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I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that you’ve heard there are harmful ingredients that may be lurking in your beauty products, the food we eat, and other household products. You may be clean-curious or you have some inkling that something is amiss, but to even think about it all is overwhelming. 

woman looking at ingredient label
Woman looking at personal care product

I’ve given thought and time and research to this topic and am going to make my best effort to break things down in a simple way. So you know what ingredients to look out for, what products they are typically in, what products are safe and resources where you can look these up and quickly assess how significant the risk is.

This is something I care about. It took me way too long to care about it and it’s really part of a larger self-love journey I’m on, but the net is that you should care too. 

If you are already sold and looking for clean beauty products I have some options for you below.

Clean Beauty Products

BeautyCounter – they are leaders in clean beauty, their products are effective and I trust them completely with my beauty and personal care. Over 50% of what I use on my body and face is from BeautyCounter.

Detox Market – Everything on their site is free from all ingredients on their banned ingredients list. I really like the variety they have, everything from skincare, to makeup, to body and overall wellness.

LimeLife by Alcone – professional grade clean makeup and skincare. I love many of their products, especially their Forty Cure cream, which has been so helpful for my sons eczema and my husbands psoriasis.

You can also see

💄the products I use and love

🌱All of my content around clean beauty

Is Clean Beauty Worth it?

Yes, it is worth it! Clean beauty, clean food. All of it is worth it, because YOU are worth it. 

You don’t have to fully switch to clean beauty or clean food. I’m in awe of those that do everything 100% clean. I’m not there yet, not sure that I ever will be.

And that’s okay. I’m about 85% clean beauty and body care, about 40% clean food (this is just for me, getting my family to eat clean, that’s another story🤪) and about 30% clean household products. It’s a journey. 

Choose one place to start. If you walk away from this post and you show up in one way for yourself, for your health, for your family’s health, then this post was worth it. 

If you are the average person (I don’t even like that “average person.” oh well, you get what I’m saying). If you are the average person in the U.S. you use 12 products and 168 ingredients daily, per the Environmental Working Group.

I’m going to let that sink in for a moment. That’s 12 personal care products (toothpaste, body wash, shampoo, foundation, skincare) divided by 168 ingredients, so every product you use has roughly 14 ingredients in it.

All the personal care and beauty products you use each day
Cosmetics and personal care products

Did you know that safety tests on ingredients in your beauty products are not required? 

There are 14 ingredients in any given beauty/personal care product we use and there are no safety tests!  

We put these on our face, our body. Five million pores you guys, five million is how many pores we have on our body, with 20,00 on our face alone and 60 percent of chemicals applied to your skin can be absorbed by your body.

Harmful Ingredients in Your Cosmetics and Beauty Products

First, let’s just look at the scale and status of regulation around clean beauty.

There are 1300+ chemicals that the EU has banned. BeautyCounter, a leader in clean beauty, omits 1,800 ingredients from their products.

On September 30th of 2020 history was made, when the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act was signed into law. This act is specific to beauty and personal care products sold in California and bans 24 toxic cosmetics and personal care product ingredients.

This is the first state ban in the U.S. and is huge. You can see the 24 ingredients that were banned on the Environmental Workgroup site and I touch on many of these below. 

Though there is a growing movement and progress being made we still are not where we need to be.

I won’t overwhelm you with 1300 or 1800 ingredients. I don’t know all of the 1,300 or 1,800 ingredients.  I know the main offenders and I shop with brands that have earned my trust. 

I’m going to list the top 10 that are most pervasive, why they are no bueno, and will build on this post over time with quick and easy swaps you can make for cleaner products.  

It’s important we are aware, even if it’s small choices we make.

Another thing to note, which could be a whole other post in itself. Is that the majority of these ingredients provide no benefit to your skin. For the most part they play a functional role, stabilizing, helping with mixing of ingredients, etc. And clean beauty companies have found other ways to achieve these same results, so why risk it?

Ingredients in Beauty Products to Avoid

Below are the top offenders, why they are used, what the risks are, how to keep an eye out for them and safe items you can switch to.

Lead

Lead is in our cosmetics. I know this may be surprising to you, because it was to me. 

Lead in our paint, that is widely known and talked about. But until I started to do research I didn’t realize lead was lurking in our makeup.

Why is Lead Used in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

Lead is used as a color additive in hair dyes and other pigmented products.

The scary part of the lead scenario is that companies are not required to disclose that their products have lead, which means we have no way of telling. Goes to my previous sentiment about finding brands you can trust.

