After working for five years as an aesthetician, my "ignorance is bliss" makeup mentality has been ruined. I learned how to read product ingredient labels. What I found, in many cases, was downright disturbing.
If you want to know what you are really putting on your skin each day as you get ready for work, read on. But be warned — you may never look at your beauty products the same way again, and you may end up throwing many of them in the trash.
Here's what the experts have to say about harmful beauty product ingredients you should never, ever use:
Bismuth oxychloride can be found in silver, nickel and tin, and it may also be found in the products you put on your beautiful face. Bismuth is known as a "pearlising agent" that products advertise will give your skin a glowing, silky look. When applied as makeup, bismuth can make your skin itch when you sweat and may even cause rashes and acne. Jennifer Trotter of Lip Service Makeup, professional makeup artist and beauty expert, says, "Something to watch out for in cosmetics is bismuth. It's a pretty common irritant and for some reason is still used in many cosmetic brands, although it's starting to fade in usage."
Commonly used in: Bismuth is a standard ingredient in most mineral makeup powders advertised for sensitive skin. If you're a fan of mineral makeup, as I am, seek out mineral powders that are 100 percent bismuth free.
The somewhat good news is that you're not likely to read a cosmetic label and find "formaldehyde" listed as an ingredient, but you will find formaldehyde-type preservatives, says Dr. David E. Bank, founder and director of The Center For Dermatology, Cosmetic & Laser Surgery in Mt. Kisco, New York. "Formaldehyde itself is seldom used today. However, Quaternium-15 is present in many topical products and causes allergies," explains Dr. Bank.
Colorless, flammable formaldehyde gas can also be found in fertilizer, antiseptic and medicine preservatives and, most frequently, nail hardener. Dr. Debra Jaliman, board-certified dermatologist and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets From a Top New York Dermatologist, says, "I was recently in a nail salon when they put it on my nails, and my fingers blew up like sausages. They had to plunge my fingers in an ice bath, and I eventually had to go on prednisone. Being that I am a dermatologist, I could barely do surgery or bend my fingers. I unfortunately have a severe allergy to formaldehyde, but it is also a known carcinogen."
Commonly used in: Eye makeup and nail polish are top formaldehyde preservative culprits, says Dr. Bank. Another sneaky formaldehyde source? Eyelash glue, according to Emily Lyons of True Glue. Lyons adds, "Lash glues contain chemicals such as formaldehyde, ammonia and many more. Your eye is a mucus membrane, and these chemicals are being absorbed right into your bloodstream, and in addition chemicals like formaldehyde are confirmed carcinogens by the National Cancer Society." Since formaldehyde and its derivatives are difficult to detect, do your homework before purchasing a product by checking EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.
Who wouldn't want to smell nice? Though a spritz of perfume can freshen you up on your way out the door, fragrance listed as a cosmetic ingredient is an absolute no-no, according to Dr. Bank. Fragrance in makeup may especially be a problem for those with sensitive skin, including conditions like psoriasis, rosacea or eczema. Dr. Bank says, "This is the leading cause of contact allergy from products applied topically that are loaded with fragrance." Dr. Luz Claudio, environmental pollutant research scientist with 22 years of experience, adds, "'Fragrance,' also named 'perfume' on the label… is a catch-all ingredient that may be composed of many compounds, particularly phthalates and other ingredients that have been found to have potential health effects."
Commonly used in: Sad to say, fragrance in cosmetics is everywhere — even in your favorite lip balm. Look for products that are advertised as allergy-tested and 100% fragrance-free, like major brands that include Clinique.
More: Lipstick metals toxic?
Hydroquinone may not be a sinister chemical like formaldehyde, but it is a popular cosmetic skin-lightening agent — one I am quite familiar with from my work as an aesthetician. Often advertised to "correct uneven skin tones," Dr. Michael Lin, diplomat of the American Academy of Dermatology and adjunct professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Southern California, cautions against the use of hydroquinone in beauty products. Dr. Lin says, "Studies have shown that this ingredient may have cancer-causing properties in animals. While the ingredient may provide quick, visible improvement of skin tone, long-term use can lead to skin disfigurement, such as permanent dark pigmentation. This ingredient is banned in Japan, the European Union and Australia but is still available in the U.S. market."
Commonly used in: Instead of reaching for bleaching creams or gels to lighten brown spots and dull acne scarring, Dr. Lin recommends, "A safer alternative to even skin tone is to look for products containing arbutin, which is derived from the bearberry plant. This ingredient is a natural tyrosinase inhibitor that helps prevent the formation of melanin and is safe for regular use."
Phthalates may sound like a fancy, sciency chemical, but according to Lani Lazzari, founder of Simple Sugars scrub, it's not the kind of chemical you want anywhere near your skin. Phthalates can be found in plastics and a number of personal care products. Celebrity makeup artist Alejandro Falcon of Osmosis Colour Cosmetics describes phthalates as a "suspected endocrine disrupter and reproductive toxicant."
Lazzari adds, "There are a plethora of potentially harmful chemicals that are commonly used in personal care products. My personal philosophy is that if you can't eat it, you shouldn't put it on your skin. Your skin is your largest organ, so really you should be just as concerned about the chemicals you're putting on your body as what you're putting in your body."
Commonly used in: A variety of cosmetics and beauty products use phthalates. Read labels carefully when purchasing makeup and fragranced products — always look for cosmetics advertised as "phthalate-free."
The FDA calls parabens the "most commonly used preservatives in cosmetic products." That's all fine and dandy until you discover that these cosmetic preservatives can interfere with hormonal balance in the body, says Vicki Engsall, cofounder of The Jojoba Company Australia. Engsall explains, "It is well known that our skin can absorb what we put on to it and transport it into our bodies. Just look at nicotine patches and how successfully they are able to be delivered into the body through the skin. For this reason, it is important to avoid known toxic ingredients in your skin care regime and instead choose natural oils and extracts which will give you a healthier glow."
Commonly used in: Parabens can be found in just about everything including moisturizers, foundations, anti-aging creams, mascara and more. Take Engsall's advice when shopping for new cosmetics: "Always check the ingredients on the label carefully to ensure you are avoiding these harmful toxins."
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