How many items do you have in your cosmetic kit? Striving to keep our beauty thriving we uncontrollably throw ourselves in the over-consumption of cosmetic products. A woman uses an average of 12 cosmetic and personal care products with 168 different ingredients daily. The statistics about men is not much better – 6 cosmetic products with 85 unique ingredients. At least 1 in 8 of these components are industrial chemicals, including toxins, pesticides and even heavy metals! Cosmetic industry keeps churning out new and improved formulas to solve old and newly elaborated beauty issues. And most of us keep not asking ourselves what all those incomprehensible words on labels mean. Is it all safe? For us or the environment? Even if we do, tons of information that we can’t decode make us unable to make a difference between good products and brands and those using harmful ingredients.
Having been confronted with this issue so many times, we decided to put an end to confusion. We made a list of the toxic or harmful ingredients most commonly used in cosmetic products (based on data by the Environmental Working Group). And, please, don’t get demotivated if you don’t remember them all. Being sustainability-conscious takes persistence and practice. Then it turns into a habit and gets easy.
The FDA Cosmetic Labeling Rules require that the labels of all cosmetic products include their ingredients in order of highest concentration first. Consequently, the more one of the harmful ingredients listed below leads the line, the more you should avoid buying the product. Sadly, all of these components are cheap, readily available, and widely used. But the truth is their natural alternatives are not only safer, they are often more effective. With little to none federal regulation in this industry, being aware and screening labels is one thing we could do.
Butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are synthetic antioxidants. BHA should not to be confused with beta hydroxy acid (Salicylic Acid) abbreviated the same way. BHA/ BHT serve as preservatives in personal care products. The latter include lip products, hair products, makeup, sunscreen, antiperspirant/deodorant, fragrance, creams.
Why is it harmful? The National Toxicology Program (NTP) Report on Carcinogens1 reports that BHA is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”. The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption presents evidence that it interferes with hormone function. A study2 reports it mimics estrogen and can lead to disruptions in hormone production and can potentially cause reproductive problems.
Substitutes and alternatives: Natural rosemary antioxidant is a natural substitute of BHA/ BHT. To be sure you’re not using products with these harmful ingredients, choose brands that provide natural/ organic alternatives. Some to mention Mineral Fusion, W3LL People, Au Naturale, Beauty by Earth, Ilia.
COAL TAR HAIR DYES
and other coal tar ingredients (including Aminophenol, Diaminobenzene, Phenylenediamine)
Skip buying a product if you find one or more of the following names on the label – coal tar solution, tar, coal, carbo-cort, coal tar solution, coal tar solution USP, crude coal tar, estar, impervotar, KC 261, lavatar, picis carbonis, naphtha, high solvent naphtha, naphtha distillate, benzin B70, petroleum benzin. You can find them in shampoos and scalp treatments, soaps, hair dyes, and lotions.
Why is it harmful? The National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer consider it a carcinogen. It was banned in the EU, but is still in use in North America. Experimental studies3 show that exposure to coal tar produce skin tumors and neurological damage. Coal Tar is an environmental toxin and is bioaccumulative.
Substitutes and alternatives: Choose more natural colors and avoid dark dyes. Instead of dyes, try using lemon juice for blond hair and vinegar for brown for highlights. Purely organic or chemical-free brands are a great alternative. Look for them if you need to color your hair with least negative impact possible: Surya Brasil, It’s Pure Organics, Aubrey, Khadi Natural.
FORMALDEHYDE AND FORMALDEHYDE RELEASERS
(Bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, Diazolidinyl urea, Imidzaolidinyl urea and Quaternium-15)
Formaldehyde was once a component of many personal care products as antiseptic. Now, some cosmetic brands still use it in hair straighteners on formaldehyde’s hair-stiffening action. Formaldehyde releasers are widely used in US products such as nail polish, nail glue, eyelash glue, hair gel, hair-smoothing products, even baby shampoo, body soap, body wash, color cosmetics. These preservatives release small amounts of formaldehyde over time.
Why is it harmful? Formaldehyde is considered a known human carcinogen by the International Agency on Research on Cancer. Also, an asthmagen, neurotoxicant and developmental toxicant. Formaldehyde releasers are known to cause cancer and allergic skin reactions.
