cosmetics and skincare products ranging from moisturizers to baby sunscreen.
What are they? Common ethanolamines include monoethanolamine (MEA), diethanolamine (DEA), and triethanolamine (TEA). These chemicals are primarily used as surfactants (foaming agents), cleansers, or preservatives.
According to the FDA, DEA and DEA-related ingredients function as emulsifiers or foaming agents in cosmetics, or to adjust a product’s pH (acidity) while TEA is used as a fragrance, pH adjuster, and emulsifying agent.
Potential health impact: While the FDA shares that “there is no reason for consumers to be alarmed based on the use of these substances in cosmetics,” it is important to note that research from National Toxicology Program (NTP) did find an association between the topical application of DEA and certain DEA-related ingredients and cancer in laboratory animals.
Made Safe further reports that DEA “has been classified as a carcinogen by the California Environmental Protection Agency as well as possibly carcinogenic to humans with sufficient evidence in experimental animals by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.” You can read more about the chemical profiling of DEA by Made Safe here.
Be on the lookout for: Products containing chemicals such as Cocamide DEA, DEA-Cetyl Phosphate, DEA Oleth-3 Phosphate, Lauramide DEA, Myristamide DEA, Oleamide DEA, TEA-Lauryl Sulfate, Triethanolamine.
1,4-Dioxane (also referred to as dioxane) is a chemical that, according to Safe Cosmetics, is often found in products that create suds (such as shampoo, liquid soap, and laundry detergent) and other items such as toothpaste, hair dye, and deodorant.
What is it? The compound 1,4-dioxane is a trace contaminant found in some cosmetic products. But here’s the kicker. 1,4 -dioxane isn’t necessarily “used” in cosmetics. Rather, it’s a byproduct formed when other common ingredients are mixed together during the manufacturing process. These ingredients, reports the FDA, include certain detergents, foaming agents, emulsifiers and solvents identifiable by the prefix, word, or syllables “PEG,” “Polyethylene,” “Polyethylene glycol,” “Polyoxyethylene,” “-eth-,” or “-oxynol-.”
Potential health impact: Although 1,4-dioxane has not specifically been tested on humans, the NTP found that 1,4-dioxane “is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in experimental animals.”
The EPA has listed 1,4-dioxane as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” EWG rates this ingredient an 8 and lists it as a known human respiratory toxicant which is harmful to our health even in small doses.
Be on the lookout for: Cosmetics products listing ingredients such as Sodium Laureth Sulfate, PEG compounds (usually listed as “PEG” followed by a number), Chemicals that end in “eth” (denotes ethoxylation), like ceteareth and oleth.
10. Butylated hydroxytoluene and butylated hydroxyanisole
Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), are used as preservatives in both personal care products and food. Oftentimes you’ll find BHA and BHT in lip products, hair products, makeup, sunscreen, antiperspirant/deodorant, fragrance, and creams.
What are they? BHT and BHA are closely related compounds that are used in food, cosmetics, and industrial fluids to prevent oxidation and free radical formation, i.e. used as preservatives.
Potential health impact: BHA/BHT are both known endocrine disruptors, possible carcinogens, and skin irritants. The National Toxicology Program reports that BHA is “reasonably anticipated” to be carcinogenic to humans. In addition, the European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has also listed BHA as a Category 1 priority substance, based on evidence that it interferes with hormone function. You can read more about BHA and BHT here.
Be on the lookout for: Avoid these ingredients by selecting products that don’t list the ingredient BHA or BHT.
Now that you know which ingredients to avoid, you’re probably curious to know where you can find products that you can feel confident in that don’t have these ingredients.
Read This Next: 25 Non-Toxic & Organic Skincare Brands
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About the Author
Madeleine is a Franco-American podcaster and blogger on a mission to inspire and empower women to live healthier, more eco-friendly, and conscious lifestyles. On her blog/podcast, The Wise Consumer, she covers topics ranging from nutrition and recipes to ethical fashion and eco living tips. When not working Madeleine is either spending time with family, developing new recipes, or running trails.
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