Until recently, I thought the scariest thing in my bathroom was the hairball that gets caught in the shower drain every time I shampoo. But it turns out, there are plenty of scary substances hiding in plain sight, right there in my medicine cabinet. While other countries have cracked down on ingredients that can be used in beauty and personal care products, the United States has comparatively lax standards — the EU has banned 1,328 ingredients that are suspected to be harmful, however, the US has banned only 11 ingredients.
Think spending big bucks on beauty products makes them safer? That’s not necessarily true. Whether you’re buying beauty products from the drugstore or spending some serious dough at Sephora, you might be exposing yourself to potentially toxic ingredients. Here’s the rundown on 4 common ingredients to watch out for:
Fragrance is found in everything from face wash and deodorant to laundry detergent and household cleaners. The term “fragrance” is actually a blanket term that can cover any combination of 3,059 individual ingredients. Since the formulations that make up a product’s fragrance are protected under “trade secret law,” manufacturers do not have to disclose which specific ingredients are included in a product’s scent formula. Of particular concern, some allowed ingredients in fragrance are suspected to be linked to certain cancers and reproductive toxicity, and are a leading cause of allergies and sensitivities to beauty products.
To avoid the negative effects of fragrance, look for products that use scents derived from natural essential oils or opt to shop brands that have policies against using harmful ingredients in fragrance.
Parabens are very common preservative agents that help to extend the shelf-life of beauty products. Parabens are known endocrine disruptors and in a 2004 UK study, parabens were found to be present in the breast cancer tumors of 19 out of 20 patients studied. Admittedly, the sample size here is small, but it makes sense to avoid parabens altogether when the risks are so high. While the FDA has established guidelines to limit to parabens in individual products, the regulations fail to consider cumulative exposure when using many paraben-containing products over our lifetimes. The good news is that many natural brands have found safe alternatives that give products a shelf-life of up to a year.
Petrolatum is a common moisturizing agent in personal care products or used alone as petroleum jelly (we’re looking at you, Vaseline!). Just like the name implies, petroleum jelly is a byproduct of the oil-refining process. When fully refined, petrolatum is not harmful. However, when incompletely refined, petrolatum can contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are classified by the World Health Organization as known carcinogens. Again, US regulations fall short here. Whereas the EU requires a full refining history for petrolatum in cosmetic products, the US does not have any requirements.
Formaldehyde is another preservative used in many cosmetic products to deter growth of bacteria. It’s so prevalent, in fact, that it had the distinction of being named the American Contact Dermatitis Society’s “allergen of the year” in 2015. In addition to be irritating, it’s also known to be carcinogenic which has led to it being outlawed for use in cosmetic products in a number of countries including Sweden and Japan.
While lack of regulation in the US makes choosing safe personal care products confusing, you don’t need to get a phD in chemistry to make good choices. Apps like Think Dirty and web databases like the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database have done the hard work of reading ingredient labels, and flagging potential harmful ingredients to avoid.