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Toxic Beauty: Harmful Ingredients to Avoid

And tips on how to shop more safely…

· cosmetics,beauty,natural makeup,ingredients,safety

I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to shopping for beauty products, I can be a bit careless. Other than word-of-mouth advice from my friends, I look to fashion and style magazines like Harper’s BAZAAR and Marie Claire to summarize what’s best for my face and body – from what cosmetics are worth buying to what anti-aging skin care products may help me look younger. That is what I did until yesterday, when I scanned the beauty aisles at Target and for the first time looked very closely at the labels to see what’s really lurking inside some of my favorite skin care and makeup products. What I found was shocking.

Buying Beauty Products? Read the Labels First.

I was looking for a new hydrating night cream – preferably something that would also help smooth the onset of any fine lines or wrinkles. My instinct was to browse the aisle labeled “natural beauty” first. There I found the usual brands – from Burt’s Bees to Yes To Carrots.

I looked at the labels for the night creams and was surprised to find that even though many items said, “free of parabens and phthalates” (more on that later), several products did have fragrance in the formulas, and a slew of other ingredients with long Latin-looking scientific names I couldn’t pronounce. Or, they were lacking some of the best proven ingredients for healthy-looking skin, such as vitamin C. With my sensitive, dry skin, I needed a fragrance-free option, so I chose Burt's Bees Night Cream for Sensitive Skin. It contained the least amount of unnatural chemicals.

Just to compare, I then looked through the other skin care aisles (not labeled “natural.”) Ironically, it’s where I found most of the beauty brands familiar to me that are covered by popular beauty magazines. Icons like L’Oréal, Olay, Aveeno, and even CeraVe (the brand recommended by dermatologists) lined the shelves. So I started looking at the labels.

Several CeraVe anti-aging products, such as CeraVe Skin Renewing Cream Serum contain retinol, which many women may think is safe and helpful for the skin. Although it has proven anti-aging results, in reality retinol should be used carefully due to its many unwanted side effects. According to studies, retinol actually makes skin more vulnerable to UV rays from the sun, which may cause extreme sensitivity, peeling, flaking, irritation, and burns.

Another product I considered buying until reading the label was Pond’s Rejuveness Anti-Wrinkle Cream. After all, it said “hypoallergenic.” Target had some travel-sized trial containers, so it was hard to say no until I saw that the label mentioned containing methyl paraben and propyl paraben, which are dangerous endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can be absorbed easily through the skin. So I stuck to my first choice – Burt’s Bees.

As for the other toxic chemicals in common beauty products, here are the ones to avoid.

What Ingredients to Avoid

  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (causes acne, skin damage)
  • BHA (causes liver damage and cancer)
  • Triclosan and Triclocarban (pesticides that causes allergies and hurt the immune system)
  • Aminophenol, Diaminobenzene, Phenylenediamine (otherwise known as coal tar; may cause asthma)
  • Parabens - i.e. Propyl and Butyl paraben, Isopropyl and Isobutyl parabens (cause skin cancer)
  • PEG - Polyethylene glycol/PEGs, also known as Castor Oil (some derivatives may be carcinogenic)
  • Retinol - Retinyl palmitate, Retinyl acetate, Retinoic acid (may lead to serious sun burns)
  • Petroleum distillates or Mineral Oil (volatile; may cause cancer)
  • Fragrance (disrupts hormones)
  • Oxybenzone (disrupts hormones)
  • Dibutyl phthalate, Toluene and Formaldehyde (toxic to respiratory system and other bodily functions)
  • Hydroquinone (causes blue-black skin discoloration)
  • Aluminum (commonly found in deodorant; causes breast cancer)
  • Titanium (causes respiratory irritation)
  • Phthalates (causes diabetes, asthma, hormone problems)
  • BPA (common in containers; may disrupt hormones or lead to cancer)

How to Shop Safe

The best way to keep yourself and your family healthy is to stay educated. Read about the dangerous chemicals in beauty products on, a campaign for safe cosmetics and a project of breast cancer prevention partners. Also check out the safety of specific chemicals and other ingredients on EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.

You may have also heard of California’s Proposition 65 warning label. The Prop 65 website lists additional toxic chemicals found in everyday life – in everything from household goods to furniture. When shopping online, many sites – including Walmart – list Prop 65 warnings if you scroll down to the bottom of the ingredients list. That’s what happened when I looked up my Lady Speed Stick Anti-Perspirant & Deodorant, which unfortunately includes potentially cancer-causing ingredients such as lead, BPA, and PEGs.

If only there was a safer way to shop. … And there is!

MADE SAFE® is America’s first nontoxic seal for products we use every day, made with safe ingredients. Find certified products like hair care and beauty brand Alaffia and other brands on their website.

When on-the-go, choose cleaner options as you shop by using the Think Dirty® app, which tells you about the potentially toxic ingredients in your beauty, personal care, and household products. Just use the smartphone to scan the barcode to find out if the product is considered safe for your health. Some of the verified clean beauty brands on the app include Burt’s Bees, Mad Hippie, 100% Pure, Silk Therapeutics, Biossance, Jusu Body, and Honestly Phresh (natural deodorant).

What’s your favorite natural beauty brand? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!


Photo by Hannah Grace on Unsplash

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