The FDA site notes that lead in cosmetic products is limited to 10 to 20 parts per million.

Why is Lead Harmful?

The challenge with the 10 to 20 parts per million that are allowed is that lead is harmful in any quantity. Lead can have negative effects on the brain and nervous system.

Especially for pregnant women or those trying to get pregnant, including reduced fertility, miscarriage and brain damage and learning problems for the baby. 

Where is Lead Most Prevalent in our Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

Lead is most commonly found in lipsticks and lip glosses and has been found in high  concentrations in some of the leading brands. 

Lipstick on woman
Woman wearing lipstick
What Ingredients Do I Look for to Know If There Is Lead in My Products?

Since lead is not required to be listed, you wouldn’t know by looking at the label. Shop with brands that have made a commitment to clean beauty. If you really love a product you are using reach out to the company and ask them if they use lead in their products. 

Safe Products You Can Use:

You can find clean beauty lipstick and lip gloss options.


Phthalates

Phthalates is a chemical commonly used in PVC plastics, solvents, and synthetic fragrances. They are a family of man-made chemicals, therefore making it hard to discern what products they are in.

Why Are Phthalates Used in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

Phthalates come in the form of dibutylphthalate (DBP), dimethylphthalate (DMP), Di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), and diethylphthalate (DEP).

DBP and DEHP are used as a plasticizer to make products less breakable, think nail polish. DEHP is also banned in Canada. 

DMP is used in hair spray to avoid the product hardening up too much, it provides a flexible layer on the hair. DEP is used as a solvent in fragrances to make the fragrances last longer.

Therefore phthalates could be used in your fragrance mixtures and  could be in any product that says fragrance on it. We talk more about the ubiquitous ingredient fragrance below. 

Why Are Phthalates Harmful?

Phthalates act as endocrine disruptors and have been linked to fertility issues and problems in the reproductive system – in both men and women. Unborn babies and children can be the most affected. 

They’ve also been linked to asthma and allergies. 

Because it is a hormone disruptor, it’s also been noted that kids in puberty are at greater risk, because during that time they are left more vulnerable. 

If that all wasn’t enough, per the National Toxicology Program DEHP is suspected as a human carcinogen based on evidence from animal studies.  

Where Are Phthalates Most Prevalent in Our Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?
Woman putting on nail polish
Woman putting on nail polish

DEP and DMP could be anything from hair spray to shampoo and conditioner, moisturizer and perfume.  

DBP could be in your nail polishes.

Phthalates are not just found in cosmetics. You can also find them in your air fresheners, plastics you use in your kitchen, etc. 

We will stick to cosmetics and personal care products, since that’s why you are likely reading this.

What Ingredients Do I Look for to Know If There Are Phthalates in My Products?

Some products will note they are phthalate-free. 

I know it’s a lot. Take a second and put out your phone, go to your notes section or wherever you list important things and create a note. 

And just list: phthalate, DBP,  DEP, DEHP, DMP and fragrance. 

The next time you’re at Target grabbing your shampoo, just take a quick glance at the back of the ingredients and scan it for one of these abbreviations/ingredients. 

Safe Products You Can Use:

You can find safe, paraben and phthalate-free baby-care products here, including shampoo, body oil and body wash. 

Vegan and safe nail polishes here and here.

Safe shampoo and conditioner here and body washes for adults here.

Safe skincare collections, cleanser and moisturizers here.


Parabens

Another major hormonal offender and pervasive one at that is parabens. 

propyl paraben preservative
Propyl paraben preservative
Why Are Parabens Used in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

Parabens are used as a preservative to increase the shelf life of personal care and cosmetic products.  

Why Are Parabens Harmful?

The problem with parabens is that they mimic estrogen and can cause issues with your endocrine system, and have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity.  

Where Are Parabens Most Prevalent in Our Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

Because these ingredients are so pervasive – they are in so many of our personal care items, such as deodorants, toothpaste, shampoos, conditioners, body lotions, makeup, and even in the food we eat. 

Many companies that have stopped using parabens will note paraben-free on the packaging or product page. These companies have found other alternative ingredients that prevent bacterial growth and sustain shelf life.

What Ingredients Do I Look for to Know If There Are Parabens in My Products?

The ingredients you want to look for are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben (used mostly commonly), butylparaben and isobutylparaben. If your cosmetic or personal care product has any one of these ingredients it has parabens.

Safe Products You Can Use:

I’m going to come back and add more clean beauty options. I want to take time and research more.

