Healthy Beauty Part 2: Your Guide to Ingredients to Avoid and Products You Can Trust

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Even though summer isn't officially here yet, summer-like weather is in full swing. I've been stocking up on warm-weather cosmetics to keep my hair, skin and nails protected from the elements. As I search through the endless rows of products for the best healthy, affordable cosmetics, I'm lucky to be armed with valuable information I read in Dr. Sam Epstein's book Healthy Beauty: Your Guide to Ingredients to Avoid and Products You Can Trust

Epstein, a founder and chairperson of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, professor emeritus of environmental health at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and consultant to the Environmental Protection Agency, details why we should be wary of potentially hazardous ingredients in everyday cosmetics — and offers natural product selections from companies who are leading the way in safer cosmetics production.  

Check out this second excerpt from Healthy Beauty: Your Guide to Ingredients to Avoid and Products You Can Trust to find out more about how to swap out conventional products for healthier, natural alternatives. Remember to keep the buzzwords below at the top of your mind as you stock up on your summer skin-care products. 

Healthy Beauty book cover 

Deciphering Product Labels 

Simply knowing what ingredients to avoid sometimes isn’t enough. How can you avoid ingredients if the manufacturer doesn’t reliably list them on the label? Learning to decipher product labels is another key step in protecting yourself from toxic ingredients. 

Federal law requires that product ingredients be listed on labels in descending order of concentration, beginning with the largest down to the smallest. The first ingredient listed will often be water or an oil used as the product’s base, and fragrances and color additives usually appear last.  

Even so, the identity of ingredients is often disguised or hidden in a variety of ways. Ingredients can be listed under different names, rendering familiar ingredients unrecognizable. Trade secrecy laws enable manufacturers to protect their formulas to some extent by grouping specific ingredients under generic terms like “fragrances” or “natural colorings.”  

You should also exercise healthy skepticism when it comes to claims on the label that a product is “hypoallergenic,” “allergy tested,” or “safe for sensitive skin.” Since product manufacturers are not required to validate such claims with the FDA, they could be entirely meaningless.  

A few other terms to be skeptical of when you see them on labels: 

Natural ingredients   

The word “natural” on a label can mean very little. Arsenic is natural, for instance, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to put in toothpaste. Having “natural” on the label should not automatically make you think the product is safe. Manufacturers are also not required to prove these claims, as with “hypoallergenic” and its ilk. Truly natural products should not include synthetics of any sort, which means no ingredients derived from petrochemicals. A label that announces that a product is “organic” or “all-natural” without any further ingredient identification or clarification should be a red flag.  

Ultra-fine or micro-fine ingredients 

There are no labeling requirements in the U.S. for nanoparticle ingredients. If a manufacturer uses the terminology “ultra-fine” or “micro-fine” in connection with specific chemical ingredients, that usually means nanoparticles are being used. The safety of nanoparticles remains a huge question mark; you’re better off avoiding products that include them. 

“Inactive” ingredients   

If you see the term “inactive” listed under an ingredient on a label, think twice about buying that product. This is a term commonly used to mask the identity of potentially harmful chemicals.