Some beauty ingredients have surprising links to carcinogens
When it comes to putting things into our bodies, we tend to take careful consideration of the ingredients and their origin, but somehow this important moment of reflection often slips us by when it comes to what we’re putting onto them. And while it’s increasingly crucial to check our food labels, we also need to be more discerning when it comes to selecting skin and beauty products. As the largest and most exposed organ in the human body, our skin will absorb whatever we put on or around it, making it especially vulnerable to infiltration by unsafe chemicals. In fact, 60% of what we slather, pat or spray on our skin daily is absorbed into the bloodstream.
It's no secret that most cosmetics contain chemicals, although recognizing their degree of hazard may be as difficult as pronouncing the chemicals themselves. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the average woman’s face is exposed to about 168 toxins from the 10-12 products she uses in her daily skincare and beauty regimen (men use about half as many products in their daily routine with an average of 85 toxic ingredients while kids get exposed to approximately 60 ingredients in a typical day). Horrified? So are we! But these alarming numbers can be significantly reduced if we became a little more mindful and educated about the substances we so freely use on our bodies.
To help you detox your beauty cabinet, we’ve compiled a list of seven harmful ingredients you should be wary of before buying your next lipstick, deodorant or face cream.
Parabens are a class of widely used preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria, mold, and yeast in creams, lotions, ointments, and other cosmetics, including deodorants. Sounds good, right? Not quite, there's more to the story. Parabens contain estrogen-mimicking properties that are associated with increased risk of breast cancer and have been identified in biopsy samples from breast tumors. Alarmingly, you can also find these dangerous chemicals in food and pharmaceutical products.
Derived from petroleum or coal tar sources, toluene (you may see it on labels listed as benzene, toluol, phenylmethane, methylbenzene), is a strong solvent that can dissolve paint and paint thinner. Commonly found in nail polish, nail treatments and hair color and bleaching products, toluene is a petrochemical that can affect the respiratory system, cause nausea and irritate your skin. Expecting mothers should avoid exposure to toluene vapors as it may cause developmental damage to the fetus. If you’re still unconvinced of its harmful impacts on your health, this potent chemical has been linked to immune system toxicity.
A colorless, flammable gas often used in cosmetics to help protect products against contamination by bacteria during storage and continued use. The two known categories of products with the most formaldehyde are hair straightening treatments and nail hardeners.
The most common side effect of formaldehyde in cosmetics is skin irritation, including scalp burns and hair loss. But the major concern is that formaldehyde causes cancer. The National Toxicology Program’s 2011 June report classified formaldehyde as a carcinogen under conditions of high or prolonged exposure—conditions typical for industrial workers and professional groups, including embalmers and even salon workers.
If you glance at your product label and notice FD&C or D&C, they represent artificial colors (F — representing food and D&C representing drug and cosmetics). These synthetic colors are derived from petroleum or coal tar source (lovely, isn’t it?). Banned by the European Union, synthetic colors are suspected to be a human carcinogen, a skin irritant and have even been linked to ADHD in children.
Commonly used as a skin-conditioning agent, propylene glycol is a synthetic organic alcohol. It has been associated with causing dermatitis as well as hives in humans — sensitization effects can be manifested at propylene glycol concentrations as low as 2 percent! Widely used because of its relatively low cost and versatile nature, it can be found in moisturizers, sunscreen, makeup products, conditioners, shampoo and hair sprays.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) / Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
This surfactant appears in more than 90 percent of personal care and cleaning products (think foaming products). SLS’s are known to be skin, lung, and eye irritants. A major concern about SLS is its potential to interact and combine with other chemicals to form nitrosamines, a carcinogen. These combinations can lead to a host of other issues like kidney and respiratory damage. They can be found in shampoos, body washes, mascaras and acne treatments.
A group of chemicals used in hundreds of products to increase the flexibility and softness of plastics. The main phthalates in cosmetics and personal care products are dibutyl phthalate in nail polish, diethyl phthalate in perfumes and lotions, and dimethyl phthalate in hair spray. They are known to be endocrine disruptors and have been linked to increased risk of breast cancer, early breast development in girls, and reproductive birth defects in males and females. You can spot them in deodorants, perfumes/colognes, hair sprays and moisturizers.
Finally, as a general tip try to always opt for products with as few ingredients as possible. That way, you can rest assured that you’re being exposed to fewer chemicals overall. While change is not always easy, it’s time to apply a more considered approach to our beauty regime. Nourish your skin as you do your body.
Green is beautiful
– Written by Sofia Sosunov