Toxic chemicals in cosmetics can make cleaning up a dirty business. The average person is exposed to over a hundred different harmful chemicals in cosmetics during their daily grooming routine. If this sounds like a lot, consider this: most people use several different beauty products on a daily basis including toothpaste, soap, shampoo, lotion, shaving cream and fragrance, and each of these products may contain multiple harmful ingredients.
When these products come in contact with your skin, they get absorbed into your blood stream. As a result, the ingredients in cosmetics can have an impact on your health. Harmful ingredients in cosmetics include carcinogens, neurotoxins and reproductive toxins, and have been linked to a number of diseases and disorders including neurodevelopmental disorders, lung, liver and kidney tumors, genital abnormalities, and lowered sperm count. Fortunately, you can be clean and green because you are in control of what you put onto your body, and you can choose products that are better for your health. And as consumer demand for eco-friendly cosmetics grows, more and more natural beauty products and organic beauty products flood the market.
Paying attention to the ingredients in cosmetics can have positive benefits for your health and for the planet, but reading a list of cosmetic ingredients can feel like reading a language you don’t speak. Add some confusing marketing lingo to the mix, and knowing what to buy can be a daunting task. What are the chemicals to avoid? What’s the difference between natural and organic? What are the best cosmetics brands? We’re here to help! Keep reading for Part One of our Guide to Green Cosmetics.
Chemicals to Avoid
According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, these are some of the top chemicals to avoid.
Triclosan – A common anti-microbial agent that is often found in antibacterial soap and detergent, as well as deodorant, toothpaste, fabric, and plastic. Triclosan has been linked to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and hormone disruption. Triclosan also has a negative impact on the environment when it ends up in our rivers, lakes and other water sources because it is toxic for aquatic life.
Synthetic Musks – Scents that are added to perfumes, lotions, body sprays and other personal care products, that can disrupt hormone systems and cause skin sensitization. There are two main categories of synthetic musks: Nitromusks like Ketone, and Polycyclic Musks like Galaxolide and Tonalide. Synthetic musks have been found in blood, breast milk, body fat, and the blood of newborn babies.
Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives – Chemicals that help prevent bacteria growth in water-based products such as shampoo, body wash, nail polish, nail glue, eyelash glue, hair gel, hair straightening products. These chemicals can be absorbed through he skin and have been linked to cancer and skin sensitivity. Formaldehyde is banned in Sweden and Japan, and is restricted in the European Union and Canada.
1,4-dioxane – A common contaminant found in foaming agents such as sodium laureth sulfate and products such as bubble bath, shampoo, and liquid soap, that is produced during the manufacturing process. 1,4-dioxane is not required to be listed as an ingredient on product labels, but the Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates that it may be found in 22% of the products in in the Skin Deep database (a great resource for finding out what’s really in your cosmetics). Other contaminated ingredients may include PEG compounds and chemicals that include the clauses “zynol,” “ceteareth” and “oleth.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 1,4-dioxane is listed as a probable human carcinogen, and in the state of California it is included on the Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects. It is also listed as a kidney toxicant, a neurotoxicant, and a respiratory toxicant according to the California Environmental Protection Agency.
Hydroquinone – An ingredient found in skin lighteners, and also as an impurity in other ingredients such as tocopheral acetate, tocopheral, tocopheral linoleate and other ingredients with the root “toco,” which are common ingredients in facial cleansers, facial moisturizers, and hair conditioners. EWG identifies hydroquinone as a carcinogen, immunotoxicant and developmental and reproductive toxicant, and also identifies concerns regarding the ingredient’s risks for various organ systems, the endocrine system and neurotoxicity. In addition, it is also linked to a skin condition called ochronosis in which the skin becomes thick and dark.
Phthalates – A softener for vinyl plastics used to make items like toys and shower curtains, phthalates are also used in cosmetics to hold color and scents. There’s a loophole in the law that allows phthalates to be added to fragrances without disclosure, and because it is not required, most companies do not disclose phthalate content on product labels. Since fragrance is found in nearly every type of beauty product, phthalates show up often. According to the EWG, phthalates are in nearly 75% of the products they test. Health issues related to phthalates are vast and include birth defects, disruption of hormonal systems, infertility, and breast cancer.
Parabens – Commonly used preservatives that kill bacteria and prevent the growth of microbes in cosmetics; widely found in water-based products. Includes ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben. Parabens are found in the urine samples of nearly all US adults. There are concerns that parabens are linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, and skin irritation. This ubiquitous ingredient shows up in over 50 international toxicity databases. Many companies have found alternatives to parabens, and it’s not uncommon to see labels that say “paraben-free.” Still, some people in the cosmetics industry defend parabens, remarking that they have been established as providing a broad spectrum against numerous micro-organisms and are widely used for their efficacy, stability and lack of side effects.
Lead and Other Heavy Metals – Metals such as lead, zinc, mercury, arsenic, aluminum, chromium and iron are found in color cosmetics, sunscreen and whitening toothpaste. Lead is a proven neurotoxin that is linked to learning, language and behavioral problems. Lead has also been linked to reduced fertility in men and women, miscarraiges, hormonal changes, menstrual irregularities, and delays in puberty. Mercury is linked to toxicity of the nervous system, reproductive system, immune system and respiratory system. It is also found in thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative, and because it is highly toxic, is a concern in any beauty products. Other metals show similar tendencies toward toxicity, including aluminum and chromium.
Nitrosamines – Impurities commonly found in over 50 cosmetics ingredients that are found in over 10,000 of the products in the EWG database. Because these are impurities, they are not listed on product labels. According to the UK Department of Trade and Industry, nitrosamines are considered to be more toxic in more animal species than any other category of chemical carcinogens. Nitrosamines have been banned for use in cosmetics in Canada and the European Union. They are listed as possibly human carcinogens by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and are also listed in California under Proposition 65. In addition to being linked to cancer, nitrosamines have been linked to developmental toxicity, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and systemic toxicity.
For more information on these chemicals, follow the links listed above and read this article about recommendations for the safe use of cosmetics and some ingredients to look out for. For more information about what’s in your cosmetics, visit the EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. You can enter the name of your product and learn about what’s in it, and what chemicals might be lurking in your beauty products. You can also watch this video to learn “The Story of Cosmetics.”
VIDEO: The Story of Cosmetics
Part Two of our Guide to Green Cosmetics series will be about the difference between natural and organic cosmetics. Stay tuned!