By: Chloe Kekedjian
Photos by: Helena Yang
Natural beauty brands are on the rise, advertising protection against harmful chemicals. Before you start throwing away products, let’s assess which ingredients to watch and how much is just clever marketing. I read through FDA and CIR reports on cosmetic ingredient safety, so you don’t have to.
So first — what exactly is a cosmetic? The FDA regulates skin moisturizers, perfumes, lipsticks, fingernail polishes, eye and facial makeup, cleansing shampoos, permanent waves, hair colors, and deodorants, and all of these products’ ingredients as cosmetics. Soap is regulated separately.
Before we dive deep into the world of peer-reviewed studies, it’s important to have background knowledge on how cosmetics are regulated in the United States. Cosmetics are “not FDA approved, but FDA regulated”. What that means is ingredients in cosmetics do not need to be reviewed by the FDA before they go to market, but if there is data implying that an ingredient is harmful, then the FDA can study the ingredient and ban it or limit its usage. This means it’s probably best to exercise a bit of caution when buying and using cosmetics. There are some exceptions: color additives need to be approved by the FDA before used and some skincare products that are “for a therapeutic use, such as treating or preventing disease, or to affect the structure or function of the body” are regulated as drugs!
On their website, the FDA warns that “The source of the ingredients does not determine how safe it is. Do not assume that these products are safer than products made with ingredients from other sources. FDA does not define what it means to be labeled ‘organic’ or ‘natural’.”
Formaldehydes + Formaldehyde-releasing agents
Formaldehyde is probably a chemical you’ve heard of for its use in embalming (yikes!). There has been a lot of recent regulation around it, as the CIR concluded in 2013 that some hair straightening treatments contained unsafe amounts of the chemical (RIP me, who got this hair treatment in 2012). The difference between these hair treatments and the formaldehyde found in current beauty products is the quantity and form. These straightening treatments contain a lot of methylene glycol, which rapidly converts to formaldehyde, whereas most products contain small levels of formaldehyde that are slowly released. The FDA has assumed a greater role in the regulation of hair straightening processes that use formaldehyde, as the chemical can be carcinogenic in large doses and can also cause allergic reactions in some people.
Hydroquinone is a compound used in some skin lightening products or products that target hyperpigmentation, as well as some type of nail adhesives. These products can cause a lot of irritation and can be unsafe if left on for long periods of time, but are considered safe at 1% concentration in products that get washed off. Hydroquinone is considered safe in nail products that are LED cured (like gel polish). The main concern with hydroquinone is that it can cause skin irritation. If you are using a hydroquinone product, it is extremely important to wear sunscreen (which you should definitely do anyway!)
Sodium Laureth Sulfates
Sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate are chemical compound in soaps, shampoos, and toothpaste that enable products to be lathered on. There have been a lot of worries about their possible irritating effects, but they are present in small enough doses in cosmetics that their presence is generally nothing to worry about. They can be a little drying though, so if you have dry skin or hair you may wanna avoid them!
Parabens are a type of preservative used in a variety of cosmetics. While preservatives are generally viewed as scary and harmful, they serve an important role in preventing bacteria from growing in your products. The main controversy surrounding parabens involves the chemical structure, which is similar to estrogen’s. While estrogen is important for cell signalling in the human body, too much of it can cause breast cancer or have negative impacts on the female reproductive system. Both the CIR and FDA have concluded that “parabens have significantly less estrogenic activity than the body’s naturally occurring estrogen,” but the cosmetic ingredient review has currently reopened their study of parabens because of recent coverage surrounding them, so a new report will be issued soon.
The most common form of phthalates is diethyl phthalate (try saying that three times in a row), which is used in some eyeshadows, soaps, shampoos, moisturizers, perfumes, nail polish and hairsprays. Phthalates are used as emulsifiers and stabilizers. In 2002, the CIR Expert Panel reaffirmed its original conclusion that they were safe as currently used in cosmetic products. Based on this information, the FDA declared that there wasn’t a scientific basis to regulate them. The CDC advises that “more research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to phthalates,” as they have had some effects on laboratory animals reproductive systems.
Talc is a mineral used in blushes, eyeshadows, bronzers, powders and foundations. It gives makeup a powdery texture and also increases opacity. When talc is extracted, there are sometimes naturally occurring asbestos, but cosmetic-grade talc is required to have no detectable asbestos (the FDA conducted a study in 2010 where they tested a variety of cosmetic products and found none of them contained asbestos). The CIR has also concluded that talc is safe in its current purity levels.
The takeaway here is be smart! There’s no reason to panic about every Goop article, but it’s also a good thing to know what you’re using on your skin. If you’re interesting in checking your own ingredients, this CIR Ingredient Review Portal is pretty user friendly and lets you access peer reviewed studies with very clear abstracts.