How To Figure Out Just How Many Chemicals Are In Your Favorite Beauty Products

Think Dirty AppAnother problem with relying on labels is that many products simply list words like “fragrance” or “parfum” as ingredients. Seriously, that’s like giving your vegan friend a hamburger and telling her it just has “food” in it. Once again, since Think Dirty uses data from scientific studies conducted by non-profit organizations and government agencies, it can fill in some of the blanks from the label.

If one of your favorite products has a high toxicity rating, don’t panic. ThinkDirty rates products with any unknown or controversial ingredients as “dirty” to warn consumers. Any product that lists “fragrance” as an ingredient automatically gets a high toxicity rating on Think Dirty. Similarly, my BareMinerals foundation is a 6 in part because contains mica, which is a common allergen and is sometimes contaminated with lead. Since I know I’m not allergic to mica, it should be safe for me to use as long as I don’t do anything crazy like inhale it or set it on fire.

It’s most important to stay away from cosmetics that are known to contain dangerous levels of carcinogens and toxins. In particular, you may want to avoid formaldehyde, lead, parabens, phthalates, and sulfates. Here are some important facts to keep in mind:

Formaldehyde: it’s not just for preserving creepy dead animals anymore…it’s now in cosmetics as well! A formaldehyde-and-water solution called “formol” is a common ingredient in nail polishes. Other common cosmetic preservatives, like sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, slowly release formaldehyde over time. Formaldehyde was classified as a known human carcinogen in 2011.

Lead is a neurotoxin that is not considered safe to ingest in any amount. The FDA has drawn some criticism for maintaining that the surprising amount of lead in lipstick is not a safety concern because lipstick is not intended for consumption. Maybe the FDA should research how much lipstick consumers ingest accidentally. In the meantime, don’t eat your lipstick, folks.

Phthalates are a class of chemicals found in many cosmetics. High levels of phthalates have been found to cause birth defects and hormonal changes in lab animals. In humans, they may be a contributory cause of breast cancer. All humans are exposed to some phthalates from their environments and their diets. The fewer, the better. (That is, unless you want cancer…then more phthalates might be better, I guess.)

Parabens are a class of compounds often used as a preservative in cosmetics. They may be a contributory cause of breast cancer development and hormonal changes, but the evidence is not yet definitive. Parabens can be absorbed through skin contact.

Sulfates are found in many soaps, shampoos, and other foamy cleansing products. They can cause skin irritation. Also, sodium laureth sulfate sometimes contains trace amounts of 1,4-Dioxane, which is thought to be a carcinogen.

Think Dirty has partnered with the Breast Cancer Fund and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. It was founded by an awesome young entrepreneur named Lily Tse. Tse describes the app as a “consumer revolution” and she hopes that it will empower consumers with information so that they can “vote” with their dollars for cleaner products. Put that way, the concept is inspirational. Just imagine if there were similar apps for detecting animal ingredients in food or unethically sourced materials in clothing. Our smartphones may make it easier than ever to put our money where our morals are. Thanks for thinking forward, Think Dirty!


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    • TheBeautyBrains

      This article is a bit one-sided, to say the least.

      If you really pay attention to the scientific literature you’ll see that cosmetic ingredients such as these are not likely to cause you much harm. You’re WAY more likely to get cancer from drinking alcohol, smoking, or just hanging out in the sun.

      Here are a couple of quick rebuttals for those of you who are interested in a balanced discussion:

      In all these cases the dose makes the poison. At high levels (as in some hair straighteners) formaldehyde is dangerous but when released at very low levels from preservatives it is not an issue.

      The amount of lead in lipstick is VERY small, not much of it is ingested, the amount that is ingested is not absorbed well by your body, and the amount that is absorbed is processed and excreted. Your body can get rid of far more lead than you consume from lipstick. (Instead you should worry about lead paint or contaminated soil instead.)

      The evidence seems clear that certain (but not all) phthalates pose a health hazard. But does that hazard mean there’s a risk involved in using phthalates in cosmetics? (Remember that the risk is a function of the hazard AND the degree of exposure.) Both the FDA in the US and the SCCP in EU agree that there’s no clear data that the use of these ingredients in cosmetics pose a measurable hazard to consumers. The FDA is continuing to monitor the situation while the EU has taken a more conservative approach and decided to limit the use of some phthalates to only trace levels. From a regulatory perspective, the EU now has three categories for phthalates:

      ▪ Accepted phthalates: This one is considered safe for use in cosmetics: DEP

      ▪ Banned phthalates: These are banned from being added to cosmetics but are allowable as “trace contaminants” up to 100 ppm: DEHP, DBP and BBP.

      ▪ Unregulated phthalates: These have not been regulated in EU but given their low usage (at least in perfumes) there is no quantifiable risk to consumers: DMP, DIBP, DCHP, DINP and DIDP.

      The most comprehensive study was published in 2011 which determined that Methylparaben and Ethylparaben were safe when used at approved levels (0.4% individually & 0.8% combined). Since these are the two most commonly used parabens cosmetic chemists still have good formulation options. They took some more time to look at butylparaben and propylparaben. And the latest SCCS opinion…these are safe when used at the suggested concentrations of 0.19% or less.

      Yes, these surfactants can be drying to skin – but so is soap! And the manufactures of these ingredients have limited the trace levels 1,4-Dioxane so there is no need for concern.

      • eastvillagesiren

        Thank you for being a voice of reason, facts, and objectivity. Seriously, do authors of these chemophobic, scare-mongering articles think that women are brainless, fearful idiots? I’m so over these poorly, if at all researched articles.

    • Lizzy

      Can we PLEASE stop using “chemicals” as short hand for “carcinogens and other harmful substances”? Because guess what: LITERALLY 100% OF EVERYTHING IS CHEMICALS. Organic apples are chemicals. You are chemicals. Water is chemicals. Chemicals are not inherently unsafe, much less unnatural.

      • eastvillagesiren

        Thank you! “Chemicals are bad” and “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t use it” are insulting to all sane, rational woman.

    • Priscilla

      After reading this article, I’m going to live only on water, plant my own vegetables and inhabit in a cave. Because who knows what’s out there that can give cancer. Am I right?

    • Wharves of Sorrow

      This is fearmongering! You can do better!

    • Ugh enough with the ignorance

      If you don’t understand what a “chemical” is, you should not be posting about them, and clearly, you do not. People need to learn that not everyone posting articles on the internet is qualified to do so.

    • Helpful Article!

      Thanks for this article. The Think Dirty App is a great discovery for me. I have many skin sensitivities including allergies to mica, gluten and fragrences. It can be difficult to find products that I can use and this app makes it easier for me to determine if a product is more likely to be safe…Especially when I have 2 kids and no time to stop and read labels while shopping! I could also quickly go through all my existing products and my kids products and see what I could use safely and what I should throw away. Besides my allergies, I simply would rather not have lead or formaldehyde ect. in my or my kids skin products regardless of whether or not the amount is dangerous.