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5 Cosmetics Ingredients to Watch Out For

Are they harmless? Are they harmful? When it comes to what you put on your face, sometimes it's better to be safe than sorry.

Considering that we slather them on our faces and bodies, lather them on our heads, and shellac them across our eyes, lips, and hands, it might surprise you to know that the U.S. government doesn’t really regulate the ingredients that go into cosmetics.

It’s true—although the FDA does ban some particularly egregious compounds (arsenic, chloroform, beef tallow) and regulate some other iffy ones (mercury), it’s pretty much a Wild West out there in makeupland, with us consumers trusting manufacturers not to sell us stuff that will kill us or give us cancer.

For the most part, the ingredients in cosmetics are—for better or worse—harmless. Even the scary-sounding ones. But corporations don’t stay in business by always doing what’s right for their customers. They stay in business by using the cheapest and most widely available ingredients, even if those ingredients aren’t the greatest. The next time you’re looking to stock up your beauty arsenal, think twice about any product that contains one of these problematic substances.

Formaldehyde
It’s a known carcinogen and neurotoxicant, it’s used as an embalming agent, and it’s commonly found in Brazilian Blowouts and nail polishes. The Environmental Working Group and other natural cosmetics advocates recommend limiting your exposure to hair straightening treatments and choosing “3 free” nail polish brands, which purport to be free of formaldehyde. However, a 2012 report by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control found that the most products advertised as being free of dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde, actually contained at least one of the three toxic chemicals. So buyer beware.

Lead
We’re long past the days when women smeared lead-based makeup on their faces—or are we? A recent report by the University of California-Berkeley School of Public Health found that common lipsticks contained traces of lead, along with chromium, cadmium, aluminum, and other metals. Lipstick is a particular concern since it ends up ingested—a heavy lipstick wearer eats up to 24 milligrams of lipstick per day. Although the FDA considers lead in lipsticks to be within “acceptable levels,” there is no established amount of lead that’s considered safe to consume.

Triclosan
Since it’s an extremely effective antimicrobial and antifungal agent, triclosan is commonly added to hand sanitizer, hand soap, body wash, toothpaste, acne products, deodorants, shaving products, and other cosmetics. Some studies have suggested that it may play a role in endocrine disruption, organ toxicity, and skin irritation.

Placenta
Many skin products, shampoos, and hair masks contain placenta or placental extract from animals in order to strengthen and nourish skin and hair tissues. Although it’s an effective and natural ingredient, some doctors are concerned about the effects of encountering large amounts of hormones. Placenta contains estrogen, progesterone, and other hormones, and a study found that coming into contact with placenta products was correlated with early puberty in girls. At the very least, it’s considered a possible endocrine disruptor.

Phthalates
The chemicals that increase flexibility and plasticity in hairspray and nail polish are much-maligned and often misunderstood. For most people, evidence is inconclusive about their long-term effects, although some studies suggest that they are endocrine disruptors. However, studies on pregnant women strongly correlate exposure to phthalates with delayed mental and physical development of their babies. Because of the risks associated with pregnancy, many states are in the process of further restricting phthalate use or trying to ban it altogether. 

Allison Ford

Allison is a writer and editor who specializes in beauty, style, entertainment, and pop culture. She was part of the editorial team at DivineCaroline (now More.com) for more than three years. She loves makeup, sparkly accessories, giraffes, brunch, Matt Damon, New York City, and ice cream.

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