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.
- Make Sure “Natural” Is Really Natural
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.
- Say No to Fragrance
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.