How much do you really know about what’s inside your makeup products?
Flip over your favorite mascara, concealer, or lip gloss and you might find a lengthy list of ingredients. How do you know they’re safe?
Read on to get the details on how to tell whether your makeup has toxic ingredients.
First things first: What does the term “toxic makeup” actually mean?
Rebecca Dallimore, founder of natural skin care brand Scintilla, says when people talk about toxic makeup, they’re often referring to nonnatural ingredients.
However, this is only part of the story.
“It’s important to understand that nontoxic doesn’t always mean natural, as there are many natural compounds that can be toxic to humans at certain levels,” she explains.
Dallimore says what makes an ingredient truly toxic is how deeply it’s absorbed through the skin.
While some products don’t make it through the epidermis (the skin’s first layer), other ingredients absorb fairly quickly through all layers of skin and into the bloodstream.
A study from 1984 showed an average of
Meanwhile, a 2008 study involving 20 teenage girls found that each participant had an average of 13 hormone-altering chemicals in their bodies.
According to Dallimore, it’s these easily absorbed ingredients that we want to make doubly sure aren’t toxic.
If you’re having trouble deciphering whether a product is toxic or not, leading Harley Street dermatologist Simon Zokaie of British Apples and Pears puts it simply:
“Toxic cosmetics are products that contain ingredients that might have a negative effect on your health. This can mean anything from a surface level rash to lifelong health issues and conditions.”
In short, toxic ingredients are known to have a harmful effect on your health.
Toxic makeup ingredients aren’t just harmful to the skin. They can have an impact internally too.
“The most widely reported impacts of toxic makeup and skin care products are the development of cancers, hormonal imbalances, and fertility issues, alongside conditions such as asthma, eczema, or dermatitis,” says Dallimore.
She believes the more serious effects, such as the development of cancer, hormonal changes, and fertility issues, are often the result of long-term, regular use of certain toxic products.
“The occasional use of a lipstick or perfume containing them shouldn’t cause major health issues,” she says.
However, a lot of the effects are still unknown.
“The research into the toxicity of many cosmetic ingredients is still fairly recent, but as time goes on we’ll have a clearer understanding of what exactly that damage looks like,” Dallimore explains.
There’s a lengthy list of ingredients found in cosmetics that you probably don’t want to put anywhere near your skin.
In fact, according to Dr. Najia Shaikh, founder of One Skin Clinic, there are more than 1,300 chemicals banned for use in cosmetics in the European Union due to questions over their safety.
In comparison, she says, the United States has only banned 11.
A 2021 study found that many common cosmetics have high levels of fluorine (also known as PFA), which is linked to fertility issues, common cancers, impaired immune function, and more.
Researchers found that 82 percent of the waterproof mascaras they tested contained a high volume of this harmful ingredient. Sixty-three percent of foundations and 62 percent of liquid lipsticks also had high fluorine levels.
What’s more, many of the harmful chemicals were not listed on the products.
If that’s given you cause for concern, you might like to know what else is lurking inside your makeup.
In the United States, it is against the law to use any ingredient that makes a cosmetic harmful when used as intended.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a list of
|chlorofluorocarbon propellants||aerosol||destroy Earth’s protective ozone layer|
|chloroform||solvent||causes cancer in animals, may be harmful to human health|
|halogenated salicylanilides||antimicrobial||may cause serious skin disorders|
|hexachlorophene||preservative||toxic effect and ability to penetrate human skin|
|mercury||pigment remover||allergic reactions, skin irritation, neurotoxic problems|
|methylene chloride||aerosol||causes cancer in animals, may be harmful to human health|
|prohibited cattle materials (usually fat or tallow)||texture, collagen||could lead to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as “mad cow disease“|
|sunscreens in cosmetics||color preserver||if not labeled appropriately, these products are subject to regulation as a drug rather than a cosmetic|
|vinyl chloride||aerosol||causes cancer and other health problems|
|zirconium-containing complexes||aerosol||toxic effect on lungs of animals and formation of granulomas in human skin|
|bithionol||antibacterial||may cause photocontact sensitization|
Shaik is also skeptical of a number of other ingredients. Some of these, like sodium laureth sulfate and petrolatum, are still up for debate.
Shaik’s list includes:
- butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
- butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
- dibutyl phthalate
- diethanolamine (DEA) related ingredients
- formaldehyde-releasing preservatives
- heavy metals, like lead, chromium, nickel, and cadmium
- parfum or fragrance
- polyethylene glycols (PEG) compounds
- sodium laureth sulfate
Many of these ingredients are listed differently on packaging or aren’t listed at all.
Parabens are used to extend the shelf life of a product.
The most common types are:
They may also appear as E218, E214, E216, and E209.
“The harm parabens cause is only a tentative link, but in the human body they mimic the behavior of estrogen,” says Dallimore. “It’s suggested that they can cause hormonal imbalances and contribute to the development of breast cancer.”
Still, more research is needed to confirm this.
Parabens are mostly used at very low levels, but because natural preservatives are still effective, Dallimore suggests switching to paraben-free products.
