7 Beauty Ingredients To Avoid

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, we give you seven ingredients to self-police out of your life year-round.

We’ve already established that breast cancer awareness month perhaps may be a wee bit commercialized with tainted pink product. And by “wee bit,” we really mean as commercialized as a Kardashian wedding set in Vegas directed by Michael Bay. And that this over-commercialization, in fact, takes away from the message that being aware of breast cancer is a good and noble thing.

What’s more, as a writer who covers green beauty, nothing steams my kale more than the giant beauty companies getting in on the “pinkwashing” game. Yes, I’m talking about the companies who promote breast cancer awareness via area run/walks and plaster their product with pink ribbons while doing very little to actually take cancer-causing ingredients out of their lipsticks, mascaras and more.

Green beauty expert Stacy Malkan addresses this in her call-to-arms “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.” Calling out Revlon, Estee Lauder, and Avon, she writes, “When new knowledge comes to you that your product contains problematic ingredients, if you were authentic in your support for breast cancer, you would be vigilant in addressing that.” She further points out that the “pink-ribbon companies” defend their use of bad ingredients and actively work to keep their industry unregulated and self-policed.

Where does this leave us? The easiest way to ensure you are purchasing a safe product is to become a vigilant reader of labels. How best to do it without the chemistry degree it seems to require deciphering such labels? Here are seven ingredients to avoid that will be plainly listed on your product.

Of all the ingredients, fragrance is perhaps the sneakiest. The beauty industry has enacted so-called “trade-secret laws” allowing manufacturers to create synthetic chemical mixtures to contain as many as five hundred chemicals at a time. And what do they call these chemicals? Fragrance. In other words, you’re not just getting a delightful whiff of pleasant smell; you’re also likely getting a ton of masked, potentially-dangerous chemicals. And these chemicals may expose you to allergens, neurotoxins, hormone disruptors and more.

Listed as fragrance, perfume or parfume, they are in (yes) perfume, makeup, deodorant, body lotions, shampoo, soap and basically any beauty product that has a scent. Fragrance can also stand in for natural essential oils, which can be irritating to the skin. Basically, you just don’t know what you’re getting unless it is from a reputable brand or you run it through the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. (More on that later.)

These tiny particles are 80 times thinner than a human hair. Nonetheless, they are big in the beauty industry just now because they can deliver a product’s benefits in an effective manner. Unfortunately, this means that they can also deliver the product’s dangerous chemicals straight through protective layers of your body, such as the ones surrounding your brain and your womb. This could potentially cause cell damage.

Until there are more studies done on nanoparticles, sideline them from your makeup and sunscreens.

Phthalates as perhaps one of the best known criminals on the ingredients label, if only because no one seems to know how to properly pronounce them. (Some speculate that it is thall-lates.) Popular in just about everything, including makeup, hair spray, perfume, nail polish and more, they are suspected carcinogens and known hormone disruptors.

Like their phthalate cousins, parabens are also extremely common in beauty ingredients. These are the preservatives that keep your makeup, conditioner, shampoos, and lotions “fresh” on the shelves. Known hormone disruptors, they also may be a carcinogenic. They can prematurely age your skin. One study shows that they can contribute to a higher rate of wrinkling and sun spots on skin when exposed to the sun.

1,4-dioxane is not listed on labels; rather, it refers to a process called ethoxylation which occurs in the body from certain ingredients. These include PEG, polyethylene glycol, polyethylene, and polyoxyethylene, which have been used to reduce the risk of skin irritation for petroleum-based products. 1,4-dioxane is a known carcinogenic. Further, it was found in up to 48% of personal care products tested by the Environmental Working Group in 2008.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate
These are surfactants used in our shampoo, soaps, toothpaste and more to make them suds up. However, they are possible hormone disruptors. And the worst thing? Our old enemy 1,4-dioxane may be found in sodium laureth sulfate. So sacrifice a little suds for a lot a health. Luckily, the conventional beauty industry is starting to catch on with this ingredient as more and more brands are sporting the “SLS-free” label. And that’s a great thing.

This anti-bacterial agent and preservative is popular in body products from deodorant to soap to toothpaste and more. It’s a known skin irritant and does not have a conclusive positive effect on every day use. (Meaning, outside of a hospital where it is tackling a super bug.) Further, it may disrupt hormones and could be helping along a bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics. Instead, wash your hands with soap and water, and look for products that contain thyme, a natural and effective anti-bacterial agent.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed? You can always ease into green beauty by just pulling one or two ingredients from your products. Work your way up the list. Plus, there are several fantastic green beauty brands you can trust, as well as excellent purveyors of such product. Here’s one of our vintage pieces listing some great eco-beauty boutiques.

If you want to learn more about green beauty, be sure to consult the EWG’s Skin Deep database. You can run many beauty products and individual ingredients through this database for a safety ranking. For your nightstand reading, check out Stacy Malkan’s “Not Just a Pretty Face” and Siobhan O’Conner and Alexandra Spunt’s “No More Dirty Looks.”

And take heart – the first leap into healthy beauty products may seem daunting, but it gets easier with each positive step forward.


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Katherine Butler

Katherine Butler is the Beauty Editor of EcoSalon and currently resides in Los Angeles, California.