What we don’t know can’t hurt us, right? Not so fast. Don’t you dare turn a blind eye to that ingredient label. Beauty products in America can contain several kinds of harmful chemicals that can hurt us.
I got curious and tested my knowledge on the matter with the FDA Cosmetics Quiz. And one of the first things I learned was this: “The law treats cosmetics differently from drugs. Unlike drug companies, cosmetic companies may use almost any ingredient they choose….”
As unsettling as that statement is, it makes one thing clear: We need to start reading ingredients. This can be tough, though, because most of the ingredients listed sound like a foreign language from an undiscovered planet. So, I did some research and called in the help of Jenny Frankel, founder of Nudestix and former chemical engineer.
First, here are some quick tips on how to read those pesky labels:
- Ingredients will be listed in order of predominance — except active ingredients are shown under a separate list, ingredients under 1 percent can be listed in any order after the other ingredients and “color additives of any concentration may be listed in any order” after the non-color ingredients are listed (that’s a little scary!).
- Be aware of labeling claims. The FDA notes, “Even if a product never was tested on animals, there’s a very good chance its ingredients were. A company might call its products ‘cruelty free’ because it isn’t doing any animal testing on these ingredients now, although the ingredients may have been tested on animals in the past.”
- “Dermatologist tested” doesn’t mean much. Consider these questions: Was the dermatologist buddy-buddy with the manufacturer? Was the product tested on two people or 200,000 people? How long did the testing last — one minute or one year? OK, so the doctor tested it, but… what were the results?
If there is one chemical you choose to shut out of your life forever, make it formaldehydes, as Frankel suggests. “Cosmetic treatments like hair straightener treatments and nail hardeners are known for their use of formaldehyde, a chemical the U.S. Food and Drug Administration officially classifies as a carcinogen. It’s most commonly used as a water solution called formalin, rather than in its pure form.” Common formaldehyde releasers include quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea and diazolindinyl urea. “Formaldehyde can be found in nail polishes, nail hardeners, eyelash glues, hair gels, soaps, makeup, shampoos, lotions, and deodorants, among other products,” Frankel informs.
“Parabens are widely used synthetic preservatives,” Frankel tells us. “They have been under scrutiny and a cause for consumer alarm ever since a small 2004 U.K. study found traces of it in women with breast tumours. Parabens are also thought to weakly mimic estrogen. As well, some researchers feel they may be endocrine disruptors, and may be implicated in declining sperm counts and increasing rates of male breast cancer and testicular cancer.”
If you’re staying away from parabens, you’ll probably want to avoid this one too. “Many cosmetics have substituted the use of paraben with another synthetic chemical preservative, phenoxyethanol, which is banned for cosmetic use in Japan,” Frankel says.
Believe it or not, lead is still used in cosmetics. The FDA website says, “FDA analyzed hundreds of lipsticks on the market and found that levels of lead were too low to pose a health risk, especially considering the tiny amounts of lipstick that a consumer might ingest.” Um, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want lead on my mouth. CBS News listed the top 10 lead-filled lipsticks — we’re looking at you Maybelline, CoverGirl, L’Oreal. You won’t necessarily find “lead” on the ingredient list either, as it can be considered a contaminant. So stay safe and do your research beforehand.
Triclosan is used as an antibacterial agent in soaps, cleansers and hand sanitizers. Besides being toxic to aquatic organisms, the chemical effect on humans is a little unclear. Some studies say it can mess with our hormones and endocrine system. But, we do know that small amounts of triclosan are absorbed through the skin, as the Centers for Disease Control found traces of it in the urine of 75 percent of participants in a study.
6. Ethylene oxide
Found in shampoos, moisturizers and deodorants, ethylene oxide is classified as a “probable human carcinogen” by the Environmental Protection Agency. They explain that it can affect the central nervous system, irritate eyes and skin and increases incidence of stomach and pancreas cancer, leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease. TreeHugger makes it clear: “Avoid any ingredients containing the letters ‘eth.'”