There are 5,000 types of polyfluoroalkyl (PFA) substances. They’re commonly used in cosmetics for their ability to repel grease, dirt, and oil.
Dallimore says that due to their long breakdown time, PFAs have been linked to a number of health issues, including:
- various cancers
- lowered birth weights
- negative effects on the immune system
Formaldehyde is used as a preservative, mainly in foaming cleanser products such as shampoo or liquid soaps. You’ll also find it in nail polish, false lash glue, and hair straightening products.
“Much research has been done resulting in formaldehyde being classed as a carcinogen, so it’s unlikely you’ll find it on ingredients lists now,” says Dallimore.
Still, there are several other common compounds that release formaldehyde, she says. These include quaternium-15 and bronopol.
Toluene is a natural ingredient found in crude oil and the tolu tree.
It’s often used as a stabilizer and antioxidant in nail polishes, moisturizers, or cream makeup products like foundations and concealers.
Dallimore explains that while toulen’s toxicity is low, it’s a skin irritant.
“Regular or long-term exposure could cause damage to health, as in higher concentrations, toluene can cause respiratory issues, impact immune function, and lead to cancers such as lymphoma,” she says.
Siloxanes and silicones
Siloxanes and silicones are used to give a soft feel to ingredients, whether that’s a dewy sheen in a moisturizer or a silky texture in a conditioner.
“They’re pretty bad for the environment, and although they aren’t absorbed that well through the skin, they have been linked with endocrine disruption,” says Dallimore.
There are healthy cosmetics out there. You just need to know where to look.
Much of this will be determined by your skin type and the kind of formulation you prefer.
Some people turn to natural or organic ingredients. However, it’s important to note that to be certified organic, products must meet the USDA/NOP organic production, handling, processing, and labeling standards.
The key is not to be duped by natural-looking packaging, meaningless marketing labels, and to thoroughly review the ingredients list.
Remember, formulations are listed from highest in volume to lowest. Look for things like:
- oils like jojoba, almond, or rosehip
- moisturizers like aloe, glycerin, or hyaluronic acid
- protectants like niacinamide and retinol
Reading cosmetic labels is a great first step in being informed about what’s in your products. However, you’ll need to know what to look for, which can take a significant amount of research.
“Lots of ingredients, including natural or nontoxic ingredients, have long, very scientific-looking names,” says Dallimore. “It can be hard to work out exactly what you’ll be applying to your skin.”
She advises identifying brands that align with your values.
Rather than memorizing a chemistry glossary, you can also use certification labels to quickly determine whether a product is up to your standards.
Look for official, third-party-regulated symbols rather than manufacturer labels that are used for marketing purposes.
Want to arm yourself with the knowledge you need to choose the healthiest products out there? Follow these pro tips below.
Count the ingredients
A quick way to decide whether you want to make a purchase or not is to count the number of ingredients listed.
Zokaie says to steer clear if the list is lengthy. Instead, stick with products that are simple and straightforward.
If you want to DIY, he suggests going back to basics with whole-food products. You can start with something you’ll find in your fruit bowl.
“Apples naturally help to stimulate blood circulation and tighten your skin,” he explains.
Follow these simple steps to get the benefits of apples for your skin.
“To reap the benefits of apples for the skin, extract the juice of an apple and apply it all over the face and neck area using a cotton ball. Allow it to dry and then rinse using water. Do this two or three times a week for best results,” Zokaie says.
Don’t be swayed by buzzwords
“Much more now, brands align themselves with various qualities for their products and operations,” Dallimore says. “You can be more certain that the products in their range all follow the same criteria.”
These qualities include:
- locally sourced
- certified organic
However, labels can be misleading, and some aren’t regulated at all. It’s important to do your research before you trust buzzwords like those above.
“It’s important to read ingredient lists, do your research, and educate yourself on the morals of the companies creating these products,” says Zokaie.
Look for third-party certification seals to verify whether claims like “vegan” and “cruelty-free” are the real deal.
In addition, Zokaie says to remember that 5 percent of the ingredients in these products are still unregulated.
“There’s still 5 percent of ingredients that don’t need to be natural or organic in order to claim a product is natural or organic,” he points out.
Conduct your own research
Sometimes harmful ingredients are given fancy-sounding names that make them difficult to spot.
If you’re unsure what a listed ingredient actually is, then do your own research to find out if it goes by any other names.
In this case, Google is your best friend.
Alternatively, you can input the product into the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. The website will generate a rating to tell you its level of toxicity.
Lessen your exposure
As Dallimore points out, some makeup products are only harmful with regular, prolonged use.
If you use a product for an occasional night out, it may not be a reason to worry.
There’s a lot more to certain makeup products than meets the eye.
Deciphering just what’s inside your beauty essentials can be tricky, but a little information can go a long way to ensure your makeup isn’t harmful to your health.
Victoria Stokes is a writer from the United Kingdom. When she’s not writing about her favorite topics, personal development, and well-being, she usually has her nose stuck in a good book. Victoria lists coffee, cocktails, and the color pink among some of her favorite things. Find her on Instagram.