Toxic Chemicals in Makeup You Should Always Avoid
If you’re not regularly reading your makeup labels (or don’t have a chemistry degree), you could be inadvertently exposing yourself to some pretty problematic chemicals in your makeup.
Although there are only about a dozen banned cosmetic chemicals in the US, the European Union has banned 3,000 risky chemicals. Why such a disparity?
Well, it’s a bit complicated.
The EU has long taken more of a precautionary approach to chemicals in cosmetics, and there’s solid data at the core of this strategy. Many manmade chemicals have been linked to serious health conditions, including certain types of cancers, birth defects, and neurological and reproductive issues. So the EU uses extra caution by keeping these chemicals out of products we put on our bodies.
The US takes a notably more relaxed approach to regulations. In fact, it’s so relaxed that regulations have not been updated for more than 80 years.
If you find this concerning, you’re not alone. Clean beauty, which excludes toxic chemicals in makeup and skincare, is becoming more popular these days as people take matters into their own hands, searching out products that do not contain harmful ingredients. Here at Kinder Beauty, we take the work out of navigating the world of clean beauty, since we maintain a strict standard so that all of the products we feature are entirely clean, vegan, and cruelty-free.
While not all chemicals are bad, it can be nearly impossible to tell the difference between harmful and not. What’s more, because a number of chemicals aren’t currently regulated in the US, it’s easy to assume that everything on the store shelves is safe. This can even be the case for products marketed as “clean” or “natural,” even when they contain toxic ingredients. It’s enough to put that long-lasting mascara to the test as you cry in frustration. (Spoiler: that long-lasting mascara is problematic. Read on!)
”In small concentrations, these chemicals aren't necessarily harmful,” says Nneka Leiba, Vice President of Healthy Living Science at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “But the truth of the matter is that we're using multiple products every single day… we're getting them in much higher concentrations than we should be.”
The EWG’s Skin Deep database lists thousands of chemicals and products. Some it has flagged as being of biggest concern include phthalates, oxybenzone, triclosan, and “fragrance.”
Parabens are also flagged on this list. “Parabens are a group of preservatives that are used in a wide range of products," Leiba says. "They're endocrine disruptors, meaning they're linked to hormone disruption, which is linked to so many things—infertility and thyroid disease, as just a few examples.”
So, you’re probably wondering: are there toxic ingredients in your makeup? What ingredients should you be on the lookout for? Let’s take a look.
Toxic chemicals in makeup
There are literally thousands of problematic chemicals lurking in makeup and skincare products, but we recommend being on the lookout for the following chemicals while you scrutinize labels. These ingredients are some of the most harmful, and unfortunately, can be commonly found in makeup.
Topping the list for a reason, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, respiratory irritant, and a common allergen often used to help preserve cosmetics and skincare products.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first classified formaldehyde as a known carcinogen in 1987. Concerns over the chemical first came to light through a hair care treatment known as the Brazilian Blowout. About a decade ago, customers and salon workers were reporting a range of issues related to exposure. An FDA investigation found the treatment contained more than three times the levels of formaldehyde than other straighteners.
Although you may not smell it, formaldehyde off-gases, which means you’re inhaling the chemical. Most research into the health risks looks at inhalation versus contact with the skin.
The EWG Skin Deep database gives it a risk score of 10 because of its links to cancer.
Look for the ingredient by its more common name, formalin. And be sure to read labels on your makeup, eyelash glues, and nail polishes to avoid the chemical.
Dibutyl and diethylhexyl phthalates
Dibutyl phthalates also earn an unflattering 10 in the EWG Skin Deep database—but not for high cancer risk. This chemical has been linked to reproductive and developmental issues and is also a known human respiratory toxicant.
Diethylhexyl phthalates (DEHP) is a restricted substance under California’s Prop 65, which requires companies to post warning labels for products containing harmful ingredients. The state also prohibits the manufacture, sale, or distribution of children’s toys and products that contain DEHP levels above 0.1 percent.
Phthalates, materials derived from an organic chemical compound called phthalic acid, are often used in plastics to make them soft and flexible. They can be added to cosmetics, including fragrance and nail polish, as a solubilizing agent.
Even if the product itself contains no phthalates, plastic cosmetic packaging comes with a high risk of phthalates leaching into the product over time, especially in warmer climates.
PEG compounds, also called polyethylene glycol, are common additives in cosmetics. They’re typically used as solvents, softeners, or thickening agents. While there is a range of PEG compounds, with some being more benign than others, they all run the risk of containing two known carcinogens: ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. The latter is persistent, considered to be one of the “forever” chemicals because it doesn’t break down easily, whether in your body or the environment.
Generally speaking, it can be difficult to determine if there are harmful PEG compounds in your cosmetics. They’ve even been identified in nearly half of products marketed as organic or natural, too. So if you can avoid them, we suggest you do.
Sodium laureth sulfate
While you’re most likely to find sodium laureth sulfate (SLS) in your favorite shampoo, it can also be used in some cosmetic products like lip balm, foundation, and even makeup remover.
Like PEG compounds, SLS runs the risk of containing harmful levels of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, increasing the risk of cancer and some neurodegenerative conditions.
According to the FDA, parabens are widely used in the personal care industry as a preservative. This is why your makeup doesn’t grow mold. But the antimicrobial properties of parabens can come at a serious cost.
Parabens have been linked to cancer, particularly breast cancer, as they can mimic the hormone estrogen. And while it may seem counterintuitive for a preserving agent, parabens may actually increase skin aging and cellular damage.
The FDA does not currently regulate parabens even though approximately 70 to 90 percent of cosmetics contain parabens.
Look for parabens listed under a few names including methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, or ethylparaben.
Makeup brands with non-toxic options
Making the switch to non-toxic makeup has never been easier. Not only is there a growing list of clean makeup brands, but some conventional companies are also starting to introduce clean ingredient products, too. While there are many out there to explore, these are some of our favorites.
From its very start, Āthr Beauty has been formulated without chemicals. Launched in 2018 by Tiila Abbitt, a former Sephora product development manager, Āthr Beauty eschews banned chemicals and animal ingredients, and always looks for sustainable options. In fact, if there isn’t a viable sustainable alternative, you won’t find a product in that category at Āthr Beauty until there is.
Shop gorgeous colors across eyes, face, and lip categories. And there’s even a crystal shop on the website, which inspires many of the color palettes.
Estate Cosmetics prides itself on being paraben-free. The Canadian, vegan, BIPOC woman-owned brand creates naturally pigmented and long-lasting cosmetics without using harmful chemicals.
Estate is your go-to for the latest in cosmetic trends. The company’s goal is to offer current colors and formulas without breaking the bank or harming any body. Estate says it creates luxury products without the markup because “quality should never be at a premium.”
Estate cosmetic's Just a Taste eyeshadow pallets were featured in Kinder Beauty's February 2022 boxes.
These days, there are more options than ever—whether you’re looking for simple make-up products like a tinted moisturizer, mascara, and a lip gloss, or you aim to go full contour, you have options that are better for your body, better for the planet, and better for animals, too.
Leiba says to look at your life and the products you use over and over again, “and then make small changes," she says. "At the end of the day, we're trying to lessen the body's burden. Any change you make is helpful."
Jill Ettinger is an LA-based writer and editor focused on vegan and cruelty-free living.