For now, the clean cosmetics and skincare I use and recommend are BeautyCounter and LimeLife

For deodorant I have a whole post here with other clean deodorant options and this is the deodorant that I use.

For toothpastes I’d suggest this brand or this brand

Shampoos and conditioners I use this shampoo and this conditioner. Body lotions you can find here and makeup here.


PFASs

PFASs or fluorinated chemicals have been found in high levels in nearly one-third of cosmetics tested. Though I’m trying to keep this focused on beauty products, I’d be remiss not to mention it’s also been found in tap water.

It was interesting to learn that Teflon, which many of us have heard about and know as the coating that is on our non-stick pans is the brand name for PTFE, which is part of the family of fluorinated chemicals known as PFASs or PFCs. It was hard for me to wrap my head around Teflon being in our  cosmetics.

Why Are PFASs Used in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

PFASs do not provide any benefit to the skin. They are used to help two liquids mix better together, like oil and water. They can also be used to help regulate the consistency of a product, how thick, sticky or slimy it is. 

Why Are PFAS Chemicals Harmful?

PFAS chemicals are linked to cancer (specifically breast, kidney, thyroid and testicular), thyroid disease, weakened immunity and other health problems. Some of those include growth and learning behavior in babies, fertility issues, interference with our endocrine system and increased cholesterol levels. 

Where Are PFASs Most prevalent in Our Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?
Foundations and concealer
Foundations and concealer

PFAS chemicals have been found in a range of products, including: hair spray, styling gels and anti-frizz hair products, eyeshadow, bronzer, eyeliner, sunscreen, shampoo, shaving cream, facial powder, waterproof mascara, anti-aging creams, eye moisturizers (absorption around your eyes is greater), blush, brow liner and more. 

Some of the highest concentrations were found in foundation and concealer. Many of these concentrations were above limits set in the EU. 

What Ingredients Do I look for to Know If There Are PFASs In My Products?

When looking for PFSAs, look for PTFE  or fluoro in any of the ingredients. These will likely be part of a longer name such as perfluorononyl dimethicone or perfluorodecalin.

Safe Products You Can Use:

Because this chemical was in so many of our products, I’ve linked to two clean beauty brands I shop with. BeautyCounter, LimeLife and the Detox Market.

Bookmark this post. Coming soon, there will be a new post for each type of makeup, personal care product coming soon, so you have multiple options. 


Fragrance 

Fragrance (which means a whole lot of nothing) on the ingredient label is a product of a loophole in the federal labeling act which is intended to ensure we know what is in our products. 

Why Is Fragrance Used in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

Fragrance could represent any combination of 3,163 ingredients used to provide a pleasant scent or to mask a bad one and it will merely be listed as fragrance. 

Why Are Ingredients That Are Part of Fragrance Harmful?

Some of the ingredients that have been found in fragrances are some of those we’ve discussed here, phthalates, parabens, and BHA are a few.

Out of those 3,163 ingredients, some have been connected to the same health problems we’ve talked about, cancer, reproductive and developmental toxicity, allergies and sensitivities.

Where Is Fragrance Most Prevalent in Our Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

Fragrance is going to be in most of your personal care products, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, deodorant, body lotion, sunscreen, makeup, skincare, exfoliating scrubs and so much more.

What Ingredients Do I Look for to Know If There Is Fragrance in My Products?

When looking at labels you want to look for fragrance, perfume, parfum, essential oil blend, aroma.

If a product you use notes it’s clean and you see ‘fragrance’ listed, contact the company and ask them what is in their fragrance and if they are a transparent organization they will be able to get you that information. 


PEG (Polyethylene Glycol)

PEGs is a mixture of compounds that have been bonded together. Plastic is mixed with glycol to make a thick sticky liquid. 

PETase enzymes (blue) breaking down plastic
PETase enzymes (blue) breaking down plastic
Why Are PEGs Used in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

Their main purpose is to help lubricate and soften the skin or to help with the mixture of water-based and oil-based ingredients. 

Why Are PEG’s Harmful?

PEGs can penetrate your skin, which makes it easier for PEGs and other toxic ingredients to pass the skin barrier. 

PEGs have also been found in a study published in the International Journal of Toxicology to have other toxins in them, such as heavy metals (lead, nickel, arsenic, etc.), in addition to 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide. Some companies make an effort to strip out these toxins, many do not. Even when they are striped, there could be remnants left. 

Many of these toxins have been linked to increased cases of cancer. 

Where Are PEG’s Most Prevalent in Our Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

PEGs are found in your shampoo, body wash, hair styling gels/liquids, liquid soaps and bath oils.

