Take the time to read the labels of your favorite beauty products.
The next time you reach for your favorite beauty product, be it your go-to foundation or your favorite bubble bath, read its label. Chances are you’ll see a whole list of strange-sounding ingredients that you’ve never heard of, and chances are they’re not good for you or for your health.
“Did you know that manufacturers can put practically any chemical they want into skincare and hair care products, even if it is a hazardous chemical listed in the RTECS database of toxicity, and even if it’s considered a toxic waste chemical by the FDA?” says Sinead Scott, Nutritionist at Talise Nutrition. “The FDA allows all sorts of chemicals to be used, including known carcinogens (substances capable of causing cancer) that are linked to developmental/reproductive toxicity, nervous-system disorders, allergies, liver failure, etc.” This really is the ugly side of the beauty world.
“There are too many cheap, ineffective, persistent pollutants used in the industry that are harmful to both the body and the environment,” explains Shirley Conlon, founder of Shirley Conlon Organics. “Manufacturers consider profits before health and the environment, using concoctions of dangerous, non-effective ingredients.”
But it’s not a big deal, right? What’s more important is putting healthy ingredients into our bodies, not onto it? Nope, sorry; what you’re putting on your body is going into your body. “As we all know, our skin is the largest organ in our body. It covers our muscles and tissues and protects us from our environment, which means that we should never take it for granted!” explains Margo Marrone, co-founder of The Organic Pharmacy.
“We also know that our skin absorbs a lot of what it comes into contact with, which is why you need to be certain that your favorite skincare products don’t contain any of those nasty chemicals that our bodies could be absorbing. It only takes 30 seconds for the skin to absorb chemicals directly into the bloodstream – that’s less than the time it takes to tie your shoe laces!” says Marrone.
Worried about what’s lurking in your beauty products? Read on to discover the 12 worst offenders and how to avoid them, and shop the best toxic ingredient-free beauty products.
It only takes 30 seconds for the skin to absorb chemicals directly into the bloodstream.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
You know how your shampoo foams and your face wash creates that rich, creamy lather? That’s the work of SLS. And although it might feel all fun and foamy, this is one seriously harmful ingredient. A detergent and surfactant, it’s used in industrial cleaning agents as it’s really cheap to produce and an effective – and harsh – cleaning product.
A known skin irritant linked to dandruff, sores, and dermatitis, it’s also incredibly toxic to aquatic animals, polluting oceans and their inhabitants. It’s even used as a pesticide to kill plants and insects and produces cancerous fumes when it’s manufactured, so imagine what it’s doing to you and your body. Studies show it can permeate our eyes and organs and is toxic enough to break down fats and proteins in our bodies.
Ethylene Oxide & 1,4 Dioxane
The jury is out on whether or not SLS itself is cancerous, but what has been proved is that it has carcinogenic effects when contaminated by two known carcinogens: ethylene oxide and 1,4 dioxane. The easiest way to avoid these is to avoid any ingredients with the “eth” suffix, e.g. laureth, myreth, and oleth.
Opt for sulfate-free formulas and read your labels carefully as there are over 150 names used for SLS. Most commonly found in soaps, shampoos, shower gels, and bubble bath, it’s even added to most mainstream toothpastes, so try to stick to as many natural products as possible.
Propylene Glycol (PG) & Butylene Glycol
A.k.a. the main ingredient in antifreeze! “It’s a neurotoxin to give cosmetics a velvety feeling and is known to damage skin and cause eczema,” Conlon tells us. “PG is considered so toxic that workers must wear protective gloves, clothing, and eye protection. The EPA has concluded that the brain, liver, and kidneys can be affected through skin absorption. Be aware of related chemicals labeled PEG and PPG.” These are most often found in deodorant, shampoos, shaving gels, and moisturizers.
Triethanolamine, TEA, MEA, DEA
This is a detergent in most shampoos and moisturizers that’s used to balance the pH of a product. “It causes severe allergic reactions, is corrosive to eyes, and affects the immune and respiratory systems. It is toxic if absorbed into the body over a long period of time and is associated with cancer in lab animals,” warns Conlon. It’s also been proven to directly inhibit fetal brain development in lab studies, proving it to be an incredibly harmful ingredient.