Substitutes and alternatives: These ingredients are most commonly used in nail products. Look for nail polishes that are ‘3-Free’ or ‘5-Free’ (7- or 9-Free trending now) which do not contain the above chemicals and are ideally, water-based. Remember, no nail polish is 100% natural, non-toxin or healthy. Though, we all deserve to have healthier or less harmful options – Acquarella, Beauty without Cruelty, Zoya, London Town, PritiNYC.
You can find it on the label of most cosmetic products from your face cream to your body lotion and shampoo. There is no rule requiring that company list the chemicals behind the innocent “fragrance” ingredient on their labels. It is protected as trade secret. Actually in most cases you’ll read fragrance, perfume, parfum, essential oil blend, aroma – all meaning the same – no factual information to evidence it is not harmful in any way. In addition to “scent” chemicals that create the fragrance, perfumes and colognes also contain solvents, stabilizers, UV-absorbers, preservatives, and dyes.
Why is it harmful? Fragrance compounds are using 3,059 different materials. There is evidence that some of them can cause cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies and sensitivities.
Substitutes and alternatives: Look for the “Fragrance-free” label whenever possible. Most fragrance components in cosmetics are synthetic, but even some natural Essential Oil Mixtures, despite their ‘natural origin’, may be allergens. Their allergenicity is no different than that of synthetic fragrance ingredients. Also, watch out for products labeled “natural,” “natural scent”, “natural fragrance”, or “non-toxic”. Since the use of these terms is not entirely regulated, these products often still contain artificial fragrances.
Hydroquinone serves for lightening skin. This harmful ingredient is also found in facial and skin cleansers, facial moisturizers, hair conditioners, finger nail coating products. On the label you can find it listed as Hydroquinone or tocopheryl acetate.
Why is it harmful? It is one of the most toxic ingredients used in personal care products. The chemical decreases the production and increases the degradation of melanin pigments in the skin. This increases the skin’s exposure to UVA and UVB rays, increasing the risk of skin cancer. Unlike the European Union, the United States don’t restrict its use in personal care products in concentrations up to two percent.
Substitutes and alternatives: If you need to lighten your skin complexion, go for the natural – yogurt, oranges or lemons (vitamin C), gram flour, honey.
(lead, arsenic, mercury, aluminum, zinc, chromium and iron)
Scary enough, you can find it in your lipstick, whitening toothpaste, eyeliner and nail color. Lead is a neurotoxin, used in hair dye Grecian Formula 16 and other black hair dyes for men. In most cases heavy metals are not listed because they are not ingredients, they are contaminants – a byproduct during the cosmetics manufacturing process either formed by the breakdown of ingredients, or an environmental contaminant of raw ingredients.
Why is it harmful? It can cause cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, organ system toxicity. Harmful to the environment, as well.
Substitutes and alternatives: Skip using makeup as often as possible. Choose only brands labelled as organic with USDA seal on the packaging.
METHYLISOTHIAZOLINONE, METHYLCHLOROISOTHIAZOLINONE AND BENZISOTHIAZOLINONE
Preservatives you can find on the label of many of your liquid personal care products – shampoo, conditioner, hair color, body wash, lotion, sunscreen, mascara, shaving cream, baby lotion, baby shampoo, hairspray, makeup remover, liquid soaps and detergents. If you see on the label Methylisothiazolinone (MIT): 2-methyl-4-isothiazoline-3-one, Neolone 950 preservative, MI, OriStar MIT and Microcare MT. Methylchloroisothiazolinone (CMIT): 5-Chloro-2-methyl-4-isothiazolin-3-one and MCI, go far and away from that product.
Why is it harmful? Studies link it to lung toxicity, allergic reactions4 and possible neurotoxicity5.
Substitutes and alternatives: Handcraft your own natural products. Use commercially manufactured natural products with no preservatives and short shelf lives. The truth is there is no exact natural substitute for chemical preservatives in cosmetics. Natural substances that show antimicrobial activity are either not adequate for broad spectrum protection or they have undesirable qualities. Most natural substances are not active against the most threatening microbes, pseudomonads. Others, such as essential oils, require very high concentrations to be effective.
