You’ve heard the hype before. Don’t use that nail polish because it contains phthalates; don’t use that lipstick because it has traces of lead. There are so many warnings around beauty products, but how are you supposed to know which ones to really pay attention to?
We decided to do some of our own research to find out which ingredients we should really be keeping out of our vanity. Here are some of the most controversial beauty ingredients to look out for.
What It Is: A “fragrance” is a compound made from the fragrance industry’s stock chemical ingredients that are a mixture of natural essences and synthetic chemicals.
Where It’s Found: Anything with a sweet or floral smell — body washes, shampoos, lotions and, of course, perfumes — contains fragrances
The Research: The Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics conducted laboratory tests and found chemicals in many top perfumes that are associated with hormone disruption, allergic reactions, headaches, dizziness and rashes. The main problem here is that the FDA doesn’t require companies to disclose the exact chemicals they’re using. The Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973 requires companies to list cosmetic ingredients, but explicitly exempts fragrance from the product label.
What the Experts Say: Ni’Kita, a beauty chemist at BeautySage.com, doesn’t think any blame should be put on perfumists themselves. “Fragrances can be irritating because they are composed of many different ingredients (both synthetic and natural) that can irritate the skin. Keep in mind that even all-natural fragrances and essential oils can contain some of these allergens as well.”
Our Conclusion: Try to find alternatives when possible. The main problem in distinguishing which fragrances are harmful is trying to figure out exactly which fragrances are in which products — it isn’t often made clear. For fragrances you can trust, we recommend Intelligent Nutrients, since the company’s labels include the exact ingredients contained in their fragrances and aromas.
What It Is: A paraben is a group of compounds that is used as preservatives in cosmetics for a longer shelf life.
Where It’s Found: About 85 percent of our beauty products contain parabens — from lotions, lipsticks to even shampoos.
The Research: They have been proven to be absorbed through the skin and into the blood stream. UK researchers have found concentrations of parabens in 20 human breast tumors. This is linked to the fact that parabens were deemed xenoestrogens in the 1990s, meaning that they mimic estrogen.
What the Experts Say: “The EPA itself admits that all parabens have endocrine-disrupting effects, meaning the body thinks you have extra estrogen,” says Tina Nesgooda, the Director of Marketing at Intelligent Nutrients. “Weight gain, depression, even cancer and birth abnormalities can result.” Ni’Kita argues that there are no conclusive studies to prove that parabens are unhealthy — other factors may be involved.
Our Conclusion: Unsure. While we wait for more studies to provide more evidence, we won’t stop using cosmetics that do contain the preservatives. However, more and more companies are coming up with paraben-free formulas and they’re even labeling it as such on the front of their packaging. To be on the safe side, we’ll definitely be open to using these new formulas.
What It Is: A phthalate is a group of chemicals that adds flexibility and durability to a formula.
Where It’s Found: Although only listed as an ingredient in nail polish (to make it less brittle), phthalates are also used in many fragrances, shampoos and cosmetics. It’s also used in hairspray to make the formula’s hold less stiff.
The Research: A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that every one of the 289 people tested had dibutyl phthalate in his or her body, which they speculated is from cosmetics and personal care products.
What the Experts Say: But have they been proven to be harmful? Nesgooda says that they are “suspected endocrine disrupters and reproductive toxicants.” Repeat, suspected. Ni’Kita follows the same thinking that there isn’t even enough evidence to cause speculation. “Phthalates have been proven to get into the skin and can actually be found in urine samples after use of cosmetics. More studies need to be done to determine any harmful effects of this action. As of now, there aren’t any studies that show these ingredients to be harmful to humans as used in personal care products.”
Our Conclusion: We agree with the experts. They enter the body, but do they actually cause harm? We’re not worrying about phtalates, just yet.
What It Is: Triclosan is an antibacterial and antifungal agent added to consumer products to reduce or prevent bacterial contamination.
Where It’s Found: The ingredient has been added to many antibacterial soaps and body washes as well as toothpastes, cleansers and deodorants.
The Research: Triclosan has been classified as a probable human carcinogen by the EPA.
What the Experts Say: “It bio accumulates in fatty tissues and is often found in breast milk and blood,” says Nesgooda. Bioaccumulation occurs when an organism absorbs a toxic substance at a rate greater than that at which the substance is lost. “It’s also linked to hormone disruption, developmental defects and liver toxicity. Heavy use has resulted in drug resistant rogue bacteria.”
Our Conclusion: So not only does it have harmful after-effects, but, according to the Environmental Working Group, the U.S. FDA advisory committee has found soaps with triclosan don’t actually have any benefits over plain soap and water. Bottom line: it’s doubly not worth your time.
What It Is: Lead is a soft and malleable metal.
Where It’s Found: It is used in the coloring dye for lipstick.
The Research: In 2007, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics reported that many lipsticks on the market are contaminated with lead. The FDA later followed up with a list of 400 lipsticks containing lead in 2011. The FDA and the cosmetics industry both assure consumers that the levels of lead found in these products are too small to be harmful (just above 1 parts per million).
What the Experts Say: Ni’Kita agrees. “To be clear, lead is not ‘used in lipstick.’ It is a trace byproduct of the pigments used in lipstick. There is no evidence pointing to lipstick as the cause of a health concern.” While more research must be conducted, Dr. Hammond suggests in The New York Times’ “Is There Danger Lurking in Your Lipstick” to be cautious, only reapplying two or three times a day.
Our Conclusion: We love our lipstick so we will be continuing to use our favorite hues, but as Dr. Hammond says, with a little more reserve and fewer applications.
Read more: Could a Prescription Give You Flawless Skin?