Avoiding unhealthy ingredients in makeup and personal care products

If you cannot pronounce an ingredient, you probably should not eat it, right? (Butylated hydroxyanisole, anyone? Yum, yum.) I’ve been living this lifestyle since my 20s, and I’m heartened to see that more people are finally saying no to suspect ingredients and Frankenfoods – for themselves, their children and their pets. But what about cosmetics and personal care products?

An example of the #empties shots I post on Instagram. Our bodies absorb the ingredients in these products – so choose wisely.

The popular #Empties social media hashtag features photos of the empty cosmetics and personal care items that people used up in the past month. I’ve also jumped on the #Empties bandwagon, inspired by my friend Tina. When you scroll through skads of #Empties photos, you quickly realize how many unmentionables we are ingesting – through our skin and respiratory systems – via mainstream big brands that care more about profit than our health.

How our bodies absorb cosmetic ingredients

Have you ever actually read the ingredients of your shampoo, deodorant or night cream? They contain more unpronounceables than food label ingredients. We use deodorant, moisturizer, perfumes, soaps, toothpastes and shampoos daily, so we should scrutinize their labels with the same care and attention we give to our food. If you do not know what a certain ingredient is, chances are, it is unhealthy. Check out this list, published by Safe Cosmetics.

Make no mistake about it, your body is ingesting these chemicals. We:

  • Inhale sprays, powders and perfumes
  • Swallow bits of lipsticks, lip balms, lip glosses, toothpastes and mouthwash
  • Absorb chemicals rubbed into our skin and scalp (via lotions, perfumes, makeup, shampoos, etc)

Health risks associated with questionable cosmetic ingredients

Studies detected certain cosmetics ingredients (eg, phthalate plasticizers, paraben preservatives, the pesticide triclosan, synthetic musks, sunscreen ingredients) in the bodies of men, women and children. The worst part about this is that most of these chemicals are potential endocrine disruptors (Gray 1986, Schreurs 2004, Gomez 2005, Veldhoen 2006), linked to a string of health issues.

As if this is not bad enough, cosmetics often include “boosters” that help the ingredients penetrate your skin even more deeply. People exposed to common fragrance and sunscreen ingredients suffered a spectrum of maladies including increased risk of sperm damage, feminization of the male reproductive system and low birth weight in girls (Duty 2003, Hauser 2007, Swan 2005, Wolff 2008).

Seen in my bathroom
Seen in my bathroom – natural personal care products

Chemicals in personal care products – some facts

  • The EU has banned more than 1,000 ingredients from cosmetics. To date, the FDA has only banned 8, including (duh) chloroform.
    • The Food and Drug Administration does not exactly do the best job of monitoring our food, so it’s no surprise that cosmetic vigilance is low and even an anti-priority. According to the Environmental Working Group (a fabulous site), “The FDA has no authority to require companies to test cosmetics products for safety. The agency does not review or approve the vast majority of products or ingredients before they go on the market. FDA conducts pre-market reviews only of certain cosmetics color additives and active ingredients that are classified as over-the-counter drugs (FDA 2005, 2010).” The fact is there are far too many synthetic ingredients for the FDA to ever get ahead of.

How to choose healthy cosmetics and personal care items: resources and tips

The number one rule, just as with food, is to use products with ingredients you can pronounce. The closer to the source, the better. For example, diazolidinyl urea, No? Peppermint oil? Mais oui, ma chérie! If you want silky skin, the easiest and sometimes most frugal product to use is a natural oil, like coconut or almond oil. And don’t forget, good skin starts on the inside– so eat a healthy, varied diet, mostly plants.

Using natural products also includes additional upsides: for example, they are often vegan or vegetarian, are usually not tested on animals, and are better for the environment since they are commonly biodegradable. Win, win, win, right? Here’s a list of brands that still test on animals. Sigh. Boycott these brands, and write them and tell you why you are no longer purchasing their products.

Stop animal testing
Stop animal testing, already. 

It’s also important to note that even most natural brands are not 100% clean. Avoiding the top 12 toxic substances is a good place to start. Here are more tips:

My favorite natural personal care brands

I’ve been using mainly all-natural brands since I was in my early 20s when I happened to live down the street from a health food store. It was my “convenience” store, but in retrospect, it was also my self-care university, where I cut my teeth in nutrition and natural products. Back then,  only a handful of natural lines were available, but now, the shelves overflow with all-natural products for every taste and budget. Some of my favorites include:

Maple Holistics shampoo
Maple Holistics shampoo
  • Schmidt’s Natural Deodorant – so many intriguing scents to keep you stink-free
  • Andalou Skin Creams  – SPF day cream and luxurious night cream are my go-tos
  • Shea Moisture – Hair care and skin care. Impeccable ingredient lists and the products works.
  • Kiss My Face  – Shave lotion and body lotions that smell good enough to eat
  • All Aveda products – I especially like their Volumizing Spray and Foot Lotion
  • Natural shampoos and conditioners by Maple Holistics

What is your favorite natural care brand?

Please share as a comment, so others can learn from your experience.