If there’s one thing beauty lovers know (and, who are we kidding—beauty lovers know approximately everything), it’s that there are huge (like, Grand-Canyon-levels huge) discrepancies between American beauty products and foreign beauty products—specifically, the vast number of ingredients allowed in US formulations compared to the incredibly restricted formulations of beauty products overseas. And when it comes to cosmetic ingredients here, quality is definitely not favored over quantity, especially when we tell you that Americans are currently slathering thousands of chemicals onto their bodies every single day that are totally and completely unregulated. Yup.
Of course, when compared to the US, it may seem like other countries have gone a little overboard in their regulations. The European Union (EU), for example, has banned or restricted over 1,300 chemicals, many of which would never even appear in beauty products (jet fuel, anyone?), but even still, the US has only banned 11. It’s not that the US is slacking off per se, but unless a cosmetic contains an ingredient classified as a “drug” by the FDA, the product doesn’t need FDA approval before hitting the market. It’s up to the manufacturer to determine a product’s safety (which sounds as sketchy as it is).
What it really boils down to is a straight-up difference in strategy. The EU is more into taking preventative measures, so even though not every ingredient banned or restricted is necessarily harmful, the EU requires more information on ingredient safety before clearing them for use. The US, however, prefers to ban ingredients only when there’s enough scientific evidence to deem it necessary. Think of it like a helicopter mom (the EU) versus the mom who doesn’t open the screen door for anything less than a broken limb (the US).
And this is why the following seven hotly disputed ingredients are probably sitting in your makeup bag—or on your face—right now, despite having spurred a ton of (somewhat unsubstantiated) controversy over the years. But don’t freak out; we went to the experts to find out just how harmful these ingredients are, and whether or not they’re worth avoiding. But just in case you’re not into taking chances, or if you’re just feeling very European, we also found a ton of safe and equally awesome product alternatives to help you avoid the unknown, without compromising your beauty routine.
1. THE ACCUSED: PETROLATUM
TYPICALLY FOUND IN: Skin-care products, makeup, shampoo, conditioner, shaving products
Petrolatum—also known as petroleum jelly—is the grand poobah of moisturizers, and is classified by the FDA as a skin protectant. “Petrolatum is completely insoluble in water, so once it’s applied to dry or irritated skin, it forms a seal that locks in the skin’s natural moisture while also sealing out air, allowing the skin to heal faster,” says cosmetic chemist Joseph J. Cincotta, PhD.
But because the gel is derived from petroleum (crude oil), it runs the risk of containing trace levels of the cancer-causing agents found in crude oil, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), he notes. The thing is, you’re not actually slathering crude oil on your face, and only the highest-refined grades are allowed in cosmetics.
“Petroleum has a reputation for being dangerous due to a misunderstanding of the EU classification of toxicity,” says Al-Nisa Ward, cosmetic chemist and founder of Cosmetic Science Innovations in New Jersey, explaining that all grades of petroleum in the EU—from cosmetic to industrial kinds—fall under the same chemical registry number, giving people the misconception that petrolatum is carcinogenic. But in reality, the EU is totally cool with cosmetic-grade petrolatum being used in beauty products. Which makes sense why the FDA has also deemed petrolatum as safe and harmless for daily use in American beauty products.
Even though there’s no need to break up with your go-to lip balm or hand cream, you can still find natural alternatives that are, without a doubt, safe, like Avalon Organics Nourishing Lip Balm (contains essential oils and beeswax to protect your moisture barrier), Bite Beauty Multistick (uses sugarcane-derived squalane to hydrate skin), or Weleda Pomegranate Regenerating Hand Cream (formulated with organic shea butter to reduce moisture loss).
2. THE ACCUSED: PARABENS
TYPICALLY FOUND IN: Face and body cleansers, moisturizers, shampoo, conditioner
Parabens are a common preservative used in a bevy of cosmetics to help prevent bacteria, fungi, and yeast growth, which ultimately extends a product’s shelf life, says Ward, noting that parabens are almost always found in water-based products, like cleansers and lotions, because they discourage the growth of microbes.
Although parabens are generally used in products at concentrations of 0.3-percent or less, according to Health Canada, many organizations have voiced concern over whether or not cumulative exposure can eventually cause hormone disruption and reproductive toxicity, says Ward, which has led to the banning of certain parabens in the EU, Southeast Asia, and the Philippines. But because there’s currently no information that definitively shows that parabens mess with human health, the FDA considers them safe to use in US beauty products.