The main types of phthalates in cosmetics are dimethylphthalate (DMP), dibutylphthalate (DBP) and diethylphthalate (DEP). They are used as plasticizers to avoid stiffness and cracking. While several studies have deemed the chemicals as “safe,” the FDA says the “use of phthalates in cosmetics decreased considerably from 2004 to 2010.” Hmm, weird. If they’re safe, then why have cosmetic companies limited their use? Well, know this: These chemicals aren’t always listed because regulations don’t require individual fragrance ingredients to be listed — which is where you’d find these phthalates. If you’re looking to avoid them, don’t buy items with fragrances.
8. BHA and BHT
Butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene are mostly used as food preservatives, but are also used in lipsticks, moisturizers and other cosmetics. They can trigger allergic reactions, and BHA is under close watch as a possible carcinogen. So much so that California requires warning labels on products that contain BHA to note that it may cause cancer.
9. Diethanolamine (DEA)
Although the EPA does not classify this ingredient as a carcinogen itself, the David Suzuki Foundation states that “DEA can react with other chemicals in cosmetics to form carcinogenic nitrosamines.” Similarly, related chemicals — like monoethanolamide (MEA) and triethanolamine (TEA) — can also combine with other ingredients and form carcinogens. These chemicals can be found in creamy or foamy products like soaps, shampoos, moisturizers and sunscreens.
You will most likely see sulfates as sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate. They are pretty common, as you’ll find them in everything from shampoo to toothpaste. Frankel says, “Health Canada, the European Union and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration consider SLS and SLES to be safe for intended cosmetic use. However, they are irritants and in some people can temporarily aggravate the skin, causing redness, dryness and itching. For some companies, going sulfate-free is about sustainability, since petrolatum [from which sulfates are derived] is a non-renewable resource.”
Petrolatum is a mineral oil jelly, which is used in moisturizers and hair products to lock in moisture. Frankel explains, mineral oil is “widely used in cosmetics because it rarely causes allergic reaction, is non-irritating, is effective in wound healing, moisturizing and it cannot become a solid and clog pores. Mineral oil is not an ingredient to avoid unless you have oily skin, as it may feel greasy on skin.” However, petrolatum can be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — which are associated with cancer. The European Commission regulates petrolatum by only allowing its use “if the full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen.”
This one made the list because this is another ingredient, like petrolatum, that can be laced with other harmful ingredients. Talc, itself, is a natural mineral composed of magnesium, silicon, oxygen and hydrogen. However, asbestos — also a naturally occurring mineral — is a carcinogen and can be found in environments near talc. Therefore, in the past talc was often contaminated with asbestos. Today, the FDA “considers it unacceptable for cosmetic talc to be contaminated with asbestos.” That said, they performed a study, finding no asbestos fibers in any samples. But… “The results were limited, however, by the fact that only four talc suppliers submitted samples and by the number of products tested,” the FDA explains. “For these reasons, while the FDA finds these results informative, they do not prove that most or all talc or talc-containing cosmetic products currently marketed in the United States are likely to be free of asbestos contamination.” Oh, gosh.
Oxybenzone is an active ingredient in some sunscreens. Several groups — including the American Academy of Dermatology and the FDA — qualify this ingredient as safe. But the EWG shows it has significant evidence of allergic effects, cellular damage and hormone disruption. Japan restricts its use in cosmetics. If you’re concerned, check out the EWG’s 2015 Guide to Sunscreens to find one that you feel safe with.
You’ve probably heard about this one — aluminum used in deodorants has been linked to Alzheimer’s and breast cancer. The claim is that the aluminum blocks the pores, preventing toxins from being excreted and, thus, causing the toxins to re-enter the bloodstream. In any case, the National Cancer Institute and FDA do not have solid evidence that aluminum causes cancer. Yet, some research may suggest that aluminum can cause “estrogen-like” effects — estrogen can promote the growth of breast cancer cells.
Hydroquinone, an agent used in lightening skin to get rid of acne marks and age spots, is banned in the UK. Furthermore, the EWG’s Skin Deep database rates this chemical as 9 out of 10 in overall hazard. It shows evidence of cancer, reproductive toxicity, immune system toxicity and carcinogenicity.