The bad types of alcohol found lurking in things like perfumes, colognes, deodorants, hairsprays, and shampoos are ethanol, methanol, benzyl alcohol, and isopropyl alcohol. Not only do they cause skin sensitivity and dryness, but they also break down the surface of the skin with continued use. Known to cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, low blood pressure, and respiratory-tract problems, they can also cause depression, impaired vision, and even respiratory failure in extreme causes. In fact, ethanol (also often used in nail varnishes and removers) is so harmful that it’s on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste List!
Most commonly found in nail products including polishes and removers, ethyl acetate is a solvent with a sweet and fruity smell, making it a very popular addition to beauty products. Although labelled “Generally Recognized As Safe” by the FDA, it’s highly flammable and toxic when ingested or inhaled, so it's hardly surprising that the overpowering smell of nail polish can make you feel unwell. It can also cause serious skin and eye irritation as well as central nervous-system disorders. Plus, it dries out your nails and can lead to discoloration.
Yep, this is the stuff that preserves dead bodies. Not pretty, and it won’t make you pretty either. A colorless gas found in everything from nail polish to hair gel, lotions to shampoos, and even hair-straightening salon treatments, it’s used to stop bacteria from contaminating products. What they don’t write on the label is that the FDA officially classes it as a carcinogen, which essentially means that it can cause cancer when inhaled. Look out for formalin on your product labels as this is the altered form of formaldehyde normally used.
Used to soften plastic and a known carcinogen found in many skincare products, phthalates have been under attack a lot recently due to more and more studies revealing their harmful effects. Researchers have linked them to an array of serious health issues such as obesity and type II diabetes, asthma, ADHD, and even breast cancer, with pregnant women being warned to steer clear of it as they’re most vulnerable.
Although triclosan has just been banned by the FDA for use in antiseptic hand soaps and body washes (it’s used to prevent bacterial contamination), it’s still found in hundreds of other products including toothpastes, deodorants, and skincare items. It's been shown to disrupt thyroid function and hormones. Research, meanwhile, has even proven that it can encourage the growth of cancer cells and lead to antibiotic-resistant germs in the body.
A leading beauty brand that specializes in products for children and babies has just been sued for over $110 million after a customer developed ovarian cancer, claiming it was from using its talcum powder every day for 40 years. There are thousands of others filing suits against the company for its talc, a mineral compound that’s crushed into a soft, white powder and used in everything from baby powder and feminine hygiene products to paints and plastics. Some research links talc to lung cancer caused by the long-term effects of inhalation and ovarian cancer in women who use it for hygienic purposes. Although its harmful effects aren’t known for sure, it’s something to be mindful of, especially if you’re using it often.
We all know sunscreens are formulated to protect us from the sun’s harmful rays, but what most of us don’t know is that 80 percent of non-mineral sunscreens contain oxybenzone, the most frequently used chemical filter. The Environmental Working Group counts it as one of the most toxic ingredients, rating it an eight out of ten on its toxicity scale.
Why? Because it’s been directly linked to hormone disruption (it’s shown to lower testosterone levels in men as it acts like estrogen in the body) and cell damage that can cause skin cancer. It has been shown to cause photo-sensitivity in the skin and is linked to allergies and eczema. It’s also harmful to sea life – that sunscreen washes off, you know. Recent studies have shown how high levels of it can cause coral reefs to lose their protective algae and suffer permanent DNA damage.
“This word supposedly hides a formula’s scent, but it can actually hide over 4,000 chemicals, including preservatives,” explains Conlon. There’s a lot of gray area here as manufactures don’t have to disclose the ingredients they use in "fragrances", so they can hide hundreds of harmful chemicals behind a very loose term. If in doubt, contact someone from the brand directly and ask for more information. If they won’t give it to you, you know to steer clear.
To find out just how toxic your beauty buys are, visit the Environmental Working Guide website, where you can find product ratings and toxicity levels. Shop our edit of toxic ingredient-free beauty products, below.