Stocking our beauty shelves shouldn’t be difficult—or dangerous. But as study after study links chemicals common in personal-care and cosmetic products to unwanted effects and conditions, it’s becoming evident that many of the ingredients in our showers and makeup bags may have a negative impact on our health. The FDA doesn’t have the authority to require premarket safety assessments for personal-care products like it does with drugs, making cosmetics one of the least-regulated product categories on the market. In fact, 89 percent of all ingredients in cosmetics have not been evaluated for safety by any publicly accountable institution.
Let’s take our health into our own hands. Our approach? Buy products with the fewest ingredients possible, ideally natural ingredients whose names you recognize. Yet even labels for natural cosmetics can sometimes be hard to read and understand. We’re here to make this process easier. This list includes five of the most common worst offenders in the cosmetics category. We advise you to rid your home (and body) of these toxic ingredients.
What it does: Formaldehyde (and preservatives that release formaldehyde) are used to prevent bacteria from growing in water-based personal-care products, including shampoo, liquid baby soap, nail polish, keratin hair treatment, hair dye, hair-styling products and more.
Why it’s bad: While formaldehyde may lengthen a product’s shelf life, it can be absorbed through our skin and has been linked to health problems ranging from allergic skin reactions to lung and nasal cancer, and myeloid leukemia. “Unfortunately many companies still use preservatives that release formaldehyde, even though safer alternatives are available,” says Stacy Malkan, author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.
Label watch: quaternium-15; DMDM hydantoin; imidazolidinyl urea; diazolidinyl urea; sodium hydroxymethylglycinate; methenamine; bronopol
Safer alternatives: Look for products made with natural preservatives such as vitamin E, tea tree oil, neem oil, glycerin, ascorbic acid and potassium sorbate.
What it does: One of the most ubiquitous ingredients found in body-care products—even in those labeled unscented—fragrance gives many body washes, soaps, lotions and deodorants their scent. It’s also used to mask the odor of nasty-smelling chemicals.
Why it’s bad: Because it’s considered proprietary information, companies don’t have to disclose the chemical makeup of their “fragrances,” which means this ingredient may comprise any combination of hundreds of chemicals. “Testing shows that fragrance is likely to contain a dozen or more chemicals, including hormone disruptors, allergens linked to skin problems, and phthalates linked to sperm damage and asthma” Malkan says. The chemicals that make up “fragrance” can be ingested, inhaled and absorbed through skin.
Label watch: fragrance; aroma; parfum; phthalates
Safer alternatives: Rather than buying anything with synthetic fragrance, look for products scented with 100 percent pure essential oils.
SLES and SLS
What they do: Sulfates, including sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), are surfactants used to make suds in products such as shampoos, cleansers and bubble bath. They’re commonly used because they’re inexpensive and effective at cutting through oil.
Why they’re bad: These surfactants are notoriously harsh on the skin and have been linked to rashes, scalp scabs and canker sores. This group of ingredients often goes through the chemical process known as ethoxylation. Although the intent of this process is to make the ingredient less harsh, it can contaminate products with 1,4-dioxane, a cancer-causing chemical linked to organ toxicity. “Substances such as SLS are known to be absorbed into body tissues, and that’s frightening,” says Mitchell A. Kline, a doctor sourced in the book No More Dirty Looks. The FDA doesn’t require 1,4-dioxane to be listed as an ingredient on product labels, so avoid it by keeping away from sulfates and other ingredients ending in -eth.
Label watch: sodium lauryl sulfate; sodium laureth sulfate; sodium dodecyl sulfate; sodium salt sulphuric acid; monododecyl ester
Safer alternatives: Turn to foaming products that use natural saponins such as castile soap and soapwort.
What it does: Triclosan is a powerful germ killer with antibacterial, antimicrobial, antifungal and antiviral properties. This chemical is used in antibacterial cosmetics such as hand sanitizers, soaps, face washes, deodorants, toothpastes, mouthwashes and cleansers.
Why it’s bad: Triclosan is a well-known skin irritant that accumulates in our bodies: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified triclosan in the urine of nearly 75 percent of people tested. It’s been linked to antibiotic resistance as well as hormone disruption. On top of this, triclosan is notorious for ending up in lakes, rivers and other water sources where it can become toxic to aquatic life.
Label watch: triclosan; chloro; phenol; irgasan
Safer alternatives: No evidence has shown triclosan in antibacterial soap and body wash to be more effective at preventing the spread of infection and reducing bacteria on the skin than regular old soap and water, according to the FDA. In many products it’s simply unnecessary. Naturally antibacterial ingredients include tea tree oil and grapefruit seed extract.
What it does: Naturally found in crude oil and the tolu tree, toluene is a solvent used in high concentrations in nail products to suspend color and form a smooth finish. This chemical is also used in degreasers, paint thinners, adhesives, rubber, cola syrup and hair dyes.
Why it’s bad: “Toluene is added to paint thinners and has no place in products we put on our bodies, yet it’s found in some nail and hair treatments used in salons, where women of childbearing age are repeatedly exposed,” Malkan says. High exposure to toluene via contact or inhalation can lead to temporary dizziness, headaches and cracked skin. It’s also been linked to more serious effects, including reproductive damage, respiratory complications and organ system toxicity.
Label watch: toluene; benzene; toluol; methylbenzene; phenylmethane
Safer alternatives: In recent years, most nail polish companies have removed toluene; select polishes labeled three-free or five-free (free of the three or five worst nail-polish ingredients). Scotch Naturals makes effective water-based polishes, as well as a soy-based nail polish remover. If you get manicures or pedicures, ask your salon about toluene.
Other Concerning Ingredients
Nanoparticles: Found in sunscreen, makeup, acne treatments and anti-aging creams, nanoparticles are often used to help active ingredients penetrate skin. Although their safety is uncertain, research indicates these particles may cause cell damage. Products containing nanoparticles aren't required to be labeled as such; be cautious of products touting nanomaterials or nanotechnology.
Nitrosamines: Found in numerous products, including moisturizers and shampoos, nitrosamines are linked to endocrine disruption and are known carcinogens. Watch for related chemicals diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA).
Parabens: Preservatives used in nearly every category of cosmetics, parabens are a cheap, effective way to extend shelf life. They can be absorbed through the skin, blood and digestive system, and have been linked to endocrine disruption, developmental disorders, reproductive toxicity, allergies and immunotoxicity. Look out for any ingredient ending in –paraben.
Propylene glycol: Although propylene glycol can be derived naturally, it usually isn’t. A strong skin irritant, this common shampoo ingredient has been linked to liver abnormalities and kidney damage. It's also called ethylene glycol, diethylene glycol and polyethylene glycol.
Retinyl palmitate: A form of vitamin A rich in antioxidants and anti-aging properties, retinyl palmitate (or retinol) may speed development of cancerous skin tumors when exposed to the sun. Excessive amounts may be detrimental to a developing fetus. Avoid this ingredient in daytime skin products and if you are or may become pregnant.
Gina DeBacker is the associate editor at Mother Earth Living. She loves managing the health section, as well as testing beauty products enriched with natural ingredients. Find her on Google+ and Instagram.