On average, we use 10 personal care products each day: soap, toothpaste, deodorant, lotion, lip balm, perfume, cologne, and more. For many people, personal care also includes cosmetics — a category that comprises a slew of products all its own. Cosmetics are designed to give staying power to the looks we want to achieve. Each is applied in the morning, often reapplied in the afternoon or evening, and not washed off until bed.
With the exception of eight chemicals and additives banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cosmetic manufacturers in the United States are free to use any ingredient in their products without mandatory safety testing, ingredient reviews, or government approval. This includes known carcinogens, such as formaldehyde, and chemicals proven to cause reproductive harm, such as parabens and phthalates. Imagine the hundreds of beauty companies in the nation operating under these lax standards; for comparison, the European Union has banned more than 1,300 chemicals from cosmetics.
The root of the problem is that our cosmetic companies regulate themselves. They can join the Voluntary Cosmetic Registration Program (VCRP), allowing the FDA to evaluate their personal care products that are on the market. However, as the title suggests, companies don’t have to register in order for their makeup to become widely available. Even within these procedures, actions aren’t as strict as we might believe. For example, there is a Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel (CIR) that can use the VCRP to assess ingredient safety, but since its inception 36 years ago, the CIR has used this information to ban only 11 ingredients from makeup.
Manufacturers aren’t even obligated to register their cosmetic establishments with the FDA. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) the FDA can inspect cosmetic establishments “at reasonable times, in a reasonable manner, and without prior notice,” but it doesn’t have the authority to recall harmful cosmetics. The exceptions are only when a cosmetic is adulterated or misbranded. An “adulterated” cosmetic violates the FDA standards involving its composition, and “misbranded” refers to an improper label or deceptively packaged product.
“Misbranded,” however, doesn’t cover the false use of terms such as “natural,” “organic,” or even “hypoallergenic,” which are often deceptive when used on makeup labels. Neither FDA regulations, the FD&C Act, nor the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act define the term “organic” in cosmetics. Similarly, cosmetics labeled “hypoallergenic” don’t have to substantiate the claim with the FDA, and no federal standards govern the term. The FDA once tried to establish definitions for these words, including “natural,” but its actions were overturned in court. As a result, companies can use the terms as desired, and although they have marketing value, dermatologists say these words have very little meaning in cosmetics.
Perhaps all of this is more concerning with cosmetics than with other personal care products because makeup is designed to stay on our faces all day. In fact, makeup lasts so long because it doesn’t remain on the surface of the skin. The ingredients frequently contain enhancers designed to penetrate — and they do. Scientists have found many common cosmetic ingredients in human tissues, including phthalates in urine, parabens in breast tumor tissue, and musk ketone (a synthetic fragrance ingredient) in human fat and breast milk.
Beyond all these negative discoveries, there’s also an ongoing issue of ethics within the cosmetic industry. While animal testing isn’t mandatory for makeup to be sold in the United States, many major beauty brands still perform painful, inhumane tests on animal subjects to determine ingredient safety. They claim this testing must be performed to measure the safety of chemicals. Obviously, releasing untested, potentially hazardous ingredients into everyday products would be dangerous. However, thousands of ingredients with long histories of safe use could be substituted instead of new, unknown chemicals, and dozens of non-animal tests have been scientifically validated for use and offer accurate, efficient safety results.
The European Union, Switzerland, Israel, India, and Norway have all banned the sale of cosmetics tested on animals, so such measures are clearly possible. However, though mounting evidence suggests that animal testing isn’t always reliable or predictive of human outcomes, the FDA and FD&C Act have yet to regulate this experimentation in the United States, or to dispose of the practice altogether.
What Can We Do?
Despite what I now know about the cosmetic industry and the harm it can cause, I still feel more confident, put together, and ready for my day after applying makeup. So, if you’re like me and not ready to cut makeup from your life, and you don’t have the time or desire to make it yourself, what can you do to stay safe?
One of our most trusted resources at Mother Earth Living is the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and it has analyzed the ingredients on cosmetic labels and brand websites against the best available information from dozens of toxicity and regulatory resources. Through this research, it has created its Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. Here, it rates personal care products based on known and suspected hazardous ingredients, as well as the amount of data available about these ingredients. Altogether, the EWG has rated more than 74,000 products from more than 2,100 brand names in 130 different personal care categories.
Lucky for us, these ratings have turned up plenty of safe, transparent makeup companies that offer a variety of nontoxic products. We’ve compiled a list of some EWG-verified cosmetics (those that scored high in both data availability and safety) that are also approved as cruelty-free by either People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) or Leaping Bunny. If you’re looking for replacements for the makeup you currently own, this is the place to start!
While a few brands stood out based on our criteria, there are certainly companies not listed in this article that provide quality, safe, and ethical products. If you’re searching for new personal care products, don’t be afraid to check out Beautycounter, C’est Moi, Coastal Classic Creations, and other companies to find the best option for you and your skin!
