How to Identify Potentially Harmful Ingredients in Your Beauty Products

Image: Toxic Beauty Documentary

The substances lurking on our bathroom shelves might be affecting both our health and the environment. Beatrice Murray-Nag explores the common synthetic ingredients to avoid, the lack of legislation around their regulation, and how we, as consumers, can find out exactly what is in the products we buy.  Benzyl Benzoate, Isohexadecane, Phenoxyethanol… sound familiar? No, me either. You can imagine my surprise, then, to learn that I actually put these multisyllabic substances on my face every day. Rather than belonging in a school science textbook, they are straight from the label of my make-up remover. These ingredients, plus many others, are all commonly found on our bathroom shelves. So how is it possible that I’d never heard of any of them before? The fact that I had to peel back a layer of the label to find them surely didn’t help, and even then, the text size required some serious squinting to decipher. But the simple truth is that I had bought from a reputable brand claiming to use plenty of natural, sustainable ingredients in their products, and I didn’t think twice about reading the small print. The label of my own make-up remover was a window into the vast world of controversial chemicals that make up our cosmetics. Worth £30 billion in the UK alone, it’s no secret that the commercial beauty industry has long profited by selling unrealistic aesthetics to the mass market. But it turns out that the deception runs deeper, and some of the ingredients used in these products have even been found to cause harm to both ourselves and our planet.

According to a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the average woman uses 12 products per day, resulting in exposure to 168 different chemical substances. “The chemicals that we put on our skin can penetrate into our bloodstream and adversely affect our health,” explains Ophélia Bierschwale, public relations manager at Yuka – a popular app founded in France, which allows consumers to scan food and cosmetic products to better understand the different compounds they contain. “Those ingredients can be allergenic, may cause irritation and sensitisation, exhibit endocrine disruption activities, be toxic to reproduction, or even carcinogenic.” When it comes to the most controversial yet commonly used chemicals, Ophélia highlights Petrolatum, which is derived from oil and classified as a carcinogen; Butylated Hydroxytoluene, which has demonstrated endocrine disruptive effects on thyroid function and may affect fertility and development; and Silicones, which have endocrine disruptive properties as well as being high risk to the environment. It’s not just our health that these cosmetics are harming – they are not good news for the planet either. Chemicals from our shampoos, soaps, face creams and make-up eventually find their way into our water systems, causing risk to marine life, and showing up in the water we drink. Take PFAS (per and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances) for example, which are commonly found in everything from face cream to foundation. This group of ingredients has earned the nickname ‘forever chemicals,’ as they can remain in the environment without breaking down for several decades. “The dangers which PFAS pose to the marine environment are similar to those posed by ocean plastic, a steady stream causing an ever-growing build up in the environment,” explains Francesca Bevan, Chemical Pollution Specialist at the Marine Conservation Society UK. “Studies conducted on dolphins, polar bears, otters and seals and have shown the negative effects of PFAS, for example, on their immune systems, blood, kidney and liver function.”

So how do we keep our bathrooms free from red-flag ingredients when the complex labels on our cosmetics are notoriously hard to get our heads around? Surely there must be legislation in place to protect us from substances that have been proven to be harmful? 

Yes and no; the answer depends on where you are in the world. Chemical regulation for cosmetics in the EU, for example, is undoubtedly an improvement on the US, where a lack of legislation leaves individuals almost completely unprotected. The EU has thus far banned 1,328 chemicals known to cause adverse health or environmental effects such as formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) and isobutylparaben (a hormone disruptor), but these are yet to be prohibited by the FDA. This means that the US cosmetics industry is left to self-regulate, and their products consequently still come laden with chemicals. 

And what about a post-Brexit Britain? According to The Guardian, our government is yet to make a formal commitment to uphold the EU’s chemical regulations. Add to that the plausibility of a new US-UK trade deal, and the regulation of cosmetic chemicals is set to be even more of a minefield. 

Then there are the loopholes. Take ‘fragrance’ for instance; ironically, it’s one of the more familiar words from the ingredient list lexicon. But this umbrella term actually covers a whole host of chemicals that could be used to make synthetic scents, and current legislation does not require them to be stated on the label. 

“Currently, the safety of fragrance chemicals is not determined by any governmental agency globally in any comprehensive fashion,” explains Daphna Rowe, founder of plant-based perfumery Lovorika. “Instead the fragrance industry has been trusted to self-regulate, and to establish its own safety guidelines for the use of fragrance chemicals. The current system for fragrance safety is run entirely by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) which is the industry association representing fragrance manufacturers. Essentially, it’s the fox guarding the hen house.” 

“Without proper fragrance ingredient disclosure, consumers have no way of knowing what they are being exposed to,” Daphna continues, highlighting the near impossibility of knowing exactly what these commercial beauty buys contain. “The most controversial fragrance ingredients of concern include known carcinogens such as styrene, pyridine, or benzophenone; or the use of phthalates, a hormone disruptor used to make scent linger.”

“Chemical analyses of cosmetics and personal care products containing undisclosed ‘fragrance’ ingredients have identified known allergens, asthma triggers, allergens, sensitizers, endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and neurotoxins, adds Lily Tse, founder of the Think Dirty app, which rates beauty products according to the safety of the chemicals they contain. “Even products labelled ‘fragrance free’ have been shown to contain fragrance ingredients, typically due to the use of these compounds as preservatives or as agents to mask the odours of other ingredients in the product.”

Without clear government guidelines to rely on, as consumers we must take on the terminology and check the ingredient list before purchasing a product. Fortunately, there are some powerful digital tools out there which help to equip buyers with the information the beauty industry fails to provide: exactly what risks these substances might pose, the studies that have been done on them, and how they have been proven to affect both our own health and that of the planet. 

EWG’s Skin Deep® is a great starting point. In the absence of proper regulation on cosmetics from the US government, EWG set out to use the power of information to protect human health and the environment. The result is an extensive database comprising information on over 60,000 personal care products and 150,000(!) individual chemicals. The Skin Deep team consult 60 different toxicity and regulatory databases in order to find studies on each ingredient and calculate its relative risk in three categories: Cancer, Developmental & Reproductive Toxicity, and Allergies & Immunotoxicity. The platform allows users to search for existing products, which are rated from one to ten, or do a deep dive on an individual chemical ingredient. However, it is important to remember that this is only a starting point. To be sure on the safety of an ingredient, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review search function offers up a widely respected second opinion.

Yuka (Europe) and Think Dirty (US) are both excellent apps, essentially allowing you to scan the barcode of a product to analyse the ingredient list before you purchase. While Yuka highlights the positive and negative substances comprised in the product, picking out any key chemicals to be aware of, and even recommending similar clean beauty buys to opt for instead. Think Dirty takes it one step further, with in in-built platform for you to purchase a range of approved products. 

It’s worth noting, nonetheless, that as consumers we can only work with the information we have available. Databases and apps can help us better understand our ingredient lists, yes – but until said ingredient lists are exhaustive and fully transparent, there will always be an air of the unknown as to exactly what we are putting on our skin. 

Driving real change in the industry means getting legislation pushed through, putting pressure on our governments and campaigning for change. After all, both our health and our Earth are dependant on it.