The chemicals we apply to the skin, hair and nails are virtually anarchic. Or at least a capitalist dystopia.
While we can usually rely on government agencies such as the FDA to inform us about the foods we eat and the medications we take, cosmetics have very little impact. So how can we tell if the products we use contain dangerous carcinogens or other toxic chemicals?
With the help of dermatologists and researchers, we've created this concise list of dozens of common ingredients that fall into three categories:
- Red: Ingredients that should never be used on your precious skin or hair.
- Yellow: Ingredients to be further investigated.
- Green: Ingredients that sometimes get a bad name but may be ok to use as stated.
And if the products you use do not write their ingredients on the packaging or on the internet, maybe you want to ask what they want to hide from you.
Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde Releases: It may not just smell like high school science lab when you enter your salon, but the same chemical that has conserved these biology frogs may lurk in your hair nails, nail polish, Perfumes or soaps as preservatives. The known carcinogen may be listed under one of these names (as chemical companies rename their time-released versions): DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, quaternium-1
"Try to avoid it for two reasons: First, formaldehyde is obviously toxic," says dermatologist Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, MD, to Greatist. "Two, it's also pretty allergenic."
Triclosan and Triclocarban: The FDA has already banned these antibacterial additives from hand soap because they may be harmful as endocrine disruptors – meaning that they cheat the body. I think they are a hormone.
They are also not particularly environmentally friendly because they flow into the water and have the same effect on the wildlife there. However, there are still some hand sanitizers, wipes and toothpastes.
"Triclosan makes me nervous," says Dermatologist and RealSelf colleague Michele Green, MD, to Greatist. "If you only wash for five minutes with soap and water, it's much better than using this stuff."
Phthalates: These chemicals soften plastics for use in all areas, from pipes to detergents. These are also endocrine disruptors, some of which have been shown to reduce testosterone in men, and have been linked to obesity and ADHD in children whose mothers had been exposed to it during pregnancy.
The most dangerous of these phthalates is not in our cosmetics, but the CDC has classified two of them as safe enough: di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP) and diethyl phthalate (DEP).
During animal studies, they have been associated with birth defects and a low sperm count. Insufficient human studies have been done to see if this applies to humans as well. You will therefore continue to find them in products such as nail polish, hair spray and perfumes.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the two doctors, Green and Mudgil, agree that it is best to avoid all phthalates rather than waiting for someone to conduct these studies.
People who get cancer and have fertility problems, and all those things that you can detect in animals before we take a position, "says Nneka Leiba, director of healthy life sciences of the EEC.
Toluene: This chemical The use in paint thinners is also used in nail polish because the FDA believes that it is safe for us in very small quantities. It is only the people who are annoyed to get high, who suffer brain damage and harm their unborn children, right? Oh, and the people who work in nail salons.
In this case, it seems human to request a nail polish that does not harm people who are unable to decide themselves.
Hydroquinone: These skin whitening agents have been used for decades in over-the-counter creams as well as in prescribed medications, although bluish dark spots are known to be a possible side effect.
The fact that it was associated with kidney problems and cancer in rats was enough to get the FDA to restrict its use a few years ago. Then she gave in and said that more studies should be done.
In the meantime, the EEC recommends avoiding this, as do governments like Japan and Australia. Look for these names on the label: 1,4-benzenediol, 1,4-dihydroxybenzene, 4-hydroxyphenol, p-dioxybenzene, and p-hydroxyphenol.
1,4-Dioxane: Actually, you I can not find this carcinogenic chemical on any label because it was not intentionally added. As the campaign for safe cosmetics explains, it is created during the manufacturing process as companies try to dilute harder chemicals, for example, to make gentle lotions, bubble baths, shampoos and cleansers.
After washing off, 1,4-dioxane can also cause further damage in our water supply. To avoid polluting yourself and everyone else, do not use products that contain these ingredients: PEG compounds, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, polyoxynolethylene, and basically anything that contains a -eth or an oxynol.
Unfortunately, this includes many products.
Parabens: You may have already bought "paraben-free" products, but do not know why. Funny enough (not funny), scientists and dermatologists still do not know much more than you.
Parabens are used as preservatives – they keep these microbes away from our make-up and soaps – but they also mimic estrogen when they enter our body, which is why they have been tested for links to breast cancer.
So far parabens have been found in cancerous breast tissue, but a causal relationship has not been established. That was enough to get the EU to restrict the use of long-chain parabens, but both the European Commission and the EEC have found that short-chain parabens such as methyl paraben and ethyl paraben are only moderately dangerous (compared to a high risk).
"There is evidence that only the long-chain parabens – propylparaben, butylparaben, isopropparaben and isobutylparaben – are most associated with endocrine disruption," explains Leiba.
Mudgil's philosophy is that there is so little evidence in one direction or another: "If you find something that suits your needs and that is free of parabens, I would definitely say that you are trying."  Oxybenzone: Although it is alarming to learn that the CDC found this sunscreen ingredient in 96.8 percent of 2,517 urine samples in 2003-2004, it does not necessarily mean that all these people were killed. It has been shown to have a mild estrogenic effect on laboratory animals and affects the size of the mammary glands of mice.
"I think the jury is out," says Green. If you are worried, use a mineral-based sunscreen such as zinc oxide or titanium oxide instead.
Perfumes: We can not say with certainty that every product contains harmful chemicals that smell good, and that's the problem.
Cosmetic manufacturers are allowed to protect their secret formulations and use the all-round label "Duft" in ingredient lists. This can mean a combination of hundreds of toxic chemicals and the kind of "natural" ingredients that can cause allergic reactions.
Coal Tar: On the one hand, dermatologists say it is okay to use certain forms of coal tar to treat psoriasis, and the FDA says the amount used in products such as hair dye does not have this biological effect on humans. On the other hand, there is the fact that it causes cancer in animals and in the people who process it. The decision is yours.
Retinyl palmitate: Dermatologists recommend patients like retinol and retinoic acid – for the treatment of acne and signs of aging – because of the way they promote exfoliation and the production of new collagen.
However, retinyl palmitate is still reported in some lists of surveillance groups, such as EWG, because it increases sun sensitivity and, in one study, causes the development of tumors in mice.
"Retinoids have been an important pillar of skin care for half a century," Mudgil says, though he also warns patients against applying sunscreen, "which you should do anyway."
Petroleum: Even if you find petroleum products on the hit lists of some proponents of clean beauty, such as: Good old vaseline and baby oil, for example, is generally considered to be fairly safe.
EWG and others warn of potential problems if not properly refined and contaminated with carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). But dermatologists like Mudgil and Green are not affected, mainly because these products sit on the skin instead of being absorbed.
"You take such a small dose," adds Green. "You do not use crude oil for your face."