What Ingredients Do I Look for to Know If There Are PEG’s in My Products?

You want to look for ingredients ending in “-eth”, such  as sodium laureth sulfate, and ingredients including the word “PEG”


Triethanolamine (TEA) 

Triethanolamine is an organic chemical with nitrogen at its center. It is clear, colorless and thick. 

Why Is TEA Used in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

TEA  and other similar compounds such as diethanolamine (DEA), and ethanolamine (MEA) are used for many purposes across many of our personal care products. It’s used to help fluids mix well together, that otherwise typically would not mix well. It also can be used as a stabilizer to make products last longer and a thickener and foam booster for a given formula.

It also serves as a pH adjuster in cosmetics and skincare cleansing products or lotions. 

Why Are TEAs, DEAs and MEAs Harmful?

The  Cosmetic Ingredient Review states that TEAs are a safe ingredient on their own, but could be a carcinogen if contaminated by nitrosamine. 

The EWG site has it listed as a 5 on a scale of 1-10, with 1 or EWG certified being the safest and 10 being the most harmful. 

It’s stated that there is strong evidence that TEA is a immune and respiratory allergen. 

It can be contaminated by nitrosamine, a probable human carcinogen that has been linked to liver tumors.

Where Is TEA, DEA and MEA Most Prevalent in Our Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

TEA and similar compounds are in eyeliners, mascaras, sunscreens, eye creams and hair care products such as shampoos, hair dyes, conditioners, styling creams, hair spray, shaving cream, etc. 

What Ingredients Do I Look for to Know If There Are TEAs and Similar Compounds in My Products?

Avoid products with TEA, DEA and MEA in the ingredients, e.g TEA-lauryl sulfate.  In addition to the full spellings, triethanolamine, diethanolamine.


Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA)

Hydroxy acids are AHA’s, BHA’s, lactic and glycolic acid. 

This is one of the only ones on this list that actually has a benefit to the skin.

Why Are AHAs Used in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

These ingredients are strong and they break down your skin’s outermost layer so it can reveal the next layer of your skin that is smoother and firmer.  

Anti-aging serum
Anti-aging serum
Why Are AHAs Harmful?

The problem is that when you break down your skin with an ingredient this strong it makes it vulnerable to other environmental hazards, not to mention the other 100’s of ingredients that your skin is coming in contact with that are not good. It will also make your skin more sensitive to the sun and can increase dryness. 

Good news. We have access to AHA’s through our plants and fruits and can choose these vs. the synthetic AHA’s that are in many of our cosmetics.

Where Are AHAs Most Prevalent in Our Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

I’m sure as you have guessed, you will find many of these in your anti-aging creams, resurfacing peels, etc. You will also find this ingredient in your cleanser, toners, moisturizers, eye cream, masks and foundation. 

What Ingredients Do I Look for to Know If There Are AHAs and Similar Compounds in My Products?

Look for  glycolic acid, lactic acid, citric acid, α-hydroxyoctanoic acid, and α-hydroxydecanoic acid salicylic acid, beta, hydroxybutanoic acid, tropic acid, trethocanic acid. 

In addition to choosing plant-based acids, you can also look on the list to see how far down these are listed on the ingredient list to identify how strong it will be. 

Note: this is probably one of the least offensive on this list and I’m thinking of swapping out. Citric acid is an ingredient I’m okay with as long as it’s 4 or more down on the ingredient list, as that tells me the concentration is not as strong. I also use sunscreen whenever I got outside, winter, spring, fall and summer, so I feel protected there.

Some of the products I link to do have citric acid, but it’s not the first or second ingredient.

Safe Products You Can Use:

Find safe anti-aging products that work here.


Formaldehyde 

Formaldehyde is a strong smelling clear gas. 

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing ingredients are found in cigarettes, cleaning products and yes, beauty products. The biggest risk is inhaling formaldehyde, but chemicals applied to your skin can be absorbed by your body and also pose a risk

Formaldehyde
Formaldehyde
Why Is Formaldehyde Used in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing ingredients are used to increase the shelf life of cosmetics. They act as a preservative.

Why Is Formaldehyde Harmful?

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and has been linked to leukemia and is known to promote tumor formation. 

Animal studies have found that formaldehyde can be absorbed through the skin, via your personal care products and cosmetics. 

Formaldehyde is banned in  beauty products in the EU because of these well-known risks. 

It is also a skin-irritant and can cause rashes and inflammation. In addition to issues with your lungs and immune system. 

