When it comes to the chemicals we put on our skin, hair, and nails, it’s practically anarchy out there. Or, at the very least, a capitalist dystopia.
While we can usually rely on governing bodies like the FDA to tell us about the food we ingest, and the drugs we take, it has very little power when it comes to cosmetics. So how can we tell whether the products we use contain dangerous carcinogens or otherwise toxic chemicals?
With the help of dermatologists and researchers, we’ve come up with this manageable list of a dozen common ingredients ranked in three ways:
- Red: Ingredients that should never be used on your precious skin or hair.
- Yellow: Ingredients that require further study.
- Green: Ingredients that sometimes get a bad rap but may be okay to use as directed.
And if the products you use don’t list their ingredients at all on the packaging or online, you might want to ask what it is they’re trying to hide from you.
Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasers: It may not exactly smell like high school science lab when you walk into your salon, but the same chemical that preserved those biology frogs might be lurking in your hair relaxers, nail polish, perfumes, or soaps as a preservative.
The known carcinogen may be listed under one of these names (because chemical companies rename their time-released versions): DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, quaternium-15, bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol), 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1, 3-dioxane, hydroxymethylglycinate, methylene glycol, or others listed here.
“Try to avoid it for two reasons: One is that formaldehyde is obviously toxic,” dermatologist Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., tells Greatist. “Two is it’s pretty allergenic, as well.”
Triclosan and triclocarban: The FDA has already banned these antibacterial additives from hand soap because of their potential harm as endocrine disruptors — meaning they trick the body into thinking they’re a hormone.
They’re also not great for the environment as they run off into the water and have the same effect on wildlife there. They’re still in some hand sanitizers, wipes, and toothpastes, however.
“Triclosan makes me nervous,” dermatologist and RealSelf contributor Michele Green, M.D., tells Greatist. “If you just wash for five minutes with soap and water, it’s much better than using that stuff.”
Phthalates: These chemicals soften plastics for use in everything from tubes to detergents. They’re also endocrine disruptors, which have been shown in some studies to reduce testosterone in men, and have been linked to obesity and ADHD in children whose mothers were exposed to it while pregnant.
The most dangerous of these phthalates aren’t in our cosmetics, but the CDC has deemed two of them safe enough to use: di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP) and diethyl phthalate (DEP).
While animal studies link them to birth defects and low sperm count, there haven’t been enough studies in people to determine whether the same might be true for humans, so you’ll still see them in products such as nail polish, hair spray, and perfumes.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), and both doctors Green and Mudgil agree that it’s best to avoid all phthalates rather than wait around for someone to conduct those studies.
“We don’t think you should have to have people getting cancer and having fertility issues and all of these things you see strong evidence of in animals before we take a position,” says Nneka Leiba, EWG’s Director of Healthy Living Science.
Toluene: This chemical used in paint thinners also makes its way into nail polish, because the FDA believes it’s safe for us in very, very small amounts. It’s just the people who huff it to get high that will experience brain damage and harm their unborn children, right? Oh, and the people who work in nail salons.
It seems the human thing to do, in that case, is to request nail polish that won’t hurt the people who aren’t able to choose for themselves.
Hydroquinone: This skin-lightening agent has been used for decades, both in over-the-counter creams and in prescribed medications, even while a known potential side effect of it is bluish dark spots.
The fact that it was linked to kidney problems and cancer in rats was enough to make the FDA consider restricting its use several years ago, but it then backed down and said more studies should be done.
In the meantime, EWG suggests you avoid it, as have governments such as Japan and Australia. Look for these names on the label: 1,4-benzenediol, 1,4-dihydroxybenzene, 4-hydroxyphenol, p-dioxybenzene, and p-hydroxyphenol.
1,4 dioxane: Actually, you can’t find this carcinogenic chemical on any labels, because it’s not purposely added to anything. Rather, as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics explains, it is created during the manufacturing process when companies try to dilute harsher chemicals to make things like gentle lotions, bubble baths, shampoos, and detergents.
After you wash it off, 1,4 dioxane can continue doing its damage in our water supply, as well. To avoid polluting yourself and everyone else, opt out of products that contain these ingredients: PEG compounds, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethyelene, polyoxynolethylene, and basically anything with an -eth or an oxynol in its name.
Sadly, that includes a lot of products.
Parabens: Perhaps you’ve already been buying “paraben-free” products but have no idea why. Funny enough (not funny), scientists and dermatologists still don’t know a whole lot more than you do.
Parabens are used as preservatives — keeping those microbes out of our makeup and soaps — but they also mimic estrogen when they get into our bodies, which is why they’ve been studied for links to breast cancer.
So far, parabens have been found in cancerous breast tissue, but a causal link was not proven. That was enough to get the EU to restrict the use of long-chain parabens, but both the European Commission and EWG have said short-chained parabens, like methylparaben and ethylparaben, are only moderately hazardous (compared to being a high hazard).
“Evidence has suggested only the long-chain parabens — propylparaben, butylparaben, isopropolparabyn, and isobutylparaben — are the ones that are most strongly associated with endocrine disruption,” Leiba explains.
With so little evidence one way or another, Mudgil’s philosophy is somewhere in the middle: “If you find something that suits your needs and it’s paraben-free, then by all means, I would say go for it.”
Oxybenzone: While it’s alarming to learn that the CDC found this sunscreen ingredient in 96.8 percent of 2,517 urine samples in 2003-2004, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was killing all of those people. It has been shown to have a mild estrogenic effect in lab animals, and impacted the size of lactating mice mammary glands.
“I think the jury’s out,” Green says. If you feel concerned, use a mineral-based sunscreen, like zinc oxide or titanium oxide, instead.
Fragrances: We can’t say for sure if there are harmful chemicals in every product that smells good, and that’s precisely the problem.
Cosmetics manufacturers are allowed to protect their proprietary secret recipes and use the catch-all label “fragrance” in ingredient lists, which could mean a combination of hundreds of toxic chemicals, plus the kind of “natural” ingredients that may cause allergic reactions.
Coal tar: On the one hand, you have dermatologists saying it’s OK to use certain forms of coal tar to treat psoriasis, and the FDA saying the amount used in products such as hair dyes won’t have any biological effect on humans. On the other, there’s the fact that it does cause cancer in animals and in the people who process it. The decision is yours.
Retinyl palmitate: Dermatologists love to recommend retinol and retinoic acid to patients — to treat acne and signs of aging — due to the way it promotes exfoliation and new collagen production.
“Retinoids have been like a mainstay of skincare for half a century,” Mudgil says, though he also cautions patients to apply sunscreen if you use it, “which you should be doing anyway.”
Petroleum: While you might see petroleum-derived products, like good old Vaseline and baby oil, on the hit lists of some clean beauty advocates, it’s generally considered quite safe.
EWG and others warn that problems might arise if it’s not properly refined and gets contaminated with carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). But dermatologists like Mudgil and Green aren’t concerned, mostly because these products sit atop the skin instead of being absorbed.
“You’re using such a small dose,” Green adds. “You’re not using crude oil on your face.”