Ultimately, ditching parabens for greener pastures (get it?) is totally up to you, though we will say that we truly love these paraben-free alternatives: Original & Mineral Shampoo and Conditioner (uses phenoxyethanol as a preservative, which is derived from natural sources and, bonus, doesn’t release formaldehyde), Yes to Carrots Daily Facial Moisturizer (uses the preservative phenethyl alcohol, which is known for its antimicrobial properties), and Kiss My Face Body Lotion (uses sodium benzoate as its main preservative).
3. THE ACCUSED: HYDROQUINONE
TYPICALLY FOUND IN: Face and body cleansers, facial moisturizers, skin-lightening creams
Hydroquinone is pretty much the most-famous skin-lightening ingredient on the market. Not only does it does it break up the melanin in your skin to fade age spots, dark spots, sun spots, and every other spot as soon as you dab it on, but it also starts working within just a few months. Sounds cool, right?
Eh, not so fast. “Some initial studies of hydroquinone deemed it was a potential carcinogen—meaning it may cause cancer—and cytotoxic—which means toxic to living cells,” says Cincotta, though there are no reputable studies that can definitely prove this. As a precaution, though, the ingredient has been banned from cosmetics in the EU and is restricted in Canadian beauty products. The FDA, however, continues to monitor its use, and recommended in 2006 that additional studies be conducted before making a final determination for its regulation. Still, for now, the FDA believes hydroquinone is safe to use as prescribed. “In the US, topical treatments in up to two-percent doses can be sold over-the-counter, and up to four-percent can be prescribed by a doctor,” says Cincotta.
So long as you follow the directions on the label, there’s no real need to fret. But if you want to make the switch, you can still fade dark spots with Meladerm for Hyperpigmentation (uses natural extracts from mulberry, licorice, and bearberry plants to lighten skin within two weeks), SkinBright Skin Brightener (uses alpha-arbutin and kojic acid to decrease melanin production and gradually lighten skin), or Revitol Skin Brightening Cream (uses arbutin, an antioxidant extracted from the bearberry plant, to effectively fade skin discoloration).
4. THE ACCUSED: FORMALDEHYDE
TYPICALLY FOUND IN: Skin cleansers, hair-smoothing treatments, hair gel, nail polish
Even if you’re not quite sure what formaldehyde is, you’ve probably heard it being touted as an incredibly dangerous beauty ingredient found in hair-straightening treatments. And though it can definitely be harmful (it’s a known carcinogen, according to the EWG), it’s not just hanging around in your beauty products, or even in your hair treatments, says Kelly A. Dobos, cosmetics technical manager at Sun Chemical Corporation in Ohio.
Because formaldehyde is a gas, it’s not technically found in any of your hair treatments or cosmetics—it’s just the byproduct of a bunch of ingredients and preservatives mixing together to slowly produce trace levels of formaldehyde in a given product. And though research suggests that beauty products can release small amounts of formaldehyde into the air after they’ve been applied, the levels would be far below what’s considered hazardous, according to the American Cancer Society. “The levels of formaldehyde in beauty products are lower than what naturally occurs in fruits, like apples and pears,” says Dobos.
To be safe, formaldehyde has been banned from use in Japan and Sweden, while the EU and Canada enforce concentration restrictions. The FDA, though, doesn’t restrict the amount of formaldehyde used in cosmetics (since, technically, pure formaldehyde isn’t even used in cosmetics); however, an American ingredient safety panel has voluntarily issued guidelines saying that no more than 0.2-percent formaldehyde should be allowed in beauty products, which is the lowest possible amount that still has an effective anti-microbial effect.
Whether you decide to stick with your current cosmetics or not, you can still try these formaldehyde-free hair and skin alternatives: Farmacy Skin Savior Kit (the entire line uses natural preservatives, such as phenoxyethanol and citric acid), Bumble and Bumble Straight Blow Dry (uses phenoxyethanol, a natural preservative that doesn’t release formaldehyde), and Yuni Flash Bath No-Rinse Body Cleansing Foam (uses sodium benzoate and citric acid as preservatives).
5. THE ACCUSED: PHTHALATES
TYPICALLY FOUND IN: Skin cleansers, hairsprays, nail polish, scented products
Phthalates are commonly used as fixatives in fragrances to make scents last longer, and as flexible plasticizers in nail polish and hairsprays to keep nails from cracking and hair from morphing into cement. So, you know, all seemingly excellent things.
