Lately, I’ve been looking at the ingredients in my favorite skincare products which I’m using every day, and I was quite surprised to see so many different chemicals with unpronounceable names and with unknown benefits for the skin. I’ve always looked at the ingredients in my food: cutting back on processed and refined foods in favor of whole foods. But what am I washing my hair with? What is contained in the day cream that I’m using every day? What chemicals am I applying to my body through my body lotion?
When it comes to personal care products, many of us are unaware of the chemicals that we slather over our skin through beauty products. The truth is that not all ingredients are “clean” and some are actually slowly poisoning our bodies, speeding up the aging process and even causing cancer.
What we put on our skin should be as clean as what we eat.
But for most people, it’s not.
On an average day, we wear hundreds of chemicals. These chemicals are found in our cleanser, tonic lotion, shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, deodorant, perfume, mascara, eyeshadow, foundation, lipstick… and so the list goes on. The skin is our body’s largest organ and absorbs almost all of what is applied to it (just think about nicotine and birth control patches which are transdermal medications). While there may be some chemicals in topically applied products that are too large to enter our bloodstream, many are small enough to penetrate. In addition, you can also inhale these chemicals (especially with scented products) and eat them (as with lip and oral care products). In 2005, the Environmental Working Group published two studies that found toxic chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies born in the U.S. Result: 287 toxins were detected within the umbilical cord blood of these newborns; 217 were neurotoxins, and 208 are known to damage growth development or cause birth defects.
Beauty and personal care products are a primary source of our chemical exposure.
Many of these chemicals have been directly or indirectly linked to hormone disruption, DNA damage, and even cancer. More concerning, some companies are able to keep some chemicals a secret as trade secrets. So we may not even know everything that is actually in a product. Some countries have taken action to reduce the threat of these chemicals. For example, the European Union has banned or restricted over 1,400 harmful chemicals from being used in skincare and cosmetics. In contrast, the United States has banned or restricted only 30.
3 Things to know when transitioning to a clean beauty routine
1. Which beauty products to look for cleanest ingredients
Since I know that some chemicals can and do enter our bloodstream through topical application, I’m doing my best to avoid all known harmful chemicals in some of my skincare. The task of scrutinizing every ingredient in every product that I’m using can be overwhelming. So I’ve thought about being strategic by focusing on products that are having the most negative impact and with the higher level of exposure. This means either product that I use every single day on a specific area (eg. deodorant) or either product that I’m applying all over my body (eg. body lotion). So here is a quick (but non-exhaustive) list of beauty products that I’m using every day and which I’m looking for the cleanest ingredients.
- Anything I use in my bath (eg. bubble bath)
- Body soap and body creams
- Face creams, tonic lotion, face oils, serums (everything that I’m not washing out)
- Shampoo and conditioner (which I’m using every day)
- Hand soap, hand cream
- Lip balm
Here is a list of products that I have limited exposure to, this means products that I’m not using every day but just occasionally. I will relax my standards with these products.
- Foundation, concealer (I’ve recently stopped using makeup every day)
- Nail polish remover & nail polish (I’m not changing colors daily)
- Hair dyes (I’m dying my hair once every 6 months)
2. What toxic ingredients to avoid in skincare products
Avoid endocrine disruptors
All the ingredients listed below are endocrine disruptors, meaning they can disturb thyroid, testosterone, and estrogen regulation, which can create a host of issues including early puberty, poor sperm quality, infertility, obesity, and cancer.
- Parabens (butylparaben, propylparaben, sodium butylparaben, sodium propylparaben, potassium butylparaben, potassium propylparaben)
- BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole)
- Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate
- Benzophenone-1, benzophenone-3
- Cyclopentasiloxane, cyclotetrasiloxane, cyclomethicone
- Butylphenyl methylpropional
Avoid allergenic or irritating ingredients
- Methylisothiazolinone (MIT), methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCIT)
- Sodium lauryl sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate
Avoid ingredient which is toxic to the liver
Phenoxyethanol is a preservative and is used in a variety of personal care products, such as perfume, makeups, hand sanitizers, deodorants, toothpaste, baby wipes, sunscreens, and lotions. Exposure to phenoxyethanol has been linked to eczema, severe life-threatening allergic reactions and can even affect central nervous system function.
Avoid mineral oil and synthetic hydrocarbons
Mineral oil and petroleum are the basic ingredients in many cosmetic products; both mineral oil and petroleum have the same origins as fossils fuels. By locking moisture against the skin, mineral oil sits on the skin’s surface and can potentially block pores, increasing the risk of acne and blackheads. A huge health concern with petroleum products is that they can contain an 1,4-dioxane. This impurity, found in 22% of all petroleum-based cosmetics, has been found to cause cancer in animals.
- Cera Microcristallina
- Hydrogenated Microcrystalline Wax
- Hydrogenated Polyisobutene
- Microcrystalline Wax
- Paraffinum liquidum
- Synthetic wax
3. How to check your beauty and skincare ingredients
First, every time you’re buying a new beauty product, try to know who you are buying from and what the brand stands for. Then always do your research; when it comes to buying beauty products, always read the small print, the first ingredients on the list are used in the highest concentration, in descending order. Aim to buy products with lesser ingredients that are plant-based, ideally organic. Look out for certification labels and try to avoid water-based products, which require preservatives to boost shelf life.
If you’re looking to cut back on your exposure to chemicals, you can use applications such as Clean Beauty, InciBeauty, Pharmapocket, CosmEthics or Think Dirty which can help you to analyze, decipher, and mark cosmetics compositions. Indeed, these apps will screen your current products and give you toxicity ratings as well as info on which ingredients to avoid. I’m using QuelCosmetic, the latest on the French market which has been launched by the French consumer association UFC-Que Choisir. I really like QuelCosmetic has this application help me to spot undesirable substances in over 6,000 listed cosmetics just by scanning the product barcode. I’m using as well Think Dirty which allows me to learn ingredients, compare and shop safest beauty products. These applications are really nice to have as you just need to scan the beauty product with your smartphone to get more information about the presence of toxic substances to avoid in formulas.
Finally, you can retrieve the list of toxic ingredients to avoid in skincare products on the UFC-Que Choisir website: you can download and print the list of toxic ingredients. And if you speak French you can learn more about skincare ingredients with the French beauty blog Regard sur les Cosmetiques written by Celine Couteau, PhD in Pharmacy at the Nantes University who endeavors to analyze cosmetic products from a global and scientific standpoint. An amazing source of information about which beauty products to avoid and which ones to prefer.
I’m currently transitioning to a clean beauty routine, so if you have already done it, let me know in the comments. I’ll be very interested to hear from you what are your favorite “clean” beauty brands and beauty products.