Where Is Formaldehyde Most Prevalent in Our Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

Because it’s used in personal care products as a preservative, it can be in so many products. Most prevalent are shampoos, bodywash, baby soaps and hand soaps. 

It’s also been found in hair products (gel, anti-frizz, hair-smoothing) and in nail and glue products (nail polish, nail glue and eyelash glue). 

What Ingredients Do I Look for to Know If There Are Formaldehyde and Similar Compounds in My Products?

Keep an eye out for formaldehyde-free. Otherwise look for the below items.

Formaldehyde, quaternium-15, dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol). 

Safe Products You Can Use:

For baby soaps you can shop here for safe items.

Safe options for body wash, shampoo and conditioner.

Any of these hair styling options from the Detox Market are safe and free of toxic chemicals.

Vegan and safe nail polishes here, here and there are a ton of options here.


Benzophenone

Benzophenone is a chemical that can be found in flowering plants. It can absorb UV rays. 

Benzophenone molecule
Benzophenone molecule 
Why Is Benzophenone Used in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

Benzophenone is used to block and prevent UV rays from altering the content of cosmetics or personal care products. 

The UV rays can damage the liquid or contents and change the color of the liquid or damage cosmetics.

It can also be used as a fragrance enhancer and perfume fixative. 

Why Are Benzophenones Harmful?

Benzophenones have been linked to endocrine issues, organ toxicity and reproductive issues. It’s a known irritant and a possible human carcinogen

Where Are Benzophenones Most Prevalent in Our Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

Items that need protection from UV light are those that may include benzophenones. Such as lip balm, nail polish, sunscreen, shampoo, conditioner, hair spray, lotions and moisturizers. Also it’s in cosmetics such as foundations and concealers. 

What Ingredients Do I Look for to Know If There Are Benzophenone and Similar Compounds in My Products?

Benzophenone, ingredients containing the word benzophenone (for example benzophenone-2), BP# (for example BP2), oxybenzone, sulisobenzone, sulisobenzone sodium.

Safe Products You Can Use:

Safe options for body wash, shampoo and conditioner.

Safe hair spray option here.

Safe lip balm options here and here.

Body lotions you can find here and here

Safe moisturizers can be found here and here.

You can find safe sunscreen options for your body and face here and here.

Check ingredients in beauty products

As I mentioned above there are 1,300 chemicals that the EU has banned and I’ve only covered a handful of chemical groupings here. 

Website to Look up Ingredients in Beauty Products

Below are two resources you can tap into to help you identify what ingredients are in what products.

EWG Deep Skin: Search any ingredient, brand or product that you want to learn more about. See example below.

EWG Deep Skin BeautyCounter look up
EWG Deep Skin BeautyCounter look up
EWG Deep Skin Artistry look up

The Never List on BeautyCounter also lists the many ingredients they ensure are not in their products. 

Because of their commitment to clean beauty they also list other companies in the clean beauty space to help you make the switch. Which is amazing and shows how committed to the cause they are. 

What will be the first item you swap out for a clean beauty item?

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7 Comments

  1. Eeekkk you just gave me a wake-up call! I didn’t know there was so much crap in our beauty products. Formaldehyde is just not good although I guess it’s for preserving-just not for living people! Now, I’m going to have to check everything I buy because I don’t know why I’m so stuck on formaldehyde or and lead!

    1. Yes! I knew there was nasty stuff in our products and I knew I found brands that I trust, but I was surprised at a few things when I dove deeper to write this post. The three that surprised me was formaldehyde, lead and Teflon.

  2. So thorough! I try to research EVERYTHING I buy, especially those products that I use on my kids. I’m sure there are a few things in our house still that have nasty ingredients in them, but this is a wake up call to do some more investigating.

    1. Thank you! I’m glad this is helpful. It was a beast to write, not going to lie. I learned so much more through my research and so glad I’m able to share it with more people, so they are aware. Completely agree with my kids. Though getting my 17 and 21 year old to switch to clean makeup and personal care products is not easy. Now if I could only get my kids and husband to eat clean food 😂

  3. There are so many bad things in cosmetics, it’s disheartening it’s legal, and not more closely monitored. Really brings home the need for doing your own research, or in this case reading your incredibly informative article which you’ve done all the research for us. Yay! Thanks so much.

    1. Yes, that it so true! Very disheartening. I was so happy to see the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act was signed into law in California. I’m hoping that is the start of more regulation in the U.S. Thank you!!! So glad you found helpful.

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