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Choosing Safer Cosmetics


Did you know that the FDA does not regulate the cosmetics industry? With a very few restrictions on ingredients, cosmetics can (and often do) go from lab to skin with zero testing for long term safety. For example, a recent study showed that over 60% of the red lipsticks tested (including by L’Oreal and Dior) contained traceable levels of lead. Guess where your lipstick goes when it disappears? That’s right: your mouth. And you thought that putting on toxic lead makeup died out in the Elizabethan period!

The bad news doesn’t stop there. Many of the ingredients in the products we use everyday – lotion, shampoo, deodorant – are also suspected carcinogens, irritants, neurotoxins, and immunotoxins. The average person comes in contact with well over 200 chemicals every day through personal products. It’s a scary world out there. Here’s how to navigate it.

Rule #1: Minimize product use. Even if you do find completely natural and safe replacements for all of your personal products, it never hurts to cut down on how many commercial products you use. A little research will offer you some very safe and inexpensive alternatives you can make at home. Pure vegetable fats such as shea butter, jojoba, olive oil, and cocoa butter make highly effective moisturizers, and ingredients like avocados, lemons, plain yogurt, honey, and sea salt can be easily made into food-grade masques and scrubs without the unnecessary chemicals.

Rule #2: Read labels religiously. Then buy only products in which the vast majority of ingredients are things you recognize and can pronounce. This rule won’t protect you from everything (see Rule #4), but you’ll avoid the worst offenders by sticking to it. If you’re not sure about an ingredient, look it up in the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. It’s the definitive resource on safety in cosmetics.

Rule #3: Ignore the marketing. Any cosmetic product can call itself ‘natural,’ ‘pure’ or even ‘organic’ without having to back up its claim. These terms are unregulated and essentially meaningless unless the ingredients and/or a USDA Organic logo accompany the claim. Don’t trust any product that doesn’t pass the label test!

Rule #4: Avoid. Here’s where it gets a little tricky. But if you follow the first three rules flawlessly, you won’t need to memorize the full list of ingredients to avoid. There are a lot more villains than the ones listed; these are just the incredibly common ones.

  • Fragrance. Over 3,000 unnamed chemicals could be compounded in this nondescript little word. Since you have no way of knowing which chemicals (considered a proprietary blend) are in a product, let alone which could be irritating, it’s best to leave anything with ‘fragrance’ on the shelf.

  • Synthetic color. If you see D&C and a number on anything, you may want to reconsider. Many synthetic colors are suspected carcinogens.

  • Mineral oil products. Also known as petroleum and petrolatum, these are byproducts of the oil industry. Mineral oil is a suspected carcinogen and biaccumulative substance. It also seals your skin like plastic wrap and is thought to cause premature aging. The cosmetics industry likes it because it’s much cheaper than plant-based oils. Ironically, one of its primary uses is as baby oil.

  • Anything that ends in –eth has undergone a process that produces a dangerous contaminant called 1,4-Dioxane, a known carcinogen. Sodium laureth sulfate, which is in many shampoos and bubble baths, is a very common ingredient that is worth avoiding.

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