Reading the ingredients labels on cosmetics can feel like reading Russian, so it’s no surprise that most of us don’t check what’s in our skin care products before we toss them into our shopping cart or rub them on our faces. But if you’re not checking out what’s in your beauty products, maybe it’s time.
For years, major cosmetics companies have been inserting potentially dangerous chemicals into their products, erring on the side of cost savings rather than focusing on their customers’ health. Now that summer’s here – along with the prospect of a new, seasonal skin care regimen – flip that bottle over and see what’s really inside your beauty products.
Many skin care products contain preservatives, such as parabens, to lengthen their lifespan and kill bacteria. Because they’re cheap, cosmetics companies use ethyl-, methyl-, butyl- and propl- parabens, but these chemicals can irritate and harm your skin, and some of them even release traces of formaldehyde, a carcinogen. Parabens have also been linked to breast cancer.
Keep an eye out for – and avoid – these ingredients:
• Bronopol (often listed as 2-brono-2-nitropropane-1, 3-diol)
• Diazolidinyl urea
• DMDM hydantion
• Imidazo lidinyl urea
• Quaternium 15
Glycols are often used in moisturizers because they lock in humidity (they’re also used in industrial antifreeze, paints and floor waxes). These chemicals absorb into the body through the skin, and overexposure can cause kidney and liver damage. Some glycols have also been known to damage the reproductive system and cause birth defects.
There are several kinds of glycols: propylene glycol (a byproduct of petroleum), glycerin, ethylene glycol, carbitol and diethylene glycol. Scan the label for anything with methyl in its name as well as:
Sodium Laurel Sulfate (SLS)
SLS—which is also commonly used in engine degreasers, car wash soaps and garage floor cleaners—gives your beauty products that rich, foamy lather. Prolonged use of SLS can actually change the genetic information in human cells and can break down the protein in skin and hair. It has also been shown to cause cataracts and improper eye development.
When gasoline is produced, petrolatum is created through the distillation process. Although it’s used as a moisturizer, petrolatum actually has the opposite effect. It coats skin and clogs pores, keeping skin from “breathing” properly. This in turn prohibits skin from naturally moisturizing itself. Petrolatum can also stimulate sun damage.
Some moisturizers are made with synthetic colors. Because they’re based on coal-tars, many artificial colors contain heavy-metal impurities, such as arsenic and lead, which are known carcinogens.
Most artificial colors are labeled as D&C or FD&C with a number next to them. Keep an eye out for:
• FD&C Blue 1 (carcinogenic)
• FD&C Green 3 (carcinogenic)
• D&C Red 33 (shown to cause cancer)
• FD&C Yellow 5 (shown to cause cancer)
• FC&C Yellow 6 (show to cause cancer)
If you’re looking for a good moisturizer that leaves out the parabens, petrolatums, glycols and other nasties, check out Aveda’s All-Sensitive Moisturizer or Aveda’s Brightening Moisture Treatment.
Not all sunscreens are equal, and many contain dangerous chemicals. These chemicals protect the skin on its surface but can be harmful once they’ve absorbed into the body.
Look for sunscreens that contain zinc and titanium dioxide, two naturally occurring minerals. Burt’s Bees Chemical-Free Sunscreen is made with titanium dioxide, a naturally occurring mineral that reflects light, and it comes in both SPF 15 and SPF 30. Aveda also makes some moisturizers with built-in sunscreen.
Burt’s Bees Chemical-Free Sunscreen is made with titanium dioxide and is 99.11 percent natural. Photo Courtesy Burt's Bees.