With clean beauty products becoming mainstream, more brands are launching safer skincare lines. These days, you can’t step into a Sephora without spotting multiple labels claiming to be “clean,” “green,” or “natural.” But what does that really mean? If you think food labels are confusing, cosmetics packaging is even worse. Beauty companies can claim their products are clean without improving their ingredients because none of those terms are regulated by the FDA.
So what’s a health-conscious consumer to do? It comes down to arming yourself with information and reading the labels, which can eat up a lot of precious time. That’s why I’ve created this handy dandy cheat sheet of 6 toxic ingredients you should always avoid. Read on for well-researched, in-depth explanations, and pin the graphic to use while you shop.
The word “fragrance” can mean anything when it’s listed on a cosmetics label. That’s because companies lobbied to use it as a catch-all to protect their “secret formulas.” Fragrance is often a complex chemical cocktail that can irritate and sensitize the skin, and cause allergies. Perhaps even worse, fragrances have been identified as a significant air pollutant.
Label watch: Clean beauty products generally get their scents from botanical oils like lavender, which are generally safe. Look out the word “fragrance” in products like body wash, lotion, soap, skincare products, and shampoos.
Parabens are used as preservatives to inhibit the growth of bacteria. While nobody wants her night cream to become a petri dish, these chemicals can act like weak versions of estrogen in the body. Even small amounts have been shown to spur the growth of breast cancer cells. What’s more, long-term exposure can also aid in cancer metastasis. For these reasons, truly clean beauty products do NOT contain parabens.
Label watch: Look out for parabens in makeup, body washes, deodorants, shampoos and facial cleansers…and even your food.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureate Sulfate (SLES)
A luxurious lather used to be the hallmark of a a premium personal care product. Not anymore! These coconut-derived lathering agents can cause skin irritation and allergies. Even worse, there’s growing concern that these chemicals can interact with others to cause cancer and organ damage.
Label Watch: SLS and SLES are used in mascara, shampoo, face and body washes, and acne treatments.
If you dissected a frog in junior high, then you know formaldehyde is a powerful preservative. You also likely know that its noxious smell can make you dizzy and nauseous. And guess what? It’s a known carcinogen too. The sneaky part: it’s not often listed on the label. Chemical names including quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, or 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3 diol (Bronopol) are all code for formaldehyde.
Label Watch: Be sure to buy formaldehyde-free nail polish, and look out for it in hair care products, lotions, cleansers, and eye shadows.
Like parabens, phthalates have been linked to a higher risk of breast cancer. But the risk doesn’t stop there. Researchers are also concerned that these chemicals – which are used to increase the softness and flexibility of plastics – also cause reproductive birth defects and early breast development in girls. Pthalates often hide under the “fragrance” label, or show up as DBP, DEHP, and DEP.
Label Watch: Soaps an lotions for children and babies are notorious for containing phthalates (a major motivator when I switched James to clean beauty products). You can also find them in hair sprays, deodorants, perfumes, and moisturizers.
I’ll never forget the time a chemical sunscreen spray ruined my vacation. We were visiting Mexico with another couple, and I dutifully sprayed myself with SPF 50. Within minutes, I was covered in quarter-sized, itchy hives. And it turns out I’m not the only one. Chemical sunscreens including benzophenone, PABA, avobenzone, oxybenzone homosalate and ethoxycinnmate can not only irritate skin, but also disrupt the endocrine system.
Label watch: Clean beauty products can still protect you from the sun using physical blocks like zinc or titanium dioxide. Yes, they may turn your skin white, but I’ll choose looking funny over feeling awful any day.
Consider the above the short list of chemicals to avoid; they’re the ones I personally am most worried about and have found it relatively easy to cut out completely. The good news is that there are an increasing number of truly clean beauty companies who go even farther to protect consumers. I’ve had particularly great luck finding affordable, safe products from BeautyCounter and Juice Beauty. Head over to Instagram for details on my daily clean beauty regimen.