Got a minute? Take a look at your bathroom shelves. If you’re like most women, you’re using about 12 different beauty products each day. Now flip to the ingredients panel of your favorite product—a lotion, perhaps, or sunscreen—and settle in for a good read. Do the ingredients number a dozen or more? Probably. Can you pronounce them? Probably not. Yet those 12 beauty products deliver an average 168 potentially toxic ingredients to your body each and every day. It’s time for a green beauty clean-out! When it comes to beauty products, look for these toxic chemical, red flag ingredients. Avoid them and you’re one step closer to being a green beauty expert. The fact is, even if you do read an ingredient label, it might only show a fraction of what’s actually in the product. In the United States, beauty and personal care companies aren’t required to list ingredients on their labels because of “trade secret” concerns.
For example, the word “fragrance” can contain more that 3,000 different chemicals—none of which are required to be listed on the label. A 2010 study by the Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found that top-selling perfumes contain, on average, 14 different hazardous chemicals that aren’t listed on their labels.
Many of these scents contain toxic chemicals like diethyl phthalate, which has been linked to hormone disruption. Typically, scented products also include paraben preservatives, which have been found in breast cancer tissue, according to the National Institutes of Health.
If a company wants to add a toxic ingredient to a cosmetic formula, but doesn’t want to turn off buyers by listing it on the label, it can designate the compound as part of a “fragrance” formula. Devious, right?
So what, exactly, does the United States regulate, when it comes to cosmetics? Not much. America’s Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, which was passed in 1938, has done little to regulate toxic beauty chemicals. Case in point? Formaldehyde in hair straighteners, lead in lipstick and mercury in mascara. Yes, really.
Currently, the FDA restricts a mere 11 ingredients from product manufacturing, compared to the European Union, which has outright banned 1,300. Which means that if you’re making a cosmetic for the proverbial American woman, you can put pretty much anything you want into it: The FDA doesn’t require companies to test products or ingredients for safety, nor does it review products or ingredients before they go on sale.
According to the EWG, “More than 500 products sold in the United States contain ingredients that are banned in Japan, Canada or the European Union…and as many as 100 contain ingredients considered unsafe by the International Fragrance Association.”
A Little Bit Can Hurt
The cosmetics industry argues that small amounts of toxic ingredients can’t hurt you. But the industry isn’t required to study how those 168 ingredients in the average woman’s 12 beauty products—or 85 ingredients for men, and 61 for children—interact with each other.
You breathe them, you eat them when they’re put on your lips, and they’re absorbed by your skin. What happens when they’re inside your body? Nobody really knows, for sure.
The problem gets even bigger when you realize that beauty products don’t just stop at our skin: They wash down the drain, into the water system and up the food chain.
Make The Switch
So why don’t we all just switch to natural beauty products–or even start making our own, so we know exactly what’s in them? It all comes down to allegiance. Once you graduate from that cheap-o drugstore brand mascara you shoplifted during high school and settle on a department store, cosmetics-counter special, you’re pretty much sold for life—until you find out there’s mercury in it.
Natural beauty brands have also been criticized as hard to find or expensive. But today, you don’t have to spend a fortune or drive for miles—you can buy natural beauty at supermarkets and drug stores.
Given that these natural beauty products typically perform as well as, or better than, their conventional counterparts, maybe it’s time your routine got a natural beauty makeover.
But before you overhaul your makeup bag, remember that just because it says “natural” on the label, that doesn’t mean it’s chemical free. Until natural beauty gets better regulated, you still need to do a little bit of homework to make sure your products are safe—by your standards.
For a quick fix, look for USDA Certified Organic and/or EcoCert on labels, which means the product is government certified as containing at least 95 percent food-grade organic ingredients—zero chemicals or synthetics in its manufacturing or ingredients—in America and Europe, respectively. (You can read more about natural labeling in my Guide to Going Green.)
So how can you know what’s good and what’s bad in beauty? Look for these red flags. When you see these on a label, more chemicals tend to follow. Avoid them and you’re one step closer to being a green beauty expert.
- PARABENS are a common preservative found in conventional personal care products from moisturizer to sunscreen; look for them prefaced by “methyl,” “ethyl,” “propyl,” “butyl” and “isobutyl.” Parabens have been linked to breast cancer and reproductive disorders, according to the Breast Cancer Fund.
- PHTHALATES are reproductive toxins which can affect the development of children yet are so prevalent that repeated studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found phthalates in the urine of nearly every subject they tested. If you see the word FRAGRANCE on a label, you can be pretty sure the product also includes phthalates.
- ANTIBACTERIALS such as TRICLOSAN in personal care products can compromise the immune system (ah, the irony) and may make bacteria resistant to antibiotics. According to the FDA, hot water and soap work just as well to kill bacteria.
- 1,4-DIOXANE and SODIUM LAURYL/LAURETH SULFATE are found in things that suds up like shampoos, baby wash, bubble bath, toothpaste and liquid soaps. 1,4 dioxane is a human and animal carcinogenic and a nasty byproduct of processing harsh chemicals with ethylene oxide to make them less harsh. Got sodium lauryl sulfate? Ethyoxylate it and you get sodium laureth—the “eth” indicates the process–but you also get 1,4 dioxane.
- FORMALDEHYDE causes cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. It can be produced from the breakdown of DIAZOLIDINYL UREA, IMIDAZOLIDINYL UREA and QUATERNIUM compounds, so avoid those as well.
- PROPYLENE GLYCOL and ETHYLENE GLYCOL, also found in brake fluid and antifreeze, have been linked to asthma and allergies. Look for products made with naturally derived softeners.
- CHEMICAL SUNSCREENS like OXYBENZONE are linked to hormone disruption and skin allergies; RETINYL PALMITATE in sunscreen can increase skin cancer risk, according to EWG. I like zinc, which provides a physical barrier to the sun, and no longer leaves you with big white splotches on your nose.
When you’re shopping, use these as red flags to put products back on the shelf—and out of your life. That’s the key to natural beauty.
What’s your natural beauty secret? I’d love to hear about it, in comments. Thanks!