Do you know what chemicals are lurking in your beauty products? Every few months there is another beauty product ingredient in the news with data showing it will a) give you cancer, b) mess up your hormones, c) is otherwise bad for your body and, more often than not, d) all of the above. Before you toss your entire makeup bag in the trash, there are a few important factors to keep in mind.
Your skin is your largest organ. According to a survey of 2,300 individuals by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), respondents used an average of nine different cosmetic products every day on their skin with an estimated 126 ingredients; so it’s worth knowing what you’re putting on, and in, your body. While some skin care ingredients’ molecules are too large to actually penetrate the skin, there are many others that can and do.
As consumers we presume cosmetics being sold to us are safe. In reality, under United States law cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA approval before they go on the market (with the exception of color additives). Instead, it is the responsibility of the companies and individuals who market cosmetics to ensure the safety of their products. When there are problems with a product or ingredient, the FDA can investigate. To date, the FDA has only ever banned or restricted 11 chemicals from cosmetics. For comparison, the EU Cosmetics Directive has banned more than 1,300 chemicals.
Just like the products themselves, the labels do not get or need FDA approval before they go on the market. This means there is no clear definition for terms like “all-natural,” “organic” or “botanical.” Just because a product is made with “natural,” “organic” or “plant-based” ingredients doesn’t mean that it is necessarily any safer or better for your skin. There are many plants that contain substances that may be irritants or even toxic — even if they are organically grown. Remember, poison ivy is “natural” and “plant-based,” but you probably don’t want to slather your face with a lotion made from it!
Science is always moving forward. Research continues to refine its findings. As a result, we are always learning. We continue to discover the effects of long-term exposure to some ingredients previously thought harmless and that some ingredients previously thought dangerous actual contain chemical compounds too big to actually penetrate the skin. In other words, it’s important to stay informed. The safety and effectiveness of beauty ingredients is a moving target.
Here are seven of the most controversial skin care ingredients and what the latest research has to say about their safety.
Found in: in antiperspirant, antacids, buffered aspirin and cosmetics like eye shadow and lipstick. The controversy: In the 1960s and ’70s, aluminum was flagged as a possible suspect in causing Alzheimer’s disease. As recent as 2005, a study found a disproportionately high incidence of breast cancer in the upper outer quadrant of the breast that seemed to suggest that a locally applied ingredient, such as antiperspirant, may play a role. Latest research: Both the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute report no conclusive evidence supporting a connection between aluminum compounds and breast cancer. However, a 2016 study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that in immunodeficient (having a decreased ability to fight off infections and diseases) mice, long-term exposure to aluminum salts could promote tumor growth and be an environmental carcinogen. What else you should know: According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) report, while skin contact with aluminum may cause irritation, very little actually penetrates through the skin. Food is actually the most common way aluminum ends up in the body, with the average American adult consuming about seven to nine milligrams of aluminum per day in their food. Most of this aluminum leaves your body when you go to the bathroom. However, individuals with immune deficiencies or kidney issues may want to take extra caution with aluminum.
Found in: as a preservative in cosmetics to kill or prevent microorganism growth in cosmetics, hand creams and sunscreens. The controversy:: According to the National Institutes of Health, formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists it as a Group 1 carcinogen, its highest rating. It also has links to asthma, neurotoxicity, and developmental toxicity. Latest research:: A 2011 CDC report found that skin exposure to formaldehyde was “probably not a complete carcinogen,” but that data about the chemical’s ability to promote cancer was inconclusive. The report also stated that formaldehyde could definitely be a skin irritant. What else you should know: An analysis of data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Voluntary Cosmetic Registration Program Database indicated that of the more than 33,000 cosmetics examined, nearly 20 percent of them contained either formaldehyde or any of eight more common formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, such as polyoxymethylene urea.
3. Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)
Found in: nail polishes to make them less brittle and in fragrances to help them adhere to the skin. The controversy: Phthalates like DBP are known to disrupt the endocrine system (the pituitary gland, ovaries, testes, thyroid gland, adrenal glands and others), which works to regulate sexual function and reproduction, metabolism, sleep, mood and growth and development among other things. Data also suggest that high doses may cause birth defects in fetuses. California has listed DBP as a possible reproductive and developmental toxicant, and the European Union banned it in cosmetics and personal care products. The latest research: A 2016 study found that a by-product the body creates when it breaks down DBP may be playing a role in unexplained infertility in otherwise healthy women. What else you should know: According to CosmeticInfo.com, a website sponsored by a cosmetic trade association, “DBP has been discontinued in cosmetics and personal care products by manufacturers.” However, a 2012 survey published by the National Institutes of Health’s Toxicology Data Network found that in April 2012, of 168 personal care products tested, dibutyl phthalate was detected in 145 of the products, including body wash, skin lotion, face cream, deodorants and others. Nail polish had the greatest ratio by far. So it’s still out there.
Found in: synthetic antioxidant used as a preservative in lipsticks, moisturizers, diaper creams and other cosmetics with fats or oils. The controversy: The National Toxicology Program classifies BHA as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” and the EU has labeled it as a Category 1 endocrine disruptor. The latest research: A 2016 study found that BHA could have a weak impact on the endocrine system. What else you should know: Dietary exposure to BHA has been shown to cause tumors in the forestomachs of rats, mice and hamsters. BHA is not absorbed well into the skin, but an FDA survey found BHA concentrations were highest in lipstick, which gives it a much easier path into your body.
Hydroquinone Found in: most often in skin-lightening creams, serums and lotions, but also can be found in fragrances, hair dyes and in the adhesive used with artificial nails. The controversy: Hydroquinone has been linked to cancer, organ toxicity and skin irritation. The IRAC calls it a “possible tumor promoter,” and studies have linked hydroquinone use and the development of liver tumors in male mice and liver and kidney damage in rabbits. Hydroquinone can also cause skin irritation. The latest research: While there does seem to be evidence that hydroquinone is an animal carcinogen, there have been no documented cases of hydroquinone as a human carcinogen. However, according to the FDA, hydroquinone can’t be ruled out as a potential carcinogen. What else you should know: In the U.S., hydroquinone is available over the counter in 2 percent strength and at 4 percent strength in prescription products. Searching out higher doses is not a good idea. High percentage hydroquinone has been linked with a condition called ochronosis that causes the skin to darken. A 2016 report revealed that 62-year-old twins that were applying a high dose 10 percent hydroquinone cream to their faces developed brown nail discoloration on the fingers they used to apply the product.
6. Coal Tar
Found in: in anti-dandruff shampoos, as a hair dye colorant and as a treatment for psoriasis. The controversy: It’s a known carcinogen. According to the Intentional Agency for Research on Cancer, there is “sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of occupational exposures.” However, it is only linked to higher concentrations found in paving and roofing applications. The latest research: According to the FDA and the EPA, coal tar concentrations between 0.5 percent and 5 percent are considered safe and effective. A 2010 study found no correlation between coal tar use to treat psoriasis or eczema and cancer. The FDA also reports no “reliable evidence showing a link between cancer and coal-tar hair dyes on the market today.” What else you should know: Avoid any product that includes coal tar with a concentration higher than 5 percent, and use extra caution if you are pregnant. The FDA lists coal tar in Pregnancy Risk Category C, which means a risk to the fetus cannot be ruled out.
Found in: as an antimicrobial agent in liquid soap, soap bars, toothpaste and some cosmetics. The controversy: Triclosan is believed to have an impact on the endocrine system and be potentially carcinogenic and is toxic to aquatic environments. The latest research: A 2015 study by National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences-funded scientists from UC San Diego and UC Davis showed that long-term exposure to triclosan promoted the growth of liver tumors in lab mice, which could relate to its safety for humans. Recent studies have also shown that the chemical has a detrimental impact on aquatic life like fish and algae. In September 2016, the FDA issued a ban on the use of triclosan. Companies will have a year to phase the chemical out of products. What else you should know: People love their antimicrobial soap, but a 2015 study showed that triclosan didn’t offer any proven reduction in infections over regular soap-and-water handwashing. Another study also suggested that “the overuse of triclosan may result in the development of cross-resistance to antibiotics and thereby the emergence of bacterial strains resistant to both triclosan and antibiotics.” And anything that aids the rise of superbugs is no good.