What's in Your Cosmetics?
The safety of the cosmetic ingredients -- what to use & what to avoid
Edited By:Raja Sivamani , MD, MS, AP
When was the last time you read the ingredient label of a food product you were thinking of buying? Probably the last time you went shopping for groceries, right? You are concerned about what is in your food and rightfully so. You are probably very selective about what you will eat and feed your family. Maybe you buy only organic, non-GMO produce to avoid the toxic chemicals (pesticides) conventional produce is sprayed with or has been genetically modified with. Nice job! Now, when was the last time you read the ingredient label of a cosmetic product you were thinking about buying? Maybe never? Did you know these products you use everyday also contain toxic chemicals? Maybe, you are thinking to yourself, "Surely all of those chemicals have been tested and are regulated for human safety?"
Sadly, they are not.
The cosmetic industry is highly unregulated. More chemicals are being created and used every year than can be tested. New research comes out every day connecting these chemicals to cancer, endocrine disruption (hormone), genetic mutation, and learning disabilities just to name a few. In fact, many have been banned in other countries but are still allowed here due to heavy interference (lobbying and money) of the companies that produce them. Perhaps, you are also thinking, "But I'm just putting these on my face not eating them!"
Fact: Skin absorbs.
It is the largest organ of the body. Whatever you put on your skin does, in fact, make it into your bloodstream and other tissues of the body. The use of nanoparticles in cosmetics allows deeper penetration than ever before. Your body can flush out some of it, but daily repeated exposure leads to bio-accumulation (becomes concentrated inside living things). The chemicals run around interfering with normal endocrine body processes, mutate cells and then get stored in your fat cells. Have you ever felt worse after losing a few pounds? Guess what was just released into your system?
The best thing you can do to protect yourself is become an avid product label reader just like your food labels and learn to identify what can harm you. The good news is there are healthier product options available today more than ever before, and it's becoming increasingly easier to recognize them thanks to organizations like Dermveda and the Environmental Working Group.
So What Is in Cosmetics Anyway?
The short answer is: a lot. The long answer is water, emollients, surfactants (detergents, emulsifiers), gelling agents, fragrance, preservatives, coloring agents, pH adjustors (acids, alkalis) buffers, texture agents, solvents, botanicals, hydrators, penetration enhancers, humectants, lipids, enzymes, antioxidants, antiseptics, antibacterials, polymers, liposomes, peptides, vitamins, minerals, phytohormones, sunscreen, masking agents, emulsion stabilizers… OH MY!! Each of these identifiers encompasses dozens of potential compounds, good and bad… except for water, which is just a couple of hydrogen atoms hanging out with an oxygen atom.
Don’t Let it Overwhelm You
There are simple guidelines to identify the undesirables. These will be discussed within each of 5 groups of chemicals to avoid and again at the end of the article for review. The 5 chemical groups to avoid are:
- Butylated compounds
- PEG Compounds
1. Phthalates (the Ph is silent)
Commonly found in: Anything with "fragrance," colored cosmetics (eye shadow, blush, lipstick…), eyelash glue, and nail polish.
Purpose in product: Plasticizer, give products flexibility, holds color and scent.
How they harm: Endocrine disruptor by mimicking hormones. Linked to reproductive birth defects, breast cancer, and liver tumors.
How to identify: Look for "phthalate" such as dibutylphthalate. Look for combinations of abbreviated compounds with DP such as DEP, DBP, DEHP. These are abbreviations for long chemical names. Most importantly look for the word "fragrance." A single product’s secret fragrance mixture can contain potentially hundreds of toxic volatile compounds.
Healthy alternative: Choose the unscented version and look for products scented with essential (plant-based) oils.
Commonly found in: Foundation, concealer, pressed powder, and eye shadow.
Purpose in product: Preservative to discourage the growth of microbes in a product. How they harm: Endocrine disruption by mimicking estrogen. Detected in breast cancer tissue. Linked to tumors and skin cancer.
How to identify: Look for "p-". Examples: isobutyl p-hydroxyenzoate, p-methoxycarbonylphenol. Look for the word paraben. Examples: ethylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben as well as benzoic acid.
Healthy alternative: Look for "paraben-free" on the label. Buy local, small-batch products. The larger the size, the more likely it's loaded with preservatives, so it won’t go bad before it can all be used.
3. Quats: Quaternary Ammonium Compounds
Commonly found in: Makeup removers, moisturizers, and sunscreen.
Purpose in product: Preservative due to its germicidal properties, surfactant.
How they harm: Produce formaldehyde as they decompose (known human carcinogen by U.S. Department of Health and Human Researchers and the International Agency for Research on cancer). Contact dermatitis.
How to identify: Look for the prefix "quat" (Ex: quaternium-15). Look for DMDM hydantoin, bronopol.
Healthy alternative: Look for certified organic symbol on the label.
4. Butylated Compounds
Commonly found in: Eyeliners, eye shadow, lipsticks, lip glosses, blushes, and foundations.
Purpose in product: Preservative and antioxidant to keep oils from oxidizing.
How they harm: Bioaccumulation leading to organ toxicity, mimics estrogen leading to hormone disruption, promotes the growth of tumors.
How to identify: BHT, BHA, BHUT, butylated hydroxyanisole, butylated hydrotoluene, BHA is prohibited in EU (European Union).
Healthy alternative: Choose mineral-based cosmetics.
5. PEG Compounds (aka Polyethylene glycol)
Commonly found in: Foundation and moisturizers.
Purpose in product: Humectant, emulsifier and penetration enhancer.
How they harm: Petroleum-based skin irritant, linked to cancer and birth defects. Increases acidity resulting in metabolic problems. Laced with heavy metals including lead, iron, cobalt, cadmium, and arsenic, which are known neurotoxins.
How to identify: Look for chemicals containing "eth"& "xynol." This indicates it is a derivative of ethoxylation, which produces 1,4-Dioxane. 1,4-Dioxane is a byproduct of the manufacturing process and is not required to be listed in the ingredients. Look for abbreviation "PEG" with some numbers attached. Ex: PEG-2, PEG-100. The smaller the number the more harmful it is.
Healthy alternative: Look for "petroleum-free." Don’t buy anything that boasts of nano-technology or penetration enhancing.
10 Guidelines for Choosing Safer Cosmetics
- Ingredients you can't pronounce? Put it back.
- If the ingredient list is extensive (more than 8 or 9 ingredients) it has a higher chance of containing some naughty chemicals. Walk.
- Don’t let the term "natural" fool you. This is not a regulated term and it is often misused to entice consumers.
- Look for the USDA Certified Organic.
- Look for the NSF stamp indicating it has been tested for banned substances.
- Look for "Paraben-free" and "Phalate-free" on the label.
- If it's abbreviated (Ex: DMDM, BHT, TEA, DEHP, PEG) these are shortcuts for compounds with names so long they take up too much space to put on the label. Just say No.
- Avoid ingredients containing "eth" in the name such as sodium laureth sulphate, oleth.
- Avoid the prefix quat and suffix paraben.
- Avoid anything with the words fragrance, toluene, butylated, and benzone.
Knowledge is power. Now, you take this information with you the next time you buy cosmetics and let your spending dollar talk. If we don’t buy the toxic stuff they stop making it. If this article accomplishes just one thing, I hope it is that you begin reading product labels and take your health into your own hands.
Advising Credit: Dave Paisner
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