When it comes to being healthy, you probably know what you’re putting into your body. You likely know that fruits and veggies are good and processed foods and pesticides are bad. But do you know the effects of what you’re putting on your body?
60% of the products you put on your skin go directly into your bloodstream. This is a scary thought, considering that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does little to regulate the skincare industry.
Fewer than a dozen toxic ingredients have been banned or restricted in the United States. This means that almost any ingredient can be used to formulate your skincare products. Lots of which are super dangerous to your health. In fact, many of the most commonly used have been linked to everything from allergic reactions to hormonal disruptions to cancer.
It can be difficult to decipher the long list of hard to pronounce ingredients on product labels. But ultimately it’s up to you to educate yourself about what to avoid in your cleansers, lotions, sunscreens, etc. The good news is we’ve done the work for you. Consider this your cheat sheet because we’re breaking down the most toxic ingredients found in your skincare products.
Aluminum is a toxic metal frequently used in deodorants, lipsticks, and eye makeup. Aluminum is a known endocrine disruptor and can lead to reproductive issues and disturbances in the nervous system function. Exposure to aluminum has also been linked to diseases such like Alzheimer’s and breast cancer.
Formaldehyde is recognized globally as a human carcinogen. But despite decades of research, it’s still a common ingredient or byproduct in nail polish, eyelash glue, and lots of other cosmetics. The most common side effect of formaldehyde in cosmetics is skin irritation. But the major concern is that formaldehyde causes cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified it as a probable human carcinogen.
The term fragrance refers to the formula used by a brand to make a product smell a certain way. Because fragrances are considered a trade secret, they do not have to be disclosed. Fragrance often includes tons of chemicals that can cause allergies, hormone disruption and reproductive issues and infertility.
On a related note, fragrance often contains phthalates, which help fragrances last longer. These chemicals have been banned from skincare products and cosmetics in the European Union, but are still commonly used in the United States. You’ll find them most commonly abbreviated as DEP, BBzP, DBP, and DEHP. Studies have linked phthalate exposure to obesity, type 2 diabetes, reduced sperm count, breast cancers, reproductive malformation, infertility, and cardiovascular events.
Ethoxylated agents include polyethylene glycols (PEGs), ceteareth, oleth, and sulfates. PEG compounds are used as thickeners, solvents, and softeners in moisturizers and cream base products. Ceteareth, oleth, and sulfates are responsible for the lather in cleansers. Alone, ethoxylated agents aren’t very concerning. But the ethoxylation process produces a byproduct 1,4 -dioxane and may leave trace amounts of ethylene oxide, both known carcinogens.
Parabens are preservatives and antimicrobial chemicals that preserve the shelf-life of skincare products. You’ll see them commonly listed as methyl parabens, propyl parabens, butyl parabens, and ethyl parabens.
Studies have linked parabans to reproductive organ harm, thyroid disruption, hormone-related cancers, and obesity. Several types of parabens have been banned for use in personal care products in Europe. They’re still approved for use in the United States, however FDA scientists continue to monitor new data.
Mineral oil (petrolatum, paraffin) is a widely used moisturizing agent sourced from refined petroleum. It’s commonly added to lip gloss, concealer, eyeshadow, SPF, and balm cleansers. Petroleum by-products coat the skin like plastic, clogging its pores. This is harmful because it interferes with skin’s ability to eliminate toxins.
Untreated or mildly treated mineral oils used in manufacturing are listed as carcinogens by the World Health Organization. But it’s important to note not that this is not the cosmetic-grade kind.
Also known as cyclical silicones, siloxanes are compounds found in many cosmetic and skincare products. These will be the ingredients ending in siloxane or methicone on the label. In addition to being harmful to fish and wildlife, Siloxanes have been linked to endocrine disruption and reproductive issues.
Oxybenzone is a UV absorbing chemical commonly found in sunscreen. Oxybenzone works by absorbing UV radiation. But evidence suggests that it’s a hormone disruptor. And researchers are particularly concerned about oxybenzone because it is absorbed through the skin in large amounts.
Oxybenzone also has a negative impact on our ocean life. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states that oxybenzone can damage coral, cause reproductive issues in fish, damage sea urchins, and accumulate in the tissues of dolphins.
A topical bleaching agent, hydroquinone is a topical bleaching agent found in skin-lightening creams and serums. It’s used to treat hyperpigmentation. However hydroquinone has been linked to certain cancers, decreased immune response, abnormal function of the adrenal gland, and a skin condition known as ochronosis. The European Union along with Japan and Australia have banned the ingredient, however it has not yet been banned in the U.S.
So now you know what to look for and avoid on your product labels, but what should you look for instead? When it comes to skincare, the FDA has yet to regulate how brands can use words like clean, green, organic, vegan, etc. Definitions are subjective and often change from brand to brand, making it difficult to navigate. Below we break down some of the most common skincare buzzwords.
Clean means that a product uses a nontoxic element as a baseline and plant-based ingredients for active results. Much like eating clean eliminates processed foods and focuses on a plant-based diet, the same is true for clean skin care. A product that’s clean is generally safe for your health and the environment
The word green should mean that the product does no harm to the environment. But this term has no true definition. Green is used as an umbrella for any product that claims to protect the planet’s resources.
Skincare products that are certified to be at least 95 percent organic bear an official USDA Organic Seal. Products with this seal must also comply with handling and manufacturing specifications. And the use of genetically modified organisms is prohibited. But the certification is expensive, so smaller brands often label the individual organic ingredients on the label, despite not carrying an official seal.
When a product is labeled non toxic, it likely means that the ingredients have not been shown to cause adverse health effects at the levels found inside the formula. This is the case with every product currently sold in the United States. In the clean skincare space, nontoxic means that a product doesn’t include any ingredient that’s been deemed toxic at any dose by a third-party resource like the Environmental Working Group.
Sustainable means that the ingredients used to make a formula (including how they were sourced) and the packaging itself aren’t harmful to the planet. Truly sustainable ingredients are ethically sourced and proven to be safe for the environment, with sustainable or no-waste packaging.
A skincare product is vegan if it doesn’t contain any animal by-products or ingredients sourced from animals. Common non-vegan ingredients found in clean products include beeswax, honey, lanolin, and tallow. Many People often associate vegan with clean, but they’re not the same. A product can be vegan and still contain not-so-great ingredients.
If a product is cruelty-free, it means it has not been tested on animals anywhere along the manufacturing line. It can also mean that any animal-derived ingredients were not extracted at the expense of an animal’s welfare (like milk-based products or lanolin). A product can be cruelty-free but not vegan, and vice versa.
If you’re a clean skincare newbie, you’re likely a bit overwhelmed by now. But that’s ok, we’re here to help! When it comes to switching over your skincare routine to a cleaner, non-toxic one start with the products intended to stay on your skin all day (like moisturizersand body lotions). Then replace your daily sunscreen, hand soap, body wash, and deodorant. Then move on to cleaner shampoo, conditioner and makeup options. For more on putting together a new cleaner daily regimen see our previous post Building a Simple, Natural Skincare Routine.
The bottom line here is that there are lots of skincare products on the shelves, and some of them are better for you than others. Always check a product’s label. Look for ingredients made with your health and the environment in mind. And remember that buzzwords aren’t regulated and are often used for marketing. It’s up to you as the consumer to know what ingredients you’re putting on your skin.