However, studies have suggested that phthalates may disrupt how your hormones operate (which, among other things, can cause problems for your immune system and reproductive functions) and possibly lead to cancer, which is why EU has decided to heavily restrict them. But because most of the research on phthalates has been done on either animals or in vitro, the FDA still hasn’t issued a firm, final stance on the family of ingredients, though it asserts that it’s still continuing to follow the issue.
“Even though the science isn’t conclusive, the use of phthalates in the cosmetic industry has dramatically declined due to negative consumer perceptions,” says Dobos, giving us some extra hope—or maybe fear?—to cling onto. For safer swaps, try Verb Ghost Hairspray (uses copolymers to set hair), Pacifica Beauty Spray Perfume (uses its own blend of natural oils, like grapefruit and orange, for fragrance), and Zoya Nail Polish (uses acetyl tributyl citrate as its plasticizer of choice).
6. THE ACCUSED: OXYBENZONE
TYPICALLY FOUND IN: Sunscreen, skin-care products, nail polish
Primarily found in sunscreens, oxybenzone (also known as benzophenone-3) helps prevent sunburns by absorbing both UVA and UVB radiation, says Jim Hammer, cosmetic chemist and president of MIX Solutions in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. You might also find it hanging around your SPF-infused cosmetics or nail polishes, since it’s frequently used to protect products from deteriorating or fading in the sun.
When it comes to safety, though, oxybenzone is a bit of a tricky outlier. Although it’s been linked to hormonal disruption and skin cancer, most of the research has been conducted in vitro or on rats fed very high concentrations of oxybenzone—way higher than anything you’d ever find in cosmetics—so the jury’s still out on how it may truly affect human health, especially in low doses.
Thankfully, even though the research is inconclusive, precautions have been put in place: The US and EU currently restrict concentrations of six-percent or less in sunscreens and 0.5-percent or less in other types of cosmetic products, according to the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC). Additionally, the EU also requires that any product with more than 0.5-percent oxybenzone be clearly labeled as such.
If the fact that your sunscreen or nail polish doesn’t have a glaring label on it freaks you out, try the Kiss My Face 3-in-1 Sunscreen (uses zinc oxide to shield skin from UVA and UVB rays), AquaSport Natural Sunscreen Face Stick (contains zinc oxide as an alternative), or Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics Nail Lacquer (uses titanium dioxide to protect colors from fading), instead.
7. THE ACCUSED: RETINYL PALMITATE
TYPICALLY FOUND IN: Anti-aging products, sunscreens, moisturizers, foundations, acne products
If you’ve ever had zits or wrinkles, you’ve probably encountered retinyl palmitate before. Retinyl palmitate is a type of retinoid (a vitamin-A derivative) that increases cell turnover to restore elasticity, decrease wrinkles and dark spots, and also improve the texture and look of damaged hair. Kind of a miracle ingredient, right?
Sort of. Though retinyl palmitate is often found in sunscreens, the EWG suggests that it may (ironically) speed up the development of cancerous skin tumors when exposed to the sun. However, this claim was made based on one study on rats, not humans, that used plain vitamin-A cream, rather than a sunscreen containing vitamin A, so, again—not the most reliable data. The FDA, Norwegian, and German health agencies have also raised concerns that applying any form of vitamin A (like retinol) to your skin while pregnant could potentially prove toxic to a developing fetus, but, like many of the ingredients on this list, it’s a judgement call.
Until more conclusive studies are done on humans, the Skin Cancer Foundation has issued a statement saying retinyl palmitate is not a concern, says cosmetic chemist and blogger Randy Schueller. But if you’re already concerned, try Nature’s Gate Aqua Block Sunscreen (uses zinc oxide), Yes to Tomatoes Clear Skin Deep Pore Scrub (uses salicylic acid to battle acne), and RMS Beauty “Un” Cover-up (uses tocophenol for its anti-aging properties).
Whether or not you subscribe to the notion that every risky-seeming ingredient is, actually, harmful, you can still totally avoid these seven ingredients without hugely destroying your current beauty routine. But just like most things in life, sometimes it’s better to just do your thing until told otherwise. And based on the sheer number of murky, rat-based studies, it looks like we still have a few more years (or decades) until science course-corrects us. So until then, you do you, OK?