How to be a label sleuth and choose cleaner beauty & personal care products

How to be a label sleuth and choose cleaner beauty & personal care products

The beauty products in your daily routine may seem harmless enough, but there may be some scary ingredients lurking in their formulas. Many labels read like science experiments chock full of chemicals we can’t pronounce—and ignoring them could be dangerous. 

Unfortunately, many of these chemicals make it to store shelves due to lack of regulation. Under the FDA’s Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, cosmetics are hardly regulated, which means companies often take advantage of the opportunity to market their products as they please. Companies can feature misleading marketing terms on their packaging without safety tests or verification. What’s more, the FDA only regulates 11 chemicals commonly found in beauty products, and companies are not required to report complaints to the FDA. 

How to be a label sleuth and choose cleaner beauty & personal care products

Common toxins to look out for

These are some of the most frequent offenders in bath and beauty products and where you can commonly find them.

Parabens: synthetic preservatives that may be linked to chronic health problems such as allergies, developmental and reproductive disorders, and cancer. They can also be harmful to the environment.

Commonly found in: shampoo, conditioner, soap, body wash, lotion, shaving cream, makeup, and toothpaste

Phthalates: solvents used to make beauty products last longer and often labeled as “fragrance.” Potential health problems include cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, birth defects, and neurological disorders. Since they are linked to bioaccumulation, they can remain in the body for life.

Commonly found in: perfume, cologne, hair care products, hair color, deodorant

Fragrance: The FDA does not require manufacturers to list out all the chemicals in their fragrance mixtures, so the vague term omits an average of 14 chemicals from product labels. Studies show fragrance is the leading cause of skin inflammation.

Commonly found in: any scented product such as perfume, cologne, hair products, lotion, and facial cleanser

Sulfates: chemicals used to create lather. The biggest concern about this chemical is its origin: Sulfates are derived from petroleum, and the production process is associated with climate change and pollution. In personal products, they can irritate eyes, skin, and lungs.

Commonly found in: shampoo, soap, face wash, toothpaste, bath bombs

Ethylenediamine Tetraacetic Acid (EDTA): a stabilizer that does not biodegrade. It’s also linked to skin allergies, contact dermatitis, reproductive and fetal effects, and kidney damage.

Commonly found in: shampoo, liquid soap, contact lens cleaner, cosmetics

Formaldehyde: a preservative found in many household products. It’s also used to temporarily preserve dead bodies in funeral homes and medical labs. While it’s not always used in products, some ingredients that are commonly used can release formaldehyde. When exposed to high amounts, it can be linked to cancer.

Commonly found in: cosmetics, lotion, shampoo, conditioner, soap, nail polish, and hair straightening products (some can release potentially toxic fumes when heated)

Propylene Glycol: a synthetic liquid that absorbs water. In beauty products, it’s used to maintain moisture in the skin. Repeated exposure can cause skin irritation and may have a negative effect on cell growth.

Commonly found in: skin cream and ointment

Toluene: a solvent that can cause severe irritation to the eyes, lungs, and skin. It can also damage the central nervous system and cause kidney and liver damage.

Commonly found in: nail polish, nail polish remover, hair color

Talc: a natural, chalky mineral that’s extracted from mines in the U.S. and around the world. While talc itself may not be proven dangerous, depending on the mine source it can be contaminated with asbestos.   

Commonly found in: Baby powder, cosmetics, deodorant, sunscreen

How to choose healthier products

Rather than clear out your medicine cabinet and start fresh, aim to replace each product as you run out to avoid emptying out your wallet (and losing your drive to switch to cleaner items). This will also allow your skin to slowly adapt to new ingredients. Even though you may be feeding it healthy ingredients, switching to anything new can result in some minor reactions or irritations. 

To figure out which products are cleaner, read the label to see if you’re able to recognize all the ingredients. If you’re unsure or don’t have time to spend an hour in the beauty aisle, check The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database to research the product or the ingredient. Each ingredient includes a hazard score and data availability score. (This measures the number of studies conducted on the ingredient.) You can also search by category to compare products by ranking and find the safest items for you. 

On the go? Download the Think Dirty app on your phone to scan barcodes and check verified clean brands while at the store. Each brand and product goes through a verification process before being included in the database. 

Whatever steps you take to make the switch, stick with simple, familiar ingredients, and take time to try out new products if you’re not in love with any of your purchases. 

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How to be a label sleuth and choose cleaner beauty & personal care products