I had already taken several steps in changing the way I treated my body by the time I stumbled across the importance of what we put on the outside of our bodies. As it turns out, it should have been much higher on my priority list. If you’re concerned about preservatives, dyes, and chemicals in the food you put in your body, you must be concerned about what you put on your skin. Here’s why.
Your skin is the largest organ in/on your body. And while it’s a great barrier to bacteria, viruses, and the cold, it doesn’t protect you from harmful chemicals and additives. As a pharmacy student, I’ve learned a lot about how we utilize this property of the skin to deliver prescription drugs. The goal of topical therapy is literally to get the therapeutic drug into your bloodstream, so it’s no surprise that nearly every funky ingredient in topical cosmetics also ends up inside of your body, going much further than skin deep. For example, parabens, one of the ingredients I’ll cover in more depth, has been detected in breast cancer tumors, and other chemical cosmetic components have been detected in human urine and in body fat.
Think about how many products you use in your cosmetic or skincare routine daily. Chances are you use shampoo, conditioner, face wash, body wash, lotion, deodorant, and toothpaste at a minimum, and probably some combination of hair styling products, sunscreen, lip balm, facial moisturizer, shaving cream, toner, perfume, not to mention all the components of the average woman’s makeup routine. The FDA tightly regulates what is allowed in food (even though I’d argue some of their conclusions are inappropriate) and most people assume they have some part in regulating what goes into our cosmetic products. Unfortunately, the FDA says the cosmetic companies are responsible for assuring safety, aside from a measly 11 ingredients that are banned in the U.S. In contrast, Europe has banned over 1,300 ingredients!
Ingredients on common personal care products are overwhelming, confusing, and impossible to read or understand. I’ve gathered some of the ingredients I believe are the most problematic to make it a little easier for you to avoid products containing them. Screenshot the summary to remember the next time you’re out shopping!
- PEG (polyethylene glycol) and derivatives
- BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole)
- Petrolatum (petrolatum jelly, petrolatum white, etc.)
- Parabens: Parabens are used as preservatives in personal care products and are most problematic due to their actions in the body that mimic hormones. Some studies have associated exposure to parabens with breast cancer and fertility issues. Hormone regulation is important for non-reproductive functions as well, and parabens are thought to disrupt these processes.
- PEG (polyethylene glycol) and derivatives: These are synthetic chemicals often used to keep ingredients from separating in personal care products, and they also increase the ability of the skin to be penetrated by other ingredients. While PEG is generally regarded as safe, it is often poorly refined, leaving traces of highly toxic impurities like 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide, both of which are known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). Several different forms of PEG are used, usually listed as those very hard-to-pronounce scientific molecular names. If you’re ever unsure about an ingredient that may be PEG-related, do a quick lookup on ewg.org like I explain at the end of the post.
- Fragrance/Parfum: Manufacturers aren’t obligated to disclose what exactly they use as fragrance in products you slather on your skin. Typically, the chemicals they use that often make the products so attractive contain phthalates. Phthalates are a chemical class that have been linked to risk for cancers, asthma, ADHD, and particularly birth defects. Unfortunately, if a product contains phthalates, you wouldn’t know it without sending it to a lab for testing. I recommend avoiding products with “fragrance” or “parfum” listed, and opting for products scented naturally that include essential oils for fragrance instead of shady, undisclosed chemicals.
- BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole): BHA is another preservative and fragrance agent used in a wide variety of personal products. There has been enough evidence for it to be regarded as carcinogenic by a program of the National Institute of Health called the U.S. National Toxicology Program. It is also a hormone disruptor like many other agents that are problematic for human use. BHA is most commonly used in creams/lotions and makeup.
- Petrolatum products (petrolatum jelly, petrolatum white, etc.): This one shows up as several different names, so beware. It’s used as a moisturizing agent, and is sourced as a byproduct of the petroleum industry. Petrolatum itself isn’t necessarily hazardous, but since there is no regulation of its purity, it often contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are widely accepted as cancer-causing molecules when humans are exposed.
- Aluminum: This one is a little more controversial, and it’s important to have a well-informed opinion about it because it is what makes the antiperspirant property of all deodorants, unless they specifically say aluminum-free. Aluminum essentially plugs up your sweat glands to prevent sweat from surfacing on the body. There have been conflicting studies about the effects of long-term aluminum use in cosmetics, but some studies show a correlation to breast cancer risk. Many argue that placing it near the breast area every day for years on end is partially responsible for the surge of breast cancer in women. My conclusion: better safe than sorry.
So, what are we supposed to do? When I first started learning about this, I was so freaked out I thought I was best off just using nothing. It turns out there are a lot of clean personal care brands coming out of the woodwork due to the demand for non-toxic products. From what I’ve gathered, even 5 years ago there weren’t as many options as there are now. And those that were available just weren’t as effective as we want. But the game has changed!! Below are my favorite products that I’ve begun to use gradually as I’ve run out of my crappy stuff. It’s not that much more expensive, and definitely worth for the sake of your health, but I suggest not throwing out everything today as it might be a little hard on the wallet.
Lotion – Coconut oil is the answer to all of my moisturizing concerns! Just rub some over your whole body before going to bed so it can soak in overnight. Alaffia also has some nice coconut-based moisturizing body lotions.
Face – Cocokind is THE BOMB.
- Organic facial cleansing oil
- Chia seed facial oil
- Chlorophyll mask
- Turmeric stick for acne spots
- MyMatcha stick for all-over moisture and under-eye circles
Homemade hack: facial toner made with water + apple cider vinegar in a ratio of 1:2 parts and a couple drops (optional) per 8oz. or so of essential oils including rose and tea tree
Body + facewash – Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap, lavender scent
Toothpaste – Dr. Bronner’s peppermint flavored
Makeup – Due to the grad school budget, I’m still transitioning with this one as I run out of old products. Physician’s Formula Organic line is a brand that’s easy to find at drugstores or Wal-Mart and doesn’t rob you of all your dollars. Mineral Fusion is another similar option. I’m hoping to switch over to BeautyCounter as I run out of what I still have left. My most effective solution has just been wearing less of it! I know that doesn’t work for everyone, but I use very few products these days which makes it much simpler and most cost-effective. I do have a couple of favorite safe cosmetic products that I’ve been able to try so far:
- Cocokind Macabeet stick for tinted lip balm and blush
- Cocokind brow balm for brow tinting
- Cocokind primer drops and foundations
So if you’ve ever looked at the ingredients on just one of the products you use and wondered, what the hell is all this? Keep asking yourself that question! Click here to get to the Environmental Working Group’s consumer guide section, where you can type in products or ingredients you’re skeptical of and the site gives you a safety rating based on studies regarding each ingredient in the product. You can literally just type in “covergirl x,y,z” for example and find your product. There’s an example below*. The safety scale goes from 1 to 10, low hazard to high hazard, and literally reports it in green (1-2), yellow (3-6), or red (7-10) so you can make a quick, simple decision about whether it is something you want to use or not.
*here I typed in “covergirl lashblast” on the search page and clicked on the product I wanted to view. So simple! Try it for all your favorite products.