Using healthy cosmetics

Cosmetics are a part of everyday life for both men and women. Many people want to look good and feel good, and they use cosmetics to achieve this. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating consumers on the content of cosmetic products, states that women use an average of 12 personal care products a day, and men use about half that.

Because of the prevalence of cosmetics in society, it’s important to be an informed and educated consumer. Learn what’s in cosmetics and how they affect you and the environment.

Many people seek out beauty products that are formulated from healthy, nontoxic ingredients. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy for consumers to recognize which brands are actually healthy for them and the environment. Labels that claim products are “green,” “natural,” or “organic” are unreliable. There is no government agency responsible for defining or regulating the manufacture of cosmetics.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t have the power to monitor cosmetics as closely as it does food and drugs. The FDA has some legal authority over cosmetics. However, cosmetic products and their ingredients (with the exception of color additives) are not subject to FDA premarket approval.

In other words, the FDA doesn’t check to see if a product that claims to be “100 percent organic” is actually 100 percent organic. Additionally, the FDA can’t recall dangerous cosmetic products.

It’s important that you, the consumer, are informed and purchase products that are healthy and safe for you and the environment. Be aware that some chemicals in certain cosmetic products may be toxic.

To help you make informed decisions, here are four key categories of harmful ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products:


According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, surfactants are found in products used for washing. They break up oily solvents produced by skin so they can be washed away with water. Surfactants are combined with additives like dyes, perfumes, and salts in products like foundation, shower gel, shampoo, and body lotion. They thicken products, allowing them to spread evenly and cleanse and foam.

Conditioning polymers

These retain moisture on skin or in hair. Glycerin, a natural component of vegetable oils and animal fats, is produced synthetically in the cosmetics industry. It’s the oldest, cheapest, and most popular conditioning polymer.

Conditioning polymers are used in hair products to attract water and soften hair while swelling the hair shaft. They keep products from drying out and stabilize fragrances to keep the scents from seeping through plastic bottles or tubes. They also make products like shaving cream feel smooth and slick, and they prevent them from sticking to your hand.


Preservatives are additives that particularly concern consumers. They’re used to slow bacterial growth and prolong a product’s shelf life. This can keep a product from causing infections of the skin or eyes. The cosmetics industry is experimenting with so-called self-preserving cosmetics, which use plant oils or extracts to act as natural preservatives. However, these can irritate the skin or cause allergic reactions. Many have a strong odor that can be unpleasant.


Fragrance can be the most harmful part of a beauty product. Fragrance often contains chemicals that can cause an allergic reaction. You may want to consider avoiding any product that includes the term “fragrance” in its list of ingredients.

According to the FDA, the following ingredients are legally prohibited in cosmetics:

  • bithionol
  • chlorofluorocarbon propellants
  • chloroform
  • halogenated salicylanilides, di-, tri-, metabromsalan and tetrachlorosalicylanilide
  • methylene chloride
  • vinyl chloride
  • zirconium-containing complexes
  • prohibited cattle materials

The FDA also lists these ingredients, which may be used but are legally restricted:

  • hexachlorophene
  • mercury compounds
  • sunscreens used in cosmetics

The EWG also suggests more ingredients to avoid, including:

  • benzalkonium chloride
  • BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole)
  • coal tar hair dyes and other coal tar ingredients, such as aminophenol, diaminobenzene, and phenylenediamine
  • DMDM hydantoin and bronopol
  • formaldehyde
  • ingredients listed as “fragrance”
  • hydroquinone
  • methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone
  • oxybenzone
  • parabens, propyl, isopropyl, butyl, and isobutylparabens
  • PEG/ceteareth/polyethylene compounds
  • petroleum distillates
  • phthalates
  • resorcinol
  • retinyl palmitate and retinol (vitamin A)
  • toluene
  • triclosan and triclocarban

Choosing healthy makeup also means opting for packaging that’s safe for you and healthy for the earth. Jars with open mouths can become contaminated with bacteria. Airless packaging, which doesn’t allow bacteria to reproduce, is preferred. Pumps with one-way valves can keep air from entering the opened package, making contamination more difficult. Careful manufacturing processes keep the product sterile as it enters the bottle or jar.

Cosmetics are a part of life for many people, and their marketing can be misleading. If you use cosmetics or personal care products, be informed as to what exactly is in them. By reading the labels and doing some research you can make educated, healthy decisions when purchasing and using cosmetic products.