Do Your Beauty Products Contain Toxic Ingredients?

Angela Cabotaje Fact Checked
© Juri Pozzi / Stocksy United

Your morning routine may go a little something like this: Shower, brush your teeth, do your hair, throw on some makeup and start tackling the bajillion things you have to get done that day.

But have you ever stopped to think about what’s in all that stuff you’re using?

Whether you favor a fresh face with minimal makeup or count a cat eye and bold lip as part of your signature look, your daily routine likely involves lathering, spritzing and swiping on a surprising number of beauty products.

According to a national poll, the average woman uses 12 personal care products each day. That amounts to a whopping 168 chemicals that are being absorbed into or layered onto your body.

Chemicals with names that don’t exactly roll off the tongue, either. (Try saying “diethanolamine” three times fast.)

So are these beauty ingredients mostly harmless? Or does your favorite eyeshadow actually come with a side of formaldehyde?

Here’s how to understand what’s in your makeup and what all those difficult-to-pronounce chemicals can mean for your health.

The ugly side of beauty products

When you powder your nose, you’re trying to cut down on shine, not dust your face with potentially dangerous ingredients. But that just may be what you’re doing.

A recent study detected arsenic, mercury, lead and other toxic metals in cosmetics that are on the market today.

In fact, many makeup, bath and baby care products sold in the United States contain well-known skin irritants, hormone-altering chemicals and cancer-causing substances called carcinogens. Over time, these harmful ingredients can cause rashes and hives, trigger headaches and affect hormones that control your body’s development and reproductive system.

“There are many different kinds of chemicals in these products,” says Sheela Sathyanarayana, M.D., M.P.H., a pediatrician at Harborview Medical Center who studies endocrine disruptions in women and children. “Some of the most common ones that we think about in terms of health toxicity are phthalates and parabens, and that’s just a small fraction of what’s out there.”

Phthalates and parabens — plus a host of other synthetic chemicals — affect the endocrine system, a network of glands that produces hormones to help control just about everything we do. They’re found in foods, plastics and, yes, cosmetics.

“In terms of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, what we’re worrying about is estrogen,” Sathyanarayana says. “Estrogen is important for breast cancer development, and there could be issues related to that as a result.”

Other notable beauty ingredients to worry about are triclosan (an endocrine disruptor), butylated hydroxyanisole or BHA (shown to cause stomach cancer and liver damage), boric acid (yet another hormone disruptor) and formaldehyde releasers (a human carcinogen that can also irritate skin).

Wait a second, you might be thinking. Can the relatively low doses of these chemicals in your favorite shampoo and beloved eyeshadow palette actually do much of anything?

“If you’re exposed once ever, no, but the reality is that most people use their personal care products every single day,” Sathyanarayana points out. “If you’re exposed to these chronic low doses combined with the impact of other environmental factors, that can have a real effect.”

Government regulation of cosmetics

Wait another second — doesn’t the government regulate this sort of thing?

Well, yes and no.

The FDA currently bans 11 ingredients from being used in cosmetics. But by comparison, the European Union bans 1,328 and Canada includes dozens of ingredients on its prohibited and restricted-use lists.

And while the FDA does monitor the safety of makeup and personal care items being sold in the U.S., it doesn’t approve products before they go on the market and has no authority to recall ones that have been deemed unsafe.

“The Food and Drug Administration has a baseline toxicity test that they do for cosmetics, but it’s not extensive,” Sathyanarayana explains. “There’s not a burden to prove that they’re completely safe before they’re introduced to market.”

That means you can unwittingly buy a conditioner that eventually makes your hair fall out (true story).

How to detox your bath and beauty routine

Before you chuck the entire contents of your makeup stash, try following these three simple tips to help clean things up.

1. Choose less toxic options the next time you buy

As Sathyanarayana notes, coming into low-dose contact with these harmful ingredients over a short period of time won’t have a profound effect on your health. It’s all about constant exposure from several different sources.

So the next time you run out of foundation, opt for a safer makeup item to replace it. If you do that enough times, all those minor changes can add up.

Certain websites and apps, like nonprofit Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, list out ingredients to avoid and give various personal care products toxicity scores, from lotions and deodorants to lip balms and nail polishes. This can help you make a more informed choice the next time you’re browsing the makeup aisle.

But in the end, if you decide there’s a certain blush that you just can’t live without, don’t sweat it. Committing to making small improvements in the products you use frequently or most often can help.

2. Don’t assume organic is better

While it’s tempting to choose items with “organic” or “natural” on the labels because they seem healthier for you, that’s not actually the case.

“If the company is using something like carrot extract in a face mask, then they could say that’s organic, which is just relaying that there’s not going to be pesticides or GMOs,” Sathyanarayana says. “That does not decrease your exposure to these other types of chemicals we’re talking about. So many of the chemicals that they’re using are still synthetic.”

Instead, try looking for products that specifically note they are free of parabens or phthalates. While this doesn’t automatically give those items a pass on everything, it can help you hone in on more ideal options.

3. Toss your old makeup

The potential dangers of your cosmetics don’t just lurk in the ingredients — they’re also in how long you keep that tube of mascara around.

Opened makeup is a breeding ground for bacteria, especially since it’s constantly coming into contact with your face, eyes and mouth.

One study tested several beauty products that were close to or past their expiration dates and found a strain of bacteria that causes meningitis in all of them. A case of meningitis definitely isn’t worth keeping that OG foundation around.

The FDA doesn’t require expiration dates on cosmetics, but some major brands do include suggested use-by timeframes.

Look for a printed best-by date or a tiny jar symbol with the number of months you should keep an item after it’s been opened. For example, “6M” means you should toss the item six months after it’s first used.

If you can’t find any use-by timeframes, follow general guidelines for when to toss various makeup and bath care products. To help you remember, write the date you opened each item directly on the package in permanent marker.

By keeping all these things in mind, you can make safer, healthier updates to your beauty routine. And the only makeup matter you’ll have to wonder about now is what shade of lipstick you should wear next.