Sunscreen agent and ultraviolet light absorber.
Why is it harmful? It accumulates in fatty tissues and can cause allergies, hormone disruption, cellular damage, low birth weight.
Substitutes and alternatives: Get adequate daily exposure, without getting close to the point of burning. Plan your exposure when the sun is not so high. Make a DIY sunscreen with natural ingredients that have a natural SPF like Almond Oil- SPF around 5, Coconut Oil- SPF 4-6, Zinc Oxide SPF 2-20, Red Raspberry Seed Oil SPF 25-50, Carrot Seed Oil – SPF 35-40, Shea Butter – SPF 4-6. Always consult with a doctor or dermatologist before using any new DIY products. Or try out brands that contain no harmful ingredients and are Oxybenzone-free: Be Natural Organics, All Terrain, Aubrey Organics, Green People (SPF15-30), Tropical Sands, Loving Naturals, Adorable Baby (30+) and more.
(specifically Propyl-, Isopropyl-, Butyl-, and Isobutyl- parabens)
They function as preservatives to prevent the growth of microbes. Found in shampoos, conditioners, lotions, facial and shower cleansers and scrubs, makeup. To identify their presence look for ingredients ending in -paraben. Methylparaben and propylparaben are the most common.
Why is it harmful? Nearly all urine samples from U.S. adults contain Parabens.6 Linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity.
Substitutes or alternatives: Welcome “paraben-free” labeled products into your daily beauty and body care procedures. Aubrey Organics Skin, Body & Hair Care Products, Avalon Organics, Dr. Bronner’s, Weleda, Badger, Burt’s Bee, Nature’s Gate are all in for that. Many natural and organic cosmetics manufacturers have developed effective alternatives to parabens. No harmful ingredients prove to be D-Alpha Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Plantservative from Honeysuckle, Vitamin C (and high levels of other antioxidants), L-Ascorbic Acid. Also, look for preservative-free products that have shorter shelf lives (six months to a year) or make your own DIY alternatives.
Conditioning and cleaning agents. Used in shampoo, liquid soap, bubble bath.
Why is it harmful? These ingredients are often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, considered a probable human carcinogen.
Substitutes or alternatives: A study by the Organic Consumers Association7 shows that 1,4-dioxane is nonexistent in a variety of cosmetics certified under the USDA National Organic Program. Therefore a good way to avoid exposure to this chemical is to buy products that have been certified under this program.
A harmful cosmetics ingredient extracted from Petroleum. You might find it on your mascara label.
Why is it harmful? They cause contact dermatitis and are often contaminated with cancer-causing contaminants.
Alternatives: Check out products by brands Mineral Fusion and W3ll People (EWG Verified), Alima Pure, Au Naturale, Lotus Cosmetics.
Check the labels of color cosmetics, fragranced lotions, body washes and hair care products, nail polish and treatment for these harmful ingredients. They have been banned from cosmetics in the European Union, but are still common in U.S. products.
Why is it harmful? Decades of research suggest that phthalates disrupt hormones, can cause developmental and reproductive toxicity, cancer.
Substitutes or alternatives: Avoid products that list “fragrance” on the label to prevent possible exposure to phthalates. Products containing Essential Oils, Herbal, Floral, and Natural Food Aroma Extracts could be a much better alternative. Aubrey Organics, WELEDA, W3ll People are all Phthalate-free.
Commonly found in hair dyes, shampoos or hair lotions, peels and in products used to treat acne, eczema and other dermatological issues. Look for Resorcinol, 1,3-benzenediol, resorcin, 1,3-dihydroxybenzene(m-hydroxybenze, m-dihydroxyphenol).
Why is it harmful? There is evidence it causes skin irritations, allergy, organ system toxicity.
Substitutes or alternatives: Buy products using only 100% natural ingredients and botanical dyes (check out Substitutes and alternatives section for COAL TAR HAIR DYES). Some of them don’t have the cover effect of synthetic dyes, changes blonde to dark, for example, aren’t always possible, but you can effectively apply them to cover partially grey hair.
