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5 Toxic Ingredients That Are Way Too Common in Your Cosmetics

October 08, 2020 | Cameron Gordon

5 Toxic Ingredients That Are Way Too Common in Your Cosmetics

By Meaghan Lehrer

When your mother, grandmother, auntie, or favorite cosmetic magazine growing up told you “Beauty is pain”,  what they didn’t mean is harmful. Tweezing your eyebrows? Ouch! Threading your upper lip? Totally not fun— please do not sign us up! But the makeup and beauty products in our cabinets should always be safe to use. Your skin absorbs whatever you put on it, so you’d think that would mean brands would be sure to check and double-check that every ingredient is perfectly safe to apply to our bodies. Right?

With a long-winded and utterly dramatic sigh, we must report that the ingredients used in today's beauty products are not well-regulated. In fact, many of the ingredients commonly found in cosmetics have been linked to major health concerns such as serious allergic reactions and ovarian cancer.

What you put on your body matters, just like what you put in your body can make all the difference. You nourish yourself with leafy greens, healthy proteins, and antioxidant-rich fruits. Why not put that same thought into your beauty routine? Seeing as there is virtually no pre-product approval before that product reaches the market and ends up in your beauty cabinet, it’s solely on you to do your research and read those labels.

Be sure to avoid these 5 toxic ingredients commonly found in countless popular cosmetics.

Formaldehyde

Name sound familiar? Of course, it does; formaldehyde is found in particleboard, plywood, fiberboard, glues and adhesives, wrinkle-resistant fabrics, paper product coatings, and certain insulation materials. It’s also found in nail polishes, nail hardeners, eyelash glues, hair gels, soaps, makeup, shampoos, lotions, and deodorants, among other commonly-used products.

You might be wondering, “If formaldehyde is so bad, why is it in so many things?” Well, friend, we want to know the same exact thing. The National Cancer Institute researchers have concluded that exposure to formaldehyde may cause leukemia. The most common side effect of formaldehyde in cosmetics is skin irritation, including scalp burns and hair loss. Typically, only low levels of formaldehyde are found in cosmetics, but even a relatively small amount of the chemical can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin.

The number one concern, of course, is formaldehyde’s link to cancer. The National Toxicology Program classified formaldehyde as a carcinogen under conditions with high or prolonged exposure. This means your nail tech is probably putting herself at risk on a daily basis. Additionally, hair smoothing treatments (such as the uber-popular Brazilian Blowout) came under fire when the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration warned that its products contained unacceptable formaldehyde levels. Many salon workers complained of nose bleeds, eye irritation, and trouble breathing after using the products.

Formaldehyde can go by several names, including formalin, formic aldehyde, methanediol, methanal, methyl aldehyde, methylene glycol, and methylene oxide.

And then there are formaldehyde releasers: bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, and quaternium-15. All of these are cosmetic preservatives that slowly form formaldehyde.

Write all those down (it’s a lot, we know), go check your beauty cabinet, and avoid buying products containing this controversial ingredient from now on.

Parabens

Parabens are preservatives found in a pretty wide variety of cosmetics, from lotions to facial cleansers and haircare products. Butyl, propyl, and ethyl parabens have all been linked to hormone disruption, which is why you’ll see the label “paraben-free” on certain brands’ packaging. That’s not just a buzzword or marketing ploy; it’s a pretty important detail that many consumers want to know. And even though your science teacher taught you that correlation does not equal causation, there’s been enough evidence to place this ingredient on the shady list.

This preservative became one of the most well-known ingredients to avoid due to a 2004 study that found traces of parabens in breast cancer tissue samples. Although there wasn’t enough evidence to conclusively prove a link between paraben use and increased cancer risk, it did prove that parabens can pass through the skin barrier and into our bodies.

Somehow, the EU and FDA have both concluded parabens in their current form are safe to use since cosmetic products only use a very small concentration of these ingredients in their formulas. That said, the FDA is still doing ongoing research to determine whether or not parabens can potentially be dangerous preservatives. Instead of taking risks, you can just avoid products with parabens. Plenty of brands have begun to produce their cosmetics without parabens, and most will have a clear label on their packaging indicating they’re paraben-free.

Toluene

This chemical is found in nail polish and hair dyes among other commonly used products. It often goes by the names benzene, methylbenzene, phenylmethane, and toluol (sneaky, sneaky!). The Environmental Working Group considers toluene to be one of the most toxic ingredients on the market. Not only is it linked to brain damage (eek!), research has shown an expectant mother's exposure to toluene vapors may cause developmental damage to the fetus. In other studies, this sneaky chemical has been associated with immune system toxicity and has been linked to blood cancer such as malignant lymphoma.

Toluene is banned in the EU and Southeast Asia, and a few retailers in the US have refused to sell products containing toluene as well. However, the EPA claims there is inadequate information to assess the carcinogenic potential of toluene. That said, since the FDA doesn’t really regulate cosmetics, there’s no way you can know just how much toluene is being used in a product and whether or not it’s a safe amount.  

Fragrance

It’s quite pleasing to the senses when a cleanser, lotion, or powder foundation contains a fragrance, but the term “fragrance” is extremely vague and can potentially be hiding thousands of chemicals. “Fragrance” or “parfum” is often an umbrella term for various chemicals that brands aren’t required to disclose.

Research has shown that fragrances in skincare products are among the most common cause of sensitizing and other negative skin reactions. Even if you don’t have a noticeable reaction to fragrance, you aren’t immune to the damage it can cause. Skin can be quite good at hiding when it’s being aggravated. Think of it like sun damage: while you might not see the damage every day, fragrance can be causing minor problems for your skin and body that worsen in the long term.

The International Fragrance Association lists 3,059 materials that are reported as being used in fragrance compounds. Of these 3,059 ingredients, some have evidence linking them to health effects including cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies, and sensitivities. And, as mentioned above, “fragrance” or “parfum” are umbrella terms. You have no clue what chemicals have been used to create that scent. So, perhaps it’s best to just avoid it. If you really love smelling like a field of flowers or whatever, you can find an organic, clean perfume that delights your senses.

PFAs and PFCs

PFAs are a class of thousands. These fluorinated chemicals are been found in sunscreens, hair products, and shaving creams. They’re linked to serious health effects, including cancer, thyroid disease, and even reduced effectiveness of vaccines. PFCs are water repellents, so products such as waterproof mascara often contain them.

And then there’s Teflon. Heard of her? She’s pretty famous for living primarily in your kitchen disguising herself as the non-stick pan you fry eggs on. This versatile PFA is the brand name for PTFE, one of the thousands of fluorinated chemicals known as PFASs or PFCs.

PTFE (aka: Polytetrafluoroethylene, but that’s really hard to type let alone pronounce, so PTFE it is!) often gets added to cosmetics to improve the texture. This non-stick ingredient has also been linked to hormone disruption and reproductive issues such as delayed menstruation, later breast development, and cancer. Maybe stay as far away from it as you can, and also just use some cooking oil and a regular pan when you fry up those eggs in the AM.

Stressing out to the max? Understandable, but not necessary. Just because you’ve used products containing these ingredients doesn’t mean you’re knocking on death’s door. But now that you know the truth, you can better determine what belongs in your bathroom cabinet and what should be avoided.

Sadly, there are several more toxic ingredients you should avoid. This list could go on and on, so stick to clean products whenever possible. And remember, just because something is “natural” that doesn’t mean it’s safe to use. Asbestos is natural, too, but you don’t want to mess around with it.

Have you kicked toxic products to the curb? Let us know the ingredients you avoid in the comments below and help out your fellow cosmetic-enthusiasts.