Updated: Dec 12, 2020
The beauty industry has an ugly secret: Most skin care products contain harmful chemicals that could potentially harm your health, and even make aging worse. Your makeup, face cream, skin moisturizer, or cleanser may deliver short-term smoothness and brightness, but it also may disrupt your hormones, expose you to cancer-causing chemicals, and deliver dangerous toxins that age your skin.
In the U.S., beauty products are regulated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines such products as, “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body…for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.”
While companies must ensure their products are safe, they are not required to do any premarket testing or submit safety data to the FDA before selling a product. In other words, although cosmetic and beauty products are regulated by the FDA, there is no FDA approval required for any ingredient or combination of ingredients, other than color additives. The FDA has only banned a few specific chemicals from cosmetic products, which are listed on their website.
When it becomes apparent a particular chemical is harmful to health or the environment, consumer pressure often leads companies to remove certain chemicals from their products. You often see companies advertising their products as paraben-free or phthalate-free, for example. Become educated about which ingredients are harmful and avoid them.
19 Ingredients to Avoid
To protect your skin and keep it as healthy as it can be, I recommend that you avoid cosmetic, bath, and beauty products that contain any of the following chemicals.
1. BHA & BHT
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are antioxidant preservatives added to beauty products, as well as foods. BHA is considered a likely carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) by the U.S. National Toxicology Program and is added to cosmetic products that contain fats and oils, especially lipstick and eyeshadow.In studies, animals exposed to BHA developed stomach and liver damage and complications with their thyroid and reproductive organs. BHT – a similar compound – was not found to cause cancer, but did cause liver and kidney damage, as well as other toxic effects. Some companies are proactively removing BHA and BHT from their products.
Borates are boron-containing chemical compounds, the most common include sodium borate (borax), boric acid, sodium perborate and perboric acid. Sodium borate, also called sodium tetraborate or disodium tetraborate, is a naturally occurring mineral, and it is used as a preservative and emulsifying agent which stabilizes the combination of ingredients in creams, lotions, shampoos, and bath products. Borates are sometimes used in teeth whitening toothpaste.
A major concern with sodium borate and its chemical cousin, boric acid, is that, in several laboratory animal species, exposure to either of these two compounds led to shrunken testes (testicular atrophy) and reduced sperm count in males and birth defects in females. Exposure to sodium perborate caused chromosomal rearrangements and mutations in hamster cells. Borates have been banned in the European Union, and the Canadian government advises individuals against using borax.
3. Coal Tar & Coal Tar-Derived Colors
Coal tar is a made from burning bituminous coal and contains hundreds of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). It’s used in anti-dandruff shampoos, as well as in creams treating skin conditions like psoriasis. Studies found coal tar led to skin, lung and liver cancers as well as DNA mutations. Coal tar is comedogenic, which means it blocks the skin pores and increases the skin’s sensitivity to light.
Many colors used in cosmetics were once made from coal tar; although today they are made from petroleum, the name coal tar dye remains. Many hair dyes contain coal tar dyes, usually called D&C or FD&C followed by the color and a number, e.g., D&C Red 33). Avoid them.
4. Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives
Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Formaldehyde and its cousin formalin are found in nail polish, nail polish remover, eyelash glue, hair gel, soap and other products. You can be exposed to inhalation of formaldehyde during Brazilian blowout hair smoothing treatments, even if they claim to be formaldehyde-free. There are also many formaldehyde-releasing preservatives – including DMDM hydantoin, Diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quaternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate–in products, including baby shampoos. Most studies have studied the effects of inhalation of formaldehyde versus skin application, but the clear link to cancer from inhaled formaldehyde is enough to avoid products that contain these compounds altogether.
5. Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) Compounds
Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) is used in cosmetics to create a cream base, and are used to thicken, soften or moisturize. PEG compounds are petroleum-based and include propylene glycol, polyethylene glycols, and polyoxyethylene. There’s some evidence that PEG compounds are harmful to DNA. Depending on the manufacturing process, PEG compounds may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a chemical the FDA warns may cause cancer, or ethylene oxide, a developmental toxicant, a compound that interferes with fetal development.
Exposure to even a small amount of mercury is toxic to the brain and nervous system, as well as the digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys. It has been banned in cosmetics in the U.S. since 1974. But mercury-containing cosmetics made overseas can be imported into the U.S. and sold in shops catering to Latin, African, and Middle Eastern communities. Buyer beware! These products may release mercury vapor, which not only causes mercury poisoning to you, but to people around you.
To avoid hidden mercury, steer clear of products with these ingredients: calomel, mercurio, mercurio chloride, or mercury. Products are required to include English ingredients, so avoid products that do not, as they may have been imported illegally and do not abide by FDA regulations.
Hydroquinone is used to lighten skin pigmentation. However, its use sometimes results in a disfiguring skin disorder called ochronosis, which results in blue-black pigmentation that is difficult to treat. Animal studies have found enough exposure leads to tumor development, DNA mutations, and reduced fertility in males.
Sunscreens contain oxybenzone to absorb UV light. While the American Academy of Dermatology says oxybenzone is safe, the Environmental Working Group, an environmental nonprofit that publishes the Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database warns of moderate to high concern due to its endocrine-disrupting properties. One study found oxybenzone caused the excess creation of reactive oxygen species, which can cause DNA mutations, cell death, and lead to cardiovascular problems.Synonyms for oxybenzone include benzophenone and phenyl-methanone.
Triclosan is an antibacterial and antifungal substance in many hand soaps and hand sanitizers, as well as deodorants, skin cleansers, and toothpaste. At very low doses, triclosan is an endocrine disruptor which can affect your thyroid and reproductive hormones. After finding evidence of liver damage in mice and reviewing extensive evidence of its endocrine disrupting properties, in 2016, the U.S. FDA banned triclosan in personal antibacterial products and is working on getting them out of hospitals.
Many beauty products market themselves as paraben-free. Research indicates that they are endocrine disrupting chemicals; in other words, they mimic estrogen and can lead to hormone imbalances in the body. Although the FDA still considers them safe for use in cosmetics, they are so widespread in products and the environment that these chemicals are in the urine of almost every person in the U.S. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database, some parabens are worse than others, with the strongest evidence for endocrine disruption in isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben.The FDA has yet to offer an assessment of the safety of other parabens. I recommend avoiding products with parabens altogether.
Fragrances are added to lotion, body wash, soap, and many beauty products. However, cosmetic companies don’t have to legally disclose which chemicals are in their fragrance because they are considered trade secrets. Fragrances and perfumes emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde, and other toxic chemicals, some of which have been linked to cancer. Products that are labeled as unscented products may contain fragrances with masking agents. Masking agents are often phthalates which are known endocrine disruptors. Choose fragrance-free options. Some fragrances are linked to allergic reactions, asthma, and migraine headaches.
A common ingredient in fragrances, phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that mimic human estrogen and cause hormone balance issues for both women and men. Several studies have found phthalates to be obesogens, chemicals that alter metabolism and result in weight gain. Phthalates have also been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.