Wondering if the ingredients in your cosmetics are harmful to your health? Here is the breakdown on four categories of potentially harmful skincare chemicals most likely hiding inside the products you use every day.
Parebens are found in toiletries and a wide variety of other products. Thanks to the media, they have become synonymous with extreme hazards to our health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, large-scale monitoring studies have shown that phthalates (which make plastics more flexible) and parabens were found in the urine of every single person tested. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the levels present caused adverse health effects. This is because the scientific community has not been able to clearly define a measurable level of harmful exposure, since it would not be ethical to do so.
Parabens are potential endocrine system disrupters. Since the endocrine system regulates hormones, scientists are studying their affects and possible links to miscarriage, premature birth, birth defects, deficient sperm, obesity, metabolic disease, low bone density and breast cancer.
According a 2012 study published by JAMA Pediatrics, the data that’s currently available makes it impossible to determine a individual risk-level and whether or not there are safe exposure levels to these chemicals. However, given the potential detrimental side effects, pregnant women and children should limit their exposure as precaution.
Parabens aren’t always the enemy, however. They’re used to prevent bacteria, mold and fungus growth in our products. But, if you want to avoid these chemicals, check personal care product labels for:
Also, avoid products with fragrances and perfumes — and avoid plastic. Research how to make your own products and find out where to buy handcrafted or artisan-made items.
Collectively known as ethanolamines, these chemicals are found in many widely available personal care products and cosmetics, and are used as emulsifiers or foaming agents. There is concern that these chemicals are carcinogens. On product ingredient labels, they are listed as:
These chemicals allow oil-soluble and water-soluble ingredients to emulsify and control pH levels. They are commonly found in products with foam (body wash, shampoo, soap, face cleanser), eye makeup, blush, foundation, hair dye, fragrances and sunscreens.
What’s most concerning is that MEA/TEA/DEA use is recommended to be “brief,” followed by thorough rinsing from the skin. This is a problem for those who use multiple products on their skin every single day, especially women. If you combine the daily use of these types of products — year over year — the “brief” recommendation is unreasoanble. Consider the damage their cumulative use can cause.
To avoid ethanolamines, thoroughly check labels for the following ingredients:
- Cocamide DEA
- Cocamide MEA
- DEA-cetyl phosphate
- DEA oleth-3 phosphate
- Lauramide DEA
- Linoleamide MEA
- Myristamide DEA
- Oleamide DEA
- Stearamide MEA
- TEA-lauryl sulfate
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is synthetic soap. It is used as an emulsifier and foaming agent in everyday products such as toothpaste, mouthwash, laundry detergent, dish soap and shampoo. Although several large companies (such as Proctor & Gamble) that use it as an ingredient in their products have determined it safe for consumers and for the environment, SLS is a known irritant to the skin. (When companies test their products, they use SLS on the skin to purposefully irritate it.) So if you suspect that any of your products are causing dry, itchy or irritated skin, whether its on your face, scalp or even in your mouth, SLS could be to blame.
According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database, SLS is considered a moderate hazard and it has been linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, organ toxicity, skin irritation and endocrine disruption. Although SLS is derived from coconuts, a toxic byproduct is created during the manufacturing process, which causes the harm. Its cousin, sodium laureate sulfate, also known as SLES, is considered to be slightly less irritating to the skin.
As with any product, you must weigh the pros and cons. With SLS, its important to consider that most studies involved its pure chemical form, causing harsher effects. The SLS exposure that we get through our products are significantly diluted with other ingredients. However, if your skin is sensitive or you’re pregnant/nursing, advocacy groups generally advise against using products with SLS because their long-term effects are unknown.
Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas often used in cosmetics. Commonly referred to as formalin, its used to protect cosmetic products against bacteria growth. Notoriously found in nail polishes, nail hardeners, hair straightening treatments, eyelash glues, soaps, makeup, shampoos, lotions and deodorants, formaldehyde is most notably linked to cancer, scalp burns and hair loss.
If you’re getting flashbacks to your high school biology class where you dissected a frog, pig or cat soaked in formaldehyde, you probably remember how effective formaldehyde is at preserving things. Although its not used in its pure form, the fact that even a diluted carcinogenic substance used to preserve dead animals can be found in something you put on your eyes or on top of your head, soaking into your scalp, is more than concerning.
There are a few saving graces here, though. When companies put formaldehyde into their products, it’s usually done in a “slow-release” manner, kind of like a time-release pill, where the chemical is released slowly over time to maintain a semi-constant level of preservative. In addition, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (supported by the FDA and the Consumer Federation of America), which operates as a kind of cosmetic industry watch dog, issues safety guidelines for personal care products, and they have barred the use of more than 0.2 percent formaldehyde per product.
Treat Your Body Better Than Your Carpets
It’s important to educate yourself, but you must listen to your own body. If you develop any kind of irritation from a newly introduced product, stop using it and see if the problem disappears. If your skin is particularly sensitive, remember to do a patch-test on one small area of your body at a time. You wouldn’t use a harsh chemical on your prize rug or new leather chair without testing a small spot first.
The good news is there are plenty of companies (such as the Honest company) dedicated to manufacturing products without harmful chemicals. For example, many shampoos, conditioners and body washes are now being made with essential oils.
To act as your own safety advocate, check out websites like the Environmental Safety Group, which offers a database of the ingredients found in cosmetics and personal care products along with information about their potential hazards.