When you read about the problems caused by “everywhere chemicals” like BPA and phthalates, it can be tempting to chuck everything, buy a mud-colored hemp outfit, and move to an off-the-grid commune for a life of hammock weaving. But if you’re someone who loves beauty products (and all that they promise), it can also tempting to just… shrug the whole thing off. Sure, every cosmetic ingredient will probably cause cancer or infertility—but not before the world ends, right?
Perhaps there’s a happy medium between knee-jerk fear and sheer nihilism, however. Maybe we don’t have to buy all our beauty products from companies like Goop and Whole Foods and can still live to tell the tale. Maybe Goop and Whole Foods shill products that are no healthier for you than the products you buy anywhere else, many of which are products made in factories that make no effort toward sustainability or waste reduction and cost five times as much as the perfectly safe products you’d find at a Walgreens. After all, it’s 2019, and there’s big money to be made by simply feeling green.
This won’t be an exact science, but here are our thoughts on how to try to find a reasonable “clean beauty” balance:
1. Follow the Watchdogs
One of the first places you can turn for information is the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep database, which rates almost 70,000 products based on their ingredients. Enter the name of a lotion you’re about to buy, and the search will tell you whether any of its ingredients are known to cause problems, or if they’re still in question. (Although we recommend Googling the name of the product and “EWG”—the internal search is not amazing.)
“One of the biggest problems is that many of these ingredients have never been tested,” says EWG’s director of healthy living science, Nneka Leiba. Unlike with pharmaceuticals, the ingredients in beauty products don’t have to proven completely safe before they hit shelves. “What we’re saying to the consumer is, if there is no science on something, you shouldn’t assume it’s safe.”
Basically, when there’s not enough information, EWG will sound the alarm—which does mean they can sometimes be, well, rather alarmist about ingredients that aren’t known to cause harm. So it’s up to the consumer to take a look through the flags EWG raises and see if they seem relevant.
The group also issues an EWG-verified seal to certain products that meet its high standards of safety (though these seals have nothing to do with how effective the products are—just how safe they’ve been shown to be).
“Under that seal, we’ve already looked for ingredients of concern to make sure that they’re fully transparent to the consumer,” Leiba says. “That they’re not hiding harmful ingredients under the term ‘fragrance,’ for example.”
Other groups, like Made Safe, also have a nontoxic seal for approved products. This system can help you choose products in a wide variety of categories. Yes, using these systems may mean you’ll miss out on some potentially safe, effective products, but if you want to avoid doing a bunch of research into cosmetics and personal care, they can be a good solution.
2. Ask Your Dermatologist
On the other hand, you could take the watchdogs’ warnings with a grain of salt. There are a lot of products that dermatologists regularly recommend to their patients that carry moderate or high hazard ratings from EWG.
For example, CeraVe moisturizer, which many dermatologists love, has a score of 4 (moderate hazard). Among the ingredients EWG finds hazardous is the preservative propylparaben, a long-chain paraben that can bind to estrogen receptors in the body. It has been difficult to prove causal relationships between long-chain parabens and cancer, but groups like EWG and the European Union believe there is enough cause for concern. (Short-chain parabens such as methylparaben are thought to be safe by both groups.)
“It’s really hard to find products that are completely paraben-free, but every week there are more and more that are available,” says dermatologist Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D. He doesn’t yet specifically advise his patients against using products with parabens, but he is pleased that patients are able to find alternatives.
Another discrepancy is in retinoid products, which have a 9 rating (high hazard) from EWG because of the way they caused more tumors to grow in mice exposed to the sun. Dermatologists agree that retinoids increase sun sensitivity but simply recommend using it at night or with sunscreen.
This is why you shouldn’t be embarrassed to bring your own list of concerns to your dermatologist—there’s only so much you can learn from Dr. Google, after all.
“People come in with their long list of craziness: ‘Can I use this? Can I not use that?'” says dermatologist and RealSelf contributor Michele Green, M.D. But both she and Mudgil certainly don’t seem to mind that their patients are keeping them on their toes.
3. Go Natural—to a Point
Green finds that some patients do feel more comfortable when they mix up their own DIY skin care—”You know exactly what’s being put into them”—and isn’t opposed to the practice, as long as it’s done well.
But the truth is, some natural ingredients are just as bad for your skin as the man-made kind—even formaldehyde comes from trees, after all. The biggest problem with plant-derived ingredients like essential oils is that they’re potential allergens.
“Repeated exposure to a potential allergen can cause allergies,” Mudgil warns, so even if you don’t think you’re allergic to the latest trendy natural ingredient, like coconut oil, using it every single day might make you allergic to it. Before you go mixing your own cleansers and masks, read about which ingredients dermatologists think are actually effective and which may actually make your skin worse.
When you do use natural products, pay attention to your reaction to them and avoid anything with that vague label “fragrance,” because it could still be hiding toxins and allergens.
4. Vote With Your Wallet
For years, Congress has been sitting around not voting on a bill that could expand the FDA’s authority over personal care products and force manufacturers to be transparent about all their ingredients. We’re not holding our breath on that one, but in the meantime, this might be a situation in which capitalism is working in our favor. And all those new products screaming “paraben-free!” is a prime example.
“Companies are being forced to test their products more because consumers are asking for those scientific studies,” Leiba says. “The companies are doing what the consumers demand because the consumers voted with their wallet. They have choices—and they’re not choosing companies that are hiding things from them.”
Sabrina Rojas Weiss lives in Brooklyn, surrounded by her fellow freelance writers and competitive stroller-pushers. Her work has appeared on Refinery29, Yahoo, MTV News, and Glamour.com. The views expressed herein are her own and are meant to be taken with a grain of salt. Follow her on Twitter @shalapitcher.