RETINOL AND RETINOL COMPOUNDS (VITAMIN A)
Commonly used in anti-aging creams and lotions, moisturizers, and foundation. Retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate are derivatives of Retinol that you should avoid in cosmetics and personal care products. They function as skin conditioners and anti-acne agents.
Why is it harmful? Retinol is the chemical name of the micronutrient vitamin A – essential to your health, but harmful if absorbed through your skin. It increases skin sensitivity of sun exposed skin, further exposure breaks Vitamin A to produce toxic free radicals.
Substitutes or alternatives: Products containing Vitamin C, Kojic Acid (a botanical extract derived from fungus), Polyphenols, marine plant stem sells, anti-oxidant rich rare pine mushroom and green tea, botanicals such as soy beans, ginger or iris and many other natural ingredients possess anti-aging effect. Try out effective and clean brands like C2 California Clean, Beauty Counter, Cellex-C, 100% Pure.
Always check the labels of nail polish, nail treatment, hair dyes.
Why is it harmful? This chemical disrupts the immune and endocrine systems, as well as fetal development. The EU restricted its use in cosmetics; found unsafe for use in cosmetics by the International Fragrance Association Codes and Standards.
Substitutes or alternatives: Look for nail polish brands that are ‘5-Free:’ formaldehyde-free, toluene-free, DBP-free, formaldehyde resin free and camphor-free (check out Substitutes and alternatives section of Formaldehyde).
TRICLOSAN AND TRICLOCARBAN
You can find it in antibacterial soaps and detergents, toothpaste and tooth whitening products, antiperspirants, shaving products, creams.
Why is it harmful? Those are antimicrobial pesticides toxic to the aquatic environment. Linked to cancer and endocrine disruption.
Substitutes or alternatives: There is no evidence that cleansing products containing triclosan are more effective at fighting microbes than plain soap. Thus, we recommend using more healthy alternatives. Organic or all natural ingredients soaps at best. Dr. Bronner’s and Soap for Goodness Sake present great alternatives (tea tree).
Finally, we come to the ethical aspect of the problem with cosmetics. Many of the most commonly used ingredients in beauty and personal care products are derived from animals, or tested on animals. In most cases, this fact is not clearly stated on the label. The best way to avoid supporting this practice is to invest in cosmetic brands that claim to be vegitarian or vegan. Look for the PETA seal on their labels.
Our world now is full of heavy chemicals and it’s not an easy task to totally avoid them all. But each small step to being informed is a huge step towards a healthier and sustainable lifestyle. Check the labels every time you reach for the shelf to put a cosmetic product in your basket. Or instead, pamper your skin with products with all-natural ingredients. Learn more about how to preserve your beauty without harmful ingredients and negative health impact. And without having to remember the periodic table of elements by heart.
1. National Toxicology Program, “Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition. Butylated Hydroxyanisole,” 2011.
2. Jeong SH et al, “Effects of butylated hydroxyanisole on the development and functions of reproductive system in rats,” Toxicology, vol. 208, no. 1, pp. 49-62, 2005.
3. Coal Tar. Report on carcinogens 12 edition. Available Online: http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/?objectid=03C9AF75-E1BF-FF40-DBA9EC0928DF8B15
4. Lundov, M. D., Krongaard, T., Menné, T. L., & Johansen, J. D. (2011). Methylisothiazolinone contact allergy: a review. British Journal of Dermatology, 165(6), 1178-1182. – See more at: http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/methylisothiazolinone/#sthash.W2C0ZSti.dpuf
5. Burnett, C. L., Bergfeld, W. F., Belsito, D. V., Klaassen, C. D., Marks, J. G., Shank, R. C., … & Andersen, F. A. (2010). Final report of the safety assessment of methylisothiazolinone. International journal of toxicology, 29(4 suppl), 187S-213S. – See more at: http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/methylisothiazolinone/#sthash.W2C0ZSti.dpuf
6. Ye X., et al., Parabens as urinary biomarkers of exposure in humans. Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 114, pp 1843-1846, 2006. – See more at: http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/parabens/#sthash.rI5D1uuw.dpuf
7. Organic Consumers Association. Results of Testing for 1,4 Dioxane. Available at http://www.organicconsumers.org/bodycare/DioxaneResults08.cfm. Accessed August 19, 2008.