The beauty industry is highly unregulated. Makeup, cleansers, and other products hit the market without much prior government oversight. And then they're in your home.
What's worse, many of the chemicals found in familiar beauty products irritate or penetrate your skin, disrupt your endocrine system (think hormones), or give you cancer.
All of this means you have to be an informed consumer. So here's what to watch out for in your beauty products.
Preservatives and colors and scents ... Oh my!
Preservative parabens prevent the growth of bacteria, mold, and yeast in cosmetic products. While this may sound like a good thing, they also mimic estrogen and have been associated with greater risk of breast cancer. Parabens lurk in:
- Body washes
- Facial cleansers
"Although parabens are classified as 'generally recognized as safe' in foods by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration," the Environmental Working Group's Enviroblog reports, "increasing evidence has drawn attention to their possible health risks, primarily their potential to disrupt the endocrine system, which can interfere with the normal functioning of hormones." So be on the lookout.
Used in many cosmetic products to help prevent bacteria growth, formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) have been linked to cancers of the nose and throat. They have also been known to cause allergic skin reactions and harm the immune system. You can find them in:
- Nail polish
- Body washes
- Eye shadow
- Nail polish treatments
Really, you would be wise to preserve yourself against them at all costs.
A known endocrine disruptor, the antimicrobial triclosan can be found in toothpastes, antibacterial soaps, and deodorants. What's more, it may not even work. "While triclosan added to toothpaste has been shown to help prevent gingivitis," the Mayo Clinic's website reports, "there's no evidence that antibacterial soaps and body washes containing triclosan are more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of certain illnesses, according to the FDA." Triclosan also irritates your skin, and it has been suspected of making bacteria more resistant to antibiotics.
Also be on the lookout for "FD&C" or "D&C" on beauty product labels. These letters signal the presence of synthetic colors. Derived from petroleum or coal tar sources, they are suspected cancer-causing agents and skin irritants. This has led the European Union ban them. You should ban them, too.
You should also ban any product that lists fragrance as an ingredient. A catch-all industry term created to protect trade secrets, "fragrance" hides more than it reveals. It could mean a chemical cocktail that may trigger:
- Respiratory distress
- Reproductive problems
Found in perfume, cologne, conditioner, shampoo, body wash, and moisturizers, fragrance mixes are a product whose possible health effects really stink.
Can't pronounce it? Don't use it
Piggybacking on the "fragrance" label are phthalates, a group of chemicals used in hundreds of products for increasing the flexibility and softness of plastics. Three of the most commonly found are:
- Dibutyl phthalate (nail polish)
- Diethyl phthalates (perfumes and lotions)
- Dimethyl phthalate (hair spray)
Known endocrine disruptors, phthalates have been linked to higher risk of breast cancer, early breast development in girls, and reproductive birth defects in males and females.
Found in many beauty and cleaning products that foam, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are known skin, lung, and eye irritants. SLS in particular may interact with other chemicals to form cancer-causing nitrosamines, which may also damage your kidneys or respiratory system.
You should also preserve yourself against toluene, a petrochemical found in nail polish, nail treatments, and hair coloring and bleaching products. Sometimes listed on labels as
toluene is a potent solvent that can affect the respiratory system, cause nausea, and irritate skin. And it has been linked to immune system toxicity. Toluene is definitely something you shouldn't tolerate in your beauty products.
A small organic alcohol commonly used as a skin-conditioning agent, propylene glycol can be found in:
- Hair spray
"[Propylene glycol] may cause delayed allergic reactions," the Organics.org website reports, "and is considered a neurotoxin, which may cause kidney and liver damage." That's not any condition you want to be in.
Potent endocrine disruptors, the common sunscreen chemicals
are easily absorbed into the body. They may also cause cellular damage and cancer.
End your chemical romance
It’s impossible to avoid synthetic chemicals altogether, but you can limit the amount of toxins you are exposed to. If you want to avoid toxic chemicals, be sure to eat clean, avoid chemical-laden processed foods, drink plenty of filtered water and look for products that are certified organic.
Educate yourself by researching beauty products before you buy. There are plenty of high-quality, organic brands to choose from. And even mainstream beauty companies have started removing controversial ingredients from their products.