With reporting by Manon Verchot
It turns out beauty is more than skin deep: The average person slathers, lathers, rubs and sprays, 10 different skin care products on his or her body every day--and since our skin acts more like a sponge than a barrier, we absorb the nearly 130 chemicals we regularly expose ourselves to. Cosmetics companies and the FDA maintain that these chemicals are safe, and many of them are--in small doses at least. But consider that the average woman wears makeup every day, and you begin to understand how a little dab here a quick spray there begins to add up. The fact is, no one really knows how certain chemicals affect us over time, or how they react in our bodies in combination. Other chemicals have known dangers: Phthalates, for example, which are often found in artificial fragrances, are a class of hormone disruptor which can be linked to birth defects, sperm damage, infertility, and the feminization of baby boys, for instance.
Almost 90 percent of the 10,500 cosmetics and skin care ingredients known to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have not been evaluated for safety by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, the FDA, or any other publicly accountable institution, according to the Environmental Working Group. To be fair, no one's dropping dead after a using a mascara wand or a body wash, and manufacturers have an interest in creating products that don't harm their customers. But complex chemicals with potential unknown side effects lead us to follow the Precautionary Principle. That is to say, if we'd prefer to err on the side of safety until we know. We're not the only ones who feel this way: More than 1,110 personal-product ingredients have been banned for use in cosmetics in the European Union because of concerns that they may cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive ills. By contrast only 10 are banned here in the U.S.
On the following page, you'll find our guide to choosing the safest, nontoxic products for your skin, as well as how to identify the most noxious ingredients you should steer your shopping cart clear of.
How to green your beauty routine
Don't be fooled by cosmetic advertising: Myriad creams, lotions, and potions at the drugstore and cosmetics counter make promises they could never deliver on. (Trust us, all the fancy products in the world will never turn the tide of aging.) Eye creams, for instance, rarely vary in formulation from your basic facial moisturizer. Our recommendation is to keep it simple: All you need is a basic cleanser, toner, moisturizer, and broad-spectrum sunscreen to keep your skin in tip-top shape. Everything else is just dressing.
Toxic synthetic chemicals are the biggest issue in the beauty industry today, so it pays to hone a keen eye when it comes to examining product labels. For example, it's counterintuitive, but unfortunately, the words "natural" and "all-natural" are not regulated labeling terms. A great resource is the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database site, which rates popular cosmetics and personal-care products with hazard scores on a scale of 0 to 10, depending on their toxicity.
A loophole in federal law doesn't require companies to declare any of the dozens of toxic chemicals that a single product's fragrance mixture could contain. Artificial fragrances, which frequently contain phthalates, can also trigger allergic reactions and other health problems. Be mindful of the hidden dangers that "fragrance" or "parfum" listed on ingredients labels can pose, and always choose fragrance-free products.
You can never go wrong with glass because it's recyclable and has no danger of leaching toxins into the product contained within. As far as plastics go, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), also known by the recycling code #1, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), #2, are most frequently accepted by municipal curbside recycling programs and are considered safe; polycarbonate (#7), may leach the endocrine disruptor bisphenol-A, or BPA. Polypropylene (#5), another food-safe plastic, is also a good alternative, though less easily recycled. (To find a polypropylene recycler in your neighborhood, visit Earth911.org.)
Avoid containers that bear recycling code #3 and the letter "V", which refers to polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. Dubbed "the poison plastic," PVC poses great environmental and health hazards from manufacture to disposal. In addition to releasing hydrochloric acid, cancer-causing dioxins, and other persistent pollutants into the air, water, and land during its production, PVC also contains additives and chemical stabilizers--such as lead, cadmium, and di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (a suspected carcinogen that is known to cause a host of reproductive and developmental defects)--that can leach, flake, or off-gas from the plastic throughout its life.
A skincare company is more than the sum of its products. What about its philosophy and values? Visiting a website is always enlightening; TreeHugger has also written about many beauty and personal care companies. Does the company test on animals, for example? Has it signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, a pledge to remove harmful chemicals from ingredients lists and replace them with safer alternatives? How committed is it to reducing its impact on the environment?
Organic ingredients are those grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, which is healthier for the planet and healthier for our bodies. Better yet are botanicals grown using biodynamic farming methods, which go beyond organic by emphasizing an even more holistic relationship between the soil, plants, and animals. The USDA National Organic Program has been certifying personal-care products since 2003, and an increasing number of organic skincare products now bear the USDA organic seal. To tell if a product is biodynamic-certified, look for Demeter U.S.A.'s stamp of approval on the label.
Used to make emollients for face cream or found in the form of coal tar for scalp-treatment shampoos, petroleum byproducts can be contaminated by cancer-containing impurities. A nonrenewable and environmentally unfriendly resource, petroleum barely belong in your car, let alone on your skin. Identify it on labels as petrolatum, mineral oil, and paraffin.
The best way to know exactly what goes into your skincare products? Make your own. Not only will you save money and packaging, but you'll also get the satisfaction that no preservatives or toxic chemicals were used in the process. You can whip up a simple, effective face mask using little more than honey and coconut oil, make a vegetable toner, or create a acne-fighting toner with green tea. And that's just for starters. Check out more of our DIY skin care treatments to learn more.
You don't have to resort to a flurry of potions and lotions, chemical peels, or surgical face-lifts to get fresh, glowing skin. Diet and exercise should play vital roles in your skincare regimen, as well. Besides working up a good sweat to keep nutrient-carrying blood circulating throughout your body, be sure to feed yourself plenty of protein, healthy fats (such as omega-3 fish oils or flaxseed oils), complex carbohydrates, and fruit. Drinking six to eight glasses of water is also a boon for flushing out toxins that might otherwise show up on your skin.
