Now that you know the basic rules to decipher your beauty products’ labels, I’ve selected the top 7 ingredients that you should avoid in personal care products.
Tip: save the list at the bottom of the page for next time you go shopping!
Paraben is a type of widely used preservative to prevent the growth of bacteria, mold and yeast in cosmetics. They can be found in body washes, facial cleansers, makeup, deodorants and shampoos. Look for ingredients with the suffix “-paraben” (propyl-, butyl-…).
Parabens mimic estrogen and have the potential to act as hormone disruptors. The European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products has established that longer chain parabens can potentially cause reproductive and developmental disorders. The FDA acknowledges several studies linking parabens (in high concentration) to breast cancer, skin cancer and decreased sperm count.
Both the EU and the US have limited the concentration of paraben in personal care products to a maximum of 0.4% for each paraben and 0.8% for a mixture of parabens. At such low concentrations, the FDA has declared the parabens safe to use in cosmetics.
My friend Elsa Jungman, PhD, published a paper a few years ago about parabens. It reviews paraben penetration studies over a 20-year span and the impacts on human health. It concludes that only a fraction of parabens is absorbed by the skin and that this fraction is then mostly metabolized. The whole formulation has to be taken into account to understand the diffusion properties.
“Even if the impact of parabens is still being investigated, make sure the products you purchase have a good preservation system. If a product for example contains water, bacteria can quickly grow if it is not a sterile/airless packaging or if the ingredients used as preservatives are not efficient” — Elsa
2. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) / Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)
This surfactant can be found in more than 90% of personal care and cleaning products. Especially look for it in foaming products (body/face wash, shampoo, acne treatment).
SLS/SLES have been shown to cause or contribute to skin irritation (oh the irony), eye damage, canker sores. It is also widely believed to be a major contributor to acne (especially cystic acne) around the mouth and chin.
Not enough scientific studies exist to confirm the link between SLS/SLES and cancer. However, carcinogenic effects are quite possible when you consider that SLS/SLES is often contaminated by two known carcinogens: ethylene oxide and 1,4 dioxane.
3. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives
Hair keratin treatments, nail polish and nail treatments, body washes, conditioners, shampoos, cleansers and eye shadows.
The U.S. government and World Health Organization have classified formaldehyde as carcinogenic when its fumes are inhaled. It is also a potent skin sensitizer and allergen. Cosmetics companies generally don’t include pure formaldehyde into their concoctions (so you usually won’t see it appear in ingredient lists). However, they are using formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) that, when added to water, will decompose slowly over time to form molecules of formaldehyde.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggests avoiding the following FRPs: quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, bronopol and glyoxal. That’s what you should look for on the label.
4. “Fragrance” as an ingredient
Many products such as perfume, cologne, conditioner, shampoo, body wash and moisturizers.
This is a tough one. Fragrance doesn’t really mean anything as an item in an ingredient list. Federal law doesn’t require companies to list on product labels any of the chemicals in their fragrance mixture. It has become a catch-all term that companies overuse to supposedly keep their ‘secret formula’. On the consumer end, it may mean that you’re applying a concoction of hazardous ingredients on your skin. According to the EWG Skin Deep Database, fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.
Buy fragrance-free whenever possible.
Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in hundreds of products to increase the flexibility and softness of plastics. According to the FDA: historically, the primary phthalates used in cosmetics have been:
- dibutylphthalate (DBP), used as a plasticizer in products such as nail polishes;
- dimethylphthalate (DMP), used in hair sprays;
- and diethylphthalate (DEP), used as a solvent and fixative in fragrances.
Another phthalate, the Di-2-ethylhexylphthalate (DEHP), is found in eyelash glue and is believed to be used in other consumer products.
According to the Safe Cosmetics website, phthalates’ safety concerns are three-fold.
First, two decades of research suggest that phthalates disrupt hormones, which can lead to harm during critical periods of development.
Then, The European Chemicals Agency classifies DEHP and DBP as reproductive toxicants, impairing sperm mobility.
Finally, the National Toxicology Program and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report that DEHP is reasonably to be anticipated to be a human carcinogen and DBP has been shown to cause proliferation of breast tumor cells.
Unfortunately, phthalates are usually not disclosed on every product as it’s added to fragrances (see “secret formula” above), a major loophole in the law. To avoid phthalates, buy ‘fragrance-free’ as much as possible.
6. Chemical Sunscreens (oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate)
Sunscreens. These chemicals function as a sunscreen agent, to absorb ultraviolet light. They are popular because of their stability and transparency.
Yep, that’s a bummer… Everyone keeps telling us to protect ourselves from the sun but when you look closer, chemicals included in sunscreens can be pretty harmful themselves. Ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate, even at low concentrations, absorb into your bloodstream and have been associated with hormone disruption, skin allergies and cell damage. Their concentrations are regulated but we don’t know yet the impact of long-term exposure to even low concentrations.
However, don’t just give up sun protection; keep your go-to sunscreen until you find a cleaner alternative that works for you and for your skin. For example, opt for mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide, titanium oxide or avobenzene instead. There are very good options! I’ll get back to this in a future post.
7. Butylated Compounds (BHA & BHT)
These synthetic antioxidants are used as preservatives to extend shelf life. They’re used in a variety of personal care products including makeup (especially lipstick and eye shadow), sunscreen, deodorant and hair products.
These chemicals are linked to several health concerns including endocrine disruption and organ-system toxicity. They may cause liver damage. Given that our liver is our main form of detoxification, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of our organs…
As you can see, there are some pretty bad things out there… We still have to use our own judgement and understand that it all depends on formulation and concentrations. The FDA continues to take the stance that most of these chemicals are ‘safe to use’ in cosmetics, sometimes arguing that the levels included in personal care products are too low to be considered harmful. However, given the fact that we don’t know yet the impact of long-term, repetitive exposure to these ingredients (even at low concentrations) and that there are cleaner alternatives, why take a chance with your health?
Next time you go beauty shopping, save this on your phone:
Useful disclaimer: I’m NOT a scientist. This article is the result of long hours of reading as much as I could about these ingredients and talking with smart people 😉 don’t hesitate to use the comment section if you feel something is not accurate.