Within my little social bubble, my friends and I spend time chatting about how we try to eat clean (within reason -- a girl's gotta live), take care of ourselves (hello, Sunday spa days), and live an active lifestyle. What we don't speak much about is how to clean up our acts when it comes to beauty products. But I recently learned some sobering facts that are forcing me to pay more attention.
Beauty is one of the least regulated industries in the U.S. The FDA doesn't approve products before launch, it can't recall products that are proven harmful, and there is no funding going toward better understanding this topic. As if that's not enough, the only piece of U.S. legislation regulating this industry was passed in 1938 and hasn't been updated since. Big brands constantly "greenwash" or mislead us by marketing their products as organic, natural, or plant-based, which are actually empty and useless claims. So the burden to identify and avoid toxic ingredients falls on us as consumers, and it's not an easy task.
The truth is we may never conclusively know the effects of the beauty products we use. It’s impossible to study in a controlled way, and the sheer number of ingredients we use daily would make it difficult to pinpoint causality to any potential negative symptoms. However, considering I plan to use some form of beauty products every day for life, I think it's worth educating myself and making some small tweaks. I'm still in the early stages of understanding how to be a more informed clean beauty consumer, so if you have any other tips, please spill!
Fragrance isn't a Real Ingredient
How do so many successful and respectable personal care brands manage to sneak harmful chemicals into products used by millions of consumers? Personal care and cosmetics companies are not required by the FDA to disclose ingredients considered "trade secrets," or what makes up their fragrance, color, or feel. This means that any shower, bath, skincare, or make-up product can include toxic ingredients listed under general "trade secret" terms -- for example, the word fragrance can actually contain up to 300 ingredients!
Endocrine Disruptors Will Disrupt
This may seem like a dumb question, but why does it matter if you absorb these potentially toxic chemicals? Couldn't they just exit your system as they entered and leave your body as they found it? Not quite. Some ingredients called endocrine disruptors mimic your body's hormones and interact with your endocrine system--the system responsible for regulating your body's key functions, like your metabolism, mood, thyroid, sleep, and reproductive processes. These disruptors have been linked to long-term health damage including reproductive issues, birth defects, sleep disorders, metabolic problems, and cancer. They most commonly include parabens, a category of preservatives that can hide under many names in many products. Pay special attention to ingredients ending in "paraben" on labels, such as butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, and ethylparaben.
Carcinogens in Cosmetics
Here's a terrifying fact: Known and probable carcinogens (ingredients that can cause cancer) can legally be included in any beauty product. One of the more common examples is formaldehyde, which has been a known human carcinogen for over 25 years. I think we can agree we wouldn't want to ingest formaldehyde and would avoid it if we noticed it on a label, but the tricky thing is knowing to look for the "formaldehyde-releasers" instead: DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quaternium-15, hydroxymethylglycinate, bronopol, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, 5-bromo-5-nitro-1, and 3-dioxane. Other carcinogens to look out for include BHA and BHT (butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene), PEG compounds (ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane), and petroleum.
Where to Begin
The process of beginning to clean up your beauty act can feel very overwhelming (and expensive)! Since most of the potential negative impacts occur after long-term repeated use, don't fret. You don't need to immediately replace everything you own, especially products you can't live without. Don't try to boil the ocean overnight. I started with products I use in the shower, like shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. For me, I don't feel as attached to these products, and they have the potential to cover more of my skin, so they have a greater impact than products such as eye creams or mascaras. Another method would be to start with products that cover the most body skin surface and stay on your skin the longest, like body lotion or foundation.
Clean Beauty Cheat Sheet
This is a lot to keep track of -- I totally get it. Here's a breakdown of which brands you can trust and which you may need to do a bit more research on:
Safe (most of their products are good for long-term use): Acure, Biossance, Drunk Elephant, Farmacy, Indie Lee, REN skincare, Tata Harper, Herbivore, Beautycounter, Briogeo
Okay (safeness really varies based on product): Tatcha, Josie Maran, Tarte, Caudalie, Korres, Avene, Tarte, Clinique, Glossier, The Ordinary, Sunday Riley, Tula, Skinceuticals, Hourglass, Supergoop, Burt's Bees
Dirty (most products contain dengerous ingredients): Neutrogena, Urban Decay, Laura Mercier, Murad, Dr. Dennis Gross, Dior, L'Oreal, Too Faced, Kiehl's, IT Cosmetics, Lancome, MAC
I likely missed some brands you use, and I'd encourage you to download the Think Dirty
app. It gives each product an overall rating from 1-10, explaining which ingredients are "clean" and which are "dirty." Also, if you'd like your retailer to do some of the filtering for you, try shopping at Follain
or Credo Beauty
, the Sephoras of clean beauty.