Every now and then, a bizarre new trend promises to be the magic bullet for all your skin care woes but ends up being downright cruel, whether to you or the planet. The use of human and cow placenta extracts is at the top of our list for being kooky and just plain crazy, especially since they contain a raft of hormones. Another weird practice du jour is the fish pedicure, which involves having dozens of tiny nibbling carp exfoliate your feet in 94-degree Fahrenheit water, a procedure we're sure is not PETA-approved.
Natural Skin Care: By the Numbers
- 4 pounds: Average amount of lipstick a woman will ingest over her lifetime.
- 11: Percentage of the 10,500 ingredients used in personal-care products that the U.S. government has documented and publicly assessed for safety.
- 1,110+: The number of ingredients banned in cosmetics in the European Union.
- 10: The number of ingredients banned in cosmetics in the United States.
- 600: The number of companies that have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics.
- 20: Percentage of personal-care products that contain at least one chemical linked to cancer.
- 22: Percentage of cosmetics contaminated with possible cancer-causing impurity 1,4-dioxane.
- $160 billion: Amount spent annually on skin- and hair-care, makeup, cosmetic surgery, fragrances, health clubs, and diet products.
Natural Skin Care: Getting Techie
1,4-dioxane: A known animal carcinogen and probable human carcinogen, according to the EPA. It's also a byproduct of a petrochemical process known as "ethyoxlation," which involves adding ethylene oxide (a toxin linked to breast cancer) to other chemicals to render them less harsh. More than 56 cosmetics ingredients are associated with 1,4-dioxane, including sodium laureth sulfate, sodium myreth sulfate, polyethylene glycol, and chemicals that end in "xynol," "ceteareth" and "oleth."
Aluminum chlorohydrate An astringent used as a topical antiperspirant or topical body deodorant. Aluminum is a neurotoxin that alters the function of the blood-brain barrier, linking it to Alzheimer's disease and cancer.
Ammonia: A compound used in hair dyes and bleaches. It releases a caustic, pungent gas that severely irritates the eyes and respiratory tract.
Dibutyl phthalate: A chemical plasticizer found in nail polish and mascara that helps prevent cracking. Studies have shown that it causes birth defects and harms male reproductive organs. DBP and other forms of phthalates are also frequently present in fragrances used in air fresheners, cleaning detergents, and hair sprays. A loophole in federal law allows phthalates to be included in fragrances without ever appearing on the product's label, which means that phthalates are more ubiquitous than we realize. A study from scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 17 phthalates, including DBP, in the bodies of all 2,636 persons they tested. More alarming, however, was the fact that women of child-bearing age, who could conceivably be pregnant and expose their fetuses to dangerous toxins while in the womb, appeared to receive the highest exposures--up to 20 times more DBP than the average person, well above the federal safety standard.
Formaldehyde: A preservative and disinfectant classified by the EPA as a probable human carcinogen. Found in cosmetics such as mascara and eye shadows, formaldehyde can cause nausea, coughing, and asthma symptoms, as well as burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat.
Lead actetate: Although banned from use in cosmetics in the European Union, this lead compound, which is a known developmental and neurotoxin, can be found in hair dyes and cleansers in the United States.
Hydroquinone: A skin-bleaching chemical, as well as a possible carcinogen, neurotoxin, and skin sensitizer. In high doses, Hydroquinone can cause a disfiguring skin disease called ochronosis, which results in irreversible black-blue lesions.
Mercury: Used as a preservative and antibacterial agent in cosmetics such as mascara, where it can be listed under the name "thimersoal," mercury can damage brain function even at low levels. Mercury can be found in eye drops and certain imported skin-lightening creams, as well.
Nanoparticles: Largely untested, these extremely minuscule particles are usually undeclared on product labels, even though they can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. You can find them in bronzers, eye shadows, sunscreens, and lotions.
Parabens (methylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, isoparapben, etc.) The most common preservatives used in cosmetics to prevent bacterial and fungal growth. Parabens can mimic the hormone estrogen, which some studies show plays a role in the development breast cancer and urogenital abnormalities.
Triclosan: An antibacterial compound found in cleansers, deodorants and other cosmetic products that is classified by the EPA as a probable human carcinogen. Overuse could also result in strains of drug-resistant superbacteria.
Toluene A solvent and nervous-system toxin found in some nail polishes. High amounts can affect kidneys and cause birth defects. It's also used to dissolve paint and as an octane booster in gasoline fuels used in internal combustion engines.
Natural Skin Care: From the Archives
Dig deeper into natural skin care with these articles from the TreeHugger archives.
All Natural Personal Care
How to Go Green: In the Bathroom
5 Foods that Will Make Your Skin Beautiful
9 Ways to get Naturally Gorgeous Skin Without Spending
6 Ways to Use Lemons in Your Beauty Routine
Detox Your Armpit
More About Toxins in Skin Care Products
20 Toxic Ingredients to Avoid When Buying Body Care Products and Cosmetics
All Our Vital Bodily Fluids Is Contaminated
Help! There's an Industrial Solvent in my Shampoo
Further Reading on Natural Skin Care
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
Teens for Safe Cosmetics
Environmental Working Group Skin Deep
The Green Beauty Guide
Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry by Stacy Malkan
The Green Beauty Guide by Julie Gabriel
Natural Beauty at Home by Janice Cox
Organic Body Care Recipes by Stephanie Tourles