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chemicals in your beauty products

Illustration by Katrin Friedmann

Reading time: 4 min

The chemicals in your skincare and beauty products

Ever had a weird reaction to a new lotion, lipstick or shave gel? Yeah, you’re not alone. Chemicals are in all the products we use on and inside our bodies. Makeup, tampons, toothpaste, you name it. Some are completely safe, some are untested, and some are even known to be harmful. So how do you distinguish the good from the bad?

Three categories of chemicals in skincare products you need to look out for:

Most chemicals are harmful when they act as one of these three types of classifiers. Now let’s define each of these.

  • Allergen — A substance that can cause an allergic reaction (1). For example: Fragrance, preservatives (2).

  • Carcinogen — Any substance that causes cancer (3). For example: Formaldehyde, mineral oils (4).

  • Endocrine disruptors — Chemicals that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune defects (5). For example: BPA, dioxin, phthalates (6). The endocrine system includes the pituitary gland, thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, adrenal glands, pancreas, ovaries and testicles (7).

The FDA currently only restricts the use of 11 chemicals (8), whereas the European Union has banned the use of over 1,300 ingredients (9).

Furthermore, a 2010 study stated, “With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.”

While many chemicals have been found to be safe in low doses (such as those in tampons) (10), there are two things to consider:

  1. Why aren’t companies required to disclose the complete list of ingredients?

  2. Do I want to use products with chemicals that haven’t yet been tested for their long-term safety?

Now that you know about allergens, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, what can you do to avoid them?

  1. Read labels: just like you read food labels, check the ingredient list of personal care products. Many of the ingredients that are toxic to your body are also toxic for the environment. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) put together this handy little guide to help you choose the safest personal care products.

  2. Look up ingredients: use the Think Dirty app or EWG’s Skin Deep database to look up the ingredients in your beauty products and their impact on your body and cycle. These tools not only tell you what to avoid, also why you should avoid them (11).

  3. Make your voice heard: do you just love your eye cream, but hate the chemicals in it? Then speak up and tell the company. Write them an email or organize a campaign on Twitter. When you make your voice heard companies listen, like CVS did.

Why should you care about the chemicals in your skincare and beauty products?

Your skin is your largest organ and absorbs the things you apply to it. This is particularly true for areas of the body where skin is thinner (EX: around the eyes or the vagina) (13).

In a 2016 study, researchers gave a group of 100 girls new beauty products that did not contain three harmful chemicals (phthalates, parabens and phenol) to use over a 3-day period. After three days the girls were tested again, and levels of those substances dropped by 20–45% (14).

By removing these potentially harmful chemicals from your daily or weekly beauty regimen, you can dramatically reduce your exposure and negative effects.

Want to learn more?

The Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics conduct research and publish science-based information on these subjects. You can find the results of their research here and here respectively.

Track your skin on Clue app to see how certain products affect you.

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