The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for approving products and practices that keep consumers protected and healthy. They do a lot of important work towards health innovation and safety, but like any organization, the FDA has its flaws. Unfortunately, the skin care and cosmetics industries are largely unregulated by the organization, leaving the average consumer vulnerable to dangerous chemicals and toxins in their favorite products.
In fact, the United States is relatively far behind other countries when it comes to regulating dangerous ingredients in cosmetics. And that leaves it up to us, the consumers, to educate ourselves on the risks posed by ingredients that the FDA has yet to ban.
To make that job easier for you, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most dangerous beauty product ingredients. Here are five kinds of ingredients you should do your best to avoid — and how to spot them.
Dangerous Skincare Ingredients To Avoid:
The bad guy: Parabens
Why they’re a no-no: Parabens are preservatives found in lots of cosmetics, skincare, and beauty products. It might sound like a good thing that there’s an ingredient that’s preventing bacteria growth, but parabens actually contain mild estrogen-like properties. Heightened estrogen exposure is associated with a myriad of health problems — from acne to breast cancer. While studies haven’t definitively proven a link between parabens’ presence in skincare products and contracting breast cancer, research suggests there’s a relationship between parabens and cancer, so it’s probably best to steer clear.
What to look for: Unfortunately, they aren’t just listed as “parabens” on the ingredient list, but the parabens most commonly used in cosmetics are methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben. The good news is, parabens are pretty well known as a problem, so many companies will proudly display “Paraben Free” on their labels, so keep an eye out for those. Research into substitutions is ongoing, but some believe citrus and grapefruit seed extracts or fermented radish roots could provide the same antibacterial benefits as parabens.
The bad guy: Added Fragrance
Why it’s a no-no: The term “fragrance” appears on almost every product label, but it can mean several different things — including many dangerous chemicals that are known to be allergens, irritants, and in some cases even carcinogens (meaning they cause cancer). The term was adopted by the FDA to “protect” companies’ secret formulas for their signature scents, but it’s clearly at the expense of consumers’ and their ability to know what’s actually in their products. Since it’s impossible to know what every company means when they list “fragrance” as an ingredient, we recommend finding an alternative if you have sensitive skin or are having a reaction to a certain product.
What to look for: Unfortunately, fragrance is in everything, from air fresheners and face wipes to lotions and body washes. If you’re finding that you have sensitive skin or are reacting oddly to a new product, fragrance is likely the culprit. Opt for unscented products or, if you need that extra boost of freshness, find products that are scented with essential oils, since these are naturally derived scents.
The bad guy: Polyethylene
Why it’s a no-no: These are the tiny plastic beads often found in popular face scrubs or body washes. Though these are meant to be gentle enough for more sensitive skin types, they actually contain toxins that can be absorbed into the skin and do a lot of damage. On top of that, these little scrubbing beads are not environmentally friendly. They are not biodegradable and can’t be filtered out of water through our sewage system, meaning they reach oceans where they’re often consumed by fish, putting entire ecosystems at risk.
What to look for: The good news is, a microbead ban actually passed the House and Senate in 2015, meaning it’s already illegal (or going to be soon, for some products) for companies to use these miniature plastic beads in their formulas. Products with ground nut shells or fruit pits are excellent exfoliant alternatives. For sensitive skin, be on the lookout for oatmeal and baking soda scrubs. You can even make your own at home!
The bad guy: Color additives
Why they’re a no-no: This is another pretty vague one. The first color additives that made waves in cosmetics before the FDA stepped in were coal-tar combinations. While these are less common now, the FDA says color additives are “mainly from raw materials obtained from petroleum.” Not much better. If it’s not properly refined, petroleum can be carcinogenic, may be linked to certain cancers, and can cause premature skin aging. The jury is out on how much your body is affected when they’re applied topically, but some people just don’t want to take the risk, especially with colors that were linked to tumors and cancer in animal studies.
What to look for: The bad news is that these colors are in everything from toothpaste to lipstick. The good news is that some dies used in foods and cosmetics have been banned (Red #2, Orange #1, for instance) but the FDA still has a long list of approved color additives for cosmetics in the U.S. The best way to avoid added colors? Look for color names in your ingredient list — Blue 1, Green 3, FD&C Yellow 6 are among the most common. For cosmetics, seek out products with naturally colored, plant-based pigments
The bad guy: Formaldehyde
Why it’s a no-no: Even in small doses, formaldehyde is a known irritant that can cause a wide variety of side-effects for people with sensitive skin. These effects include “watery eyes; burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea; and skin irritation.” Though research into the long-term effects of exposure to formaldehyde is limited, studies have suggested enough of a link between certain cancers and exposure that “the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen under conditions of unusually high or prolonged exposure.”
What to look for: Formaldehyde is used for similar reasons as parabens (to prevent bacterial growth) so it’s in everything from nail polish to baby shampoo. It can be found on ingredient lists as: formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol), and/or glyoxal. To avoid these, look for preservative-free or plant-based antibacterial ingredients — but be warned this means you have to make sure to properly store your products to prevent bacteria from growing.
Okay, but how do I avoid all this stuff?!
Sadly, this list covers just a handful of the most common — and most dangerous — ingredients you’ll want to avoid in your products. The truth is, this is just the beginning. There are thousands of chemicals in skincare products and cosmetics out there with questionable health and safety standards. It’s up to us, consumers, to take matters into our own hands and know what’s in our skincare routine.
One great way to control the ingredients in your products is to make your own at home. But that’s not always a feasible option, so you’ll want to get into a habit of checking product labels before you buy.
Luckily, there are some tools available to ease the burden of being a well-informed consumer. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep is a comprehensive database of ingredients to avoid in your products, and even has an easy-to-use app when you’re shopping on the go. We also like the list on the BeautyCounter, which lists all their “no-no” ingredients, and this one from Detox Market.
Speaking of, The Detox Market is a great site to shop for holistic, organic, sustainably sourced green products — they sell some of our favorite brands! Even sites like DermStore have a “natural” or “organic” filter to help you look for better-for-you products. On the other end of the spectrum, shopping locally is a great way to find more holistic formulas. When you’re at your neighborhood drugstore, look for ingredients that are familiar and easy to understand, and be aware of these major bad guys will help!