Ethical, Safe, and EWG-Verified
• Mineral Fusion Liquid Mineral Concealer, all shades
• Paul Penders Hand Made Cover-Up Stick, all shades
• W3ll People Bio Correct Multi-Action Concealer, all shades
• Mineral Fusion Liquid Mineral Foundation, all shades
• Mineral Fusion Sheer Tint Mineral Foundation, all shades
• Paul Penders Hand Made Moisture Foundation, all shades
• W3ll People Narcissist Foundation Sticks, all shades
• Mineral Fusion Concealer Duo, all shades
• Rejuva Minerals Concealer Powder, all shades
• Maia’s Mineral Galaxy Mineral Foundation, all shades
• Mineral Fusion Pressed Powder Foundation (Cool 1, Cool 2, Neutral 1, Neutral 2, Warm 1, Warm 2, Warm 3, Olive 1, Olive 2, Olive 3, Deep 1, Deep 3)
• Rejuva Minerals Luminous Crème Foundation, all shades
• Rejuva Minerals Natural Look Pressed Powder Foundation, all shades
• Mineral Fusion Blush/Bronzer Duo, all shades
• Rejuva Minerals Multi-Purpose Pressed Powder for Face, all shades
• W3ll People Bio Bronzer Powder
• W3ll People Bio Bronzer Stick
• Mineral Fusion 3-in-1 Color Stick, all shades
• Rejuva Minerals Multi-Purpose Pressed Powder for Eyes & Face, all shades
• W3ll People Nudist Multi-Use Cream Stick, all shades
• Mineral Fusion Eye Shadow, all shades
• Mineral Fusion Eye Shadow Trio, all shades
• Sally B’s Skin Yummies B Smudged (Smokey Blue, Smokey Brown, Smokey Charcoal)
• Maia’s Mineral Galaxy Natural Mascara (Black, Brown)
• Mineral Fusion Waterproof Mineral Mascara, all shades
• Paul Penders Hand Made Nourishing Mascara, all shades
• Rejuva Minerals Mega Lash Lengthening and Thickening Mascara, all shades
• W3ll People Expressionist Mascara, all shades
• Maia’s Mineral Galaxy Mineral Eye Liner (Antique Bronze, Dark Chocolate, Kohl, Midnight Blue)
• Mineral Fusion Liquid Mineral Eyeliner, all shades
• W3ll People Expressionist Liquid Eyeliner
• W3ll People Hypnotist Eye Pencil (Black, Brown, Plum)
• Be Green Bath & Body Makeup Remover
• Graydon Skincare Aloe Milk Cleanser
• Organic to Green Liquid Coconut Oil (Lemon, Ginger, Jasmine Ylang-Ylang, Rose, Vanilla Chamomile)
• Rejuva Minerals Botanique Naturels Cranberry Fruit Makeup Remover Pads
• Maia’s Mineral Galaxy Liquid Lipstick (Beloved, Butterscotch, Cherish, Crush, Emotional, Knock, Natural, Pagan, Rage, Romance, Sensitive, Sweet, Tense, Wicked)
• Mineral Fusion Sheer Moisture Lip Tint, all shades
• Paul Penders Hand Made Cream Lipstick, all shades
• Rejuva Minerals Pur’ Lips Lipstick, all shades
• Mineral Fusion Lip Gloss, all shades
• Sally B’s Skin Yummies B Glossy Lip Gloss, all shades
Your Current Cosmetics
If you already own makeup with high-hazard ingredients, or if replacing all of your current products would be too expensive, use up what you have. While not ideal, short-term use of a product that contains fewer skin-friendly ingredients rarely causes an immediate problem; rather, what’s risky is a lifetime of exposure to the same hazards. After the product container is empty, you can recycle it and choose a safer alternative.
The risk that short-term use of a cosmetic poses to you is not as hazardous as the risk to the environment when makeup is rinsed down the drain or dumped in a landfill, as water pollution from cosmetic ingredients is a growing concern. If your products contain high-hazard ingredients and you don’t feel safe using them until their end, try contacting your local disposal center to find out whether they accept cosmetics as household hazardous waste.
While revamping an entire lineup of makeup might appear daunting, it doesn’t have to be. Take your products one at a time, do research to discover which are most unhealthy, and replace at your own pace. After you’re comfortable with the safety of the products you use, it will be simple to continue making more informed and eco-friendly choices in the future. Your skin will thank you!
Ingredients to Avoid
A handful of compounds repeatedly appear in the ingredients lists of the EWG’s lowest-rated cosmetics. If you’re shopping for new products, or simply verifying the safety of those you already own, try to avoid the following:
• Benzyl salicylate
• Cinnamyl alcohol
• Retinyl palmitate
If you’re worried about the toxicity of chemicals not included on this list, search the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database for the safety rating of specific ingredients to learn the risks they may pose to your health.
The Risk of Parabens and Phthalates
Although neither is restricted for use by the FDA or CIR, two chemical groups are of growing concern in personal care products: parabens and phthalates.
Parabens are a family of preservatives used in makeup to keep harmful bacteria and mold from growing. While that’s certainly a good thing, a growing number of studies have found that the parabens commonly used in cosmetics may disrupt hormones, lead to developmental disorders, and cause reproductive harm — particularly in men. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found parabens in the bodies of almost all 2,500 subjects they tested in 2005. Even as evidence of the dangers of these chemicals mounts, the FDA has no special rules regarding the use of parabens in cosmetics.
Phthalates, or “plasticizers,” are used in hundreds of products, including vinyl, food packaging, after-shave, perfume, nail polish, and shampoo. The FDA says only one phthalate (diethyl phthalate) is commonly used in cosmetics today, and that there’s no need for regulatory action. The CIR reaffirmed this with a 1985 finding of phthalate safety. However, studies indicate that phthalates damage reproductive systems, harm human development, and could be carcinogenic. In 2003, the CDC found measurable levels of phthalates in the general population of the United States, suggesting widespread exposure to the chemicals.
Although the full effects of both of these chemical groups are still being studied, choose personal care products and cosmetics that will help you avoid exposure.
Haley Casey is an editor at Mother Earth Living. In addition to a garden and an arsenal of homemade cleaning products, she now has plans to revamp her cosmetic lineup with eco-friendly and DIY options.