15 Harmful Chemicals in Cosmetics That Should be Avoided at All Costs
15 Harmful Chemicals in Cosmetics That Should be Avoided at All Costs
What are the harmful effects of chemicals in cosmetic and personal care products? Let’s pull back the curtain and look at the science of how conventional makeup, as well as skin-care and hair-care products, have been harming us and our ecosystem, and why we need to continue to turn toward natural cosmetics.
Our skin is our largest organ for absorption, so anything we put on our skin is being soaked into the bloodstream. Products such as birth control, nicotine patches, and other pharmaceuticals can be administered through the skin precisely because it’s so permeable. In fact, many experts even agree that absorption through the skin is more dangerous than ingestion by mouth.
Sadly, many conventional beauty and personal care companies have overlooked the negative effects of cosmetics on health, and most mainstream products are unnecessarily filled with chemicals and toxins. While developing AVEDA, Horst Rechelbacher was in constant disbelief that conventional beauty products don’t come with a warning label. Even today, in the United States, no policies have been enacted to get rid of—or even warn consumers about—the harmful chemicals in beauty products (while the European Union has completely banned hundreds of them).
Thankfully, resources do exist to help inform and educate consumers. Of all the potentially harmful ingredients we may find on labels, research has been done to prioritize the removal of key ingredients known as the “Mean 15”, which are some of the major cosmetic ingredients to avoid. Adria Vasil, the author of Ecoholic Body, takes us through the following ingredients, which pose the greatest risk to both human and environmental health:
1. BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene): The International Agency for Research on Cancer has listed these chemicals as potential carcinogens. They’re not restricted in the United States, but California includes BHA on its list of chemicals that must be listed on product ingredient labels as potentially cancer-causing.
2. Coal tar dyes or PPD: Coal tar dyes are also among the makeup ingredients to avoid. They are very popular in the cosmetics industry because they provide rich, long-lasting hair color. But, like a lot of petroleum-based products, researchers claim that any degree of exposure can lead to health risks. Long-term use of these dyes can even lead to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
3. Cyclomethicone and siloxanes: If you like a clean windshield, dry underarms, or a smooth makeup base, you’ve probably used products containing siloxane. They interfere with hormone function and damage the liver. Environment Canada says that D4 (cyclotetrasiloxane) and D5 (cyclopentasiloxane) may build up in fish or other aquatic organisms. The European study reached a similar conclusion, rating the chemicals as “high concern.”
4. The ethanolamines (ammonia compounds)—DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (monoethanolamine), and TEA (triethanolamine): These unfriendly acronyms are found in creamy and foaming products such as moisturizer, soap, sunscreen, and shampoo. They react to form cancer-causing nitrosamines, which are not only harmful to humans, but also to fish and other wildlife.
5. Dibutyl phthalate: It keeps nail polish from chipping, helps PVC remain flexible, and is used as a solvent for dyes and fragrances. But is it worth it? This chemical has been found to interfere with hormone function, especially during pregnancy.
6. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, or quarternium-15): These are widely used in hair and nail products and in moisturizers. They’re used as preservatives in cosmetics and as active ingredients in some toilet bowl cleaners. Formaldehyde is proven to cause cancer.
7. Parabens: Widely used in makeup and moisturizers, parabens are common chemicals in beauty products with links to impairing regular hormonal function. Studies have shown that parabens can mimic the effects of estrogen, which in an imbalanced state could lead to breast cancer for women and interfere with male reproductive function.
8. Parfum: Present everywhere, even in products marketed as “unscented” (it may also be listed as “scent,” or “fragrance”). Parfum is actually not one single ingredient—it’s a compound of many chemicals and, sometimes, essential oils. Since there are no regulations requiring companies to disclose the ingredient lists of their signature scents, the blanket term parfum is used. For people with chemical sensitivities, these unlisted ingredients can trigger other harmful effects of chemicals in cosmetics such as allergic reactions, migraines, and/or cause asthma.
9. Polyethylene glycols or PEG: Widely used in conditioners, moisturizers, and deodorants, PEG can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which may cause cancer. If perfectly pure, they’re considered generally safe, though they’re not recommended for use on broken skin. In rare cases, polyethylene glycol compounds can become contaminated with ethylene oxide—and that’s when it gets really concerning. Ethylene oxide, which is another harmful cosmetics ingredient, is a known carcinogen and can also cause developmental problems.
10. Petrolatum or petroleum jelly (Vaseline): It can keep skin hydrated, which is why it’s often added to skin-care and hair-care products. But these products can easily become contaminated with carcinogens.
11. Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): They’re common foaming agents used in dish soaps and foamy beauty products such as cleansers, shampoos, and for bubble bath use. SLES can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which can cause cancer and liver damage. It can also possibly become contaminated with the known carcinogen ethylene oxide. And it can be harmful to fish and other wildlife.
12. Triclosan: Triclosan, which is among the most popular toxins in cosmetics, is a very effective antibacterial chemical found in lots of common consumer products, including toothpaste, hand sanitizers, laundry detergent, and facial tissues. Research has shown that triclosan sticks around in the environment long after we’ve finished using it, killing helpful algae and even accumulating in the bodies of other organisms.
13. Retinyl palmitate and vitamin A: A popular ingredient in acne serums, anti-redness, and anti-aging creams, this ingredient smooths the skin at first, but under the sun it has been found to speed up the harmful effects of UV rays.
14. Palm oil: An edible oil used in processed foods and cosmetics, palm oil is considered as one of the makeup ingredients to avoid due to some major issues linked to it, which include deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty, and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it’s produced, as the land and forests must be cleared for the development of the oil palm plantations. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the equivalent size of three hundred football fields of the rain forest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production. This large-scale deforestation is pushing many species to extinction, and findings show that if nothing changes, species such as the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next five to ten years, and Sumatran tigers, in fewer than three years.
15. Oxybenzone (BP-3/ benzophenone) and octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate): These are two sunscreen chemicals that may disrupt our hormonal systems and that can trigger allergic reactions. Sunscreens containing zinc oxide, titanium oxide, and avobenzone are much safer.