A look at the differences in EU and US cosmetic regulations, several ingredients often criticized in US cosmetics, and tips to help limit damage from potentially harmful ingredients.
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We deserve the right to control our bodies, and we deserve to control what goes in our bodies and what goes on our bodies. However, that can be difficult when consumer products contain so many ingredients and you don’t understand what they are.
Growing concern has arisen over the safety of many cosmetic products we use every day.
What we know about the current safety of cosmetics
The question of cosmetic safety comes down to the EU having banned over 1,400 ingredients for product use, while the US has banned only 30.
Many people are concerned about US cosmetics because the FDA, responsible for regulating food, cosmetics, and medical products in the US, doesn’t require product approval before something hits the market unless the product contains an ingredient the FDA classifies as a “drug.”
The US has more of a reactive approach to cosmetic ingredient regulation than the EU, only banning ingredients when enough scientific evidence has been accumulated to deem it necessary.
In contrast, the EU takes more of a proactive approach, where even not every ingredient on the banned list has been proven harmful, but they’re still banned unless they can be proven safe.
Assessing all ingredients in US cosmetics for safety is difficult. Regardless, several of the main ingredients that, after scrutiny, have been banned or more heavily regulated in the EU still make it into US cosmetics.
As mentioned earlier, a lot of ingredients are banned in the EU even if no scientific evidence exists to explicitly state they’re harmful. Still, it can be helpful to assess the evidence that declares these ingredients safe or harmful. Then you can make the decision for yourself whether to use products with these ingredients or not.
With companies like Beauty Counter, Hugh and Grace and the EWG (plus many more!), who work spread the word on dangers of products containing such ingredients as well as creating products that always exclude dangerous chemicals, steering clear of products containing these ingredients, is easier than you think.
Why we should care about what’s in our products
The average person puts nine products on their skin daily, which contain about 126 ingredients. Our skin is our biggest organ and it’s possible dangerous chemicals can be absorbed through the skin.
When we think about medications that we apply to our skin that rapidly get absorbed into our bloodstream, we can see that the skin has the ability to transport chemicals into our bodies. Examples of medications applied topically are hormone replacements and medicine for chest pain.
Here’s a list of some popular questionable ingredients we often find in American beauty and skincare products, which are banned from European products.
You may have heard of formaldehyde being used to preserve lab specimens. It’s a gas that can also occur in food, plants, and smoke. It’s used in cosmetics for preservative purposes. Furthermore, preservatives that combine to release formaldehyde also occur in cosmetics.
Formaldehyde can cause skin and eye irritation, headaches, dizziness, coughing, wheezing, sore throat, nausea, chest pain, and rashes.
It’s also a known carcinogen, meaning it can cause cancer. While levels of formaldehyde permitted for use by the FDA in cosmetics are low, and the risks to human health have shown to be “reasonably low,” the impacts of low doses of toxic chemicals from different sources, over time can create a problem.
There has, however, been conflicting research showing that higher amounts of formaldehyde occur in several hair straightening products than advertised. In fact, the formaldehyde occurred in higher quantities than is permitted for safe use by the FDA. And instances like this are becoming more common.
If you want to err on the side of caution, it pays to read product labels and use products from brands that you trust and don’t include dangerous ingredients.
The presence of formaldehyde can be hidden because it can be listed under different names, like formalin, methanal, methylene oxide, methylene glycol, methanediol, and formic aldehyde.
Fragrance is commonly found in most products because we want to use products that smell good. But fragrance should be viewed as a flag for hidden chemicals.
The problem with an ingredient listed as “fragrance” is that over 3,000 chemicals can be included in that one ingredient. While not all chemicals are bad, fragrance often includes endocrine disrupters and allergens.
By law, personal care product companies are required to provide the ingredients included in their products. But fragrance is classified under the FDA as a “trade secret,” which means they aren’t required to disclose what they are putting in their products if they can include it under fragrance.
While fragrance can be found in anything (including “unscented” products, which can use it to mask smells), perfumes and colognes consist of only “fragrance” which makes all their ingredients unknown.
Companies like Skylar and Henry Rose (a Wellness Trickle favorite) are disrupting the industry and listing all ingredients, which are also safe, to create beautiful smelling perfumes and home fragrances.
Parabens are used as preservatives in many cosmetic products, and they have the potential to be endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that mimic hormones in the body, like estrogen. This can lead to cell proliferation, causing cancer, as well as hormonal and fertility issues.
Although parabens in cosmetics are at concentrations that aren’t considered to cause harm, they have been found in breast tissue.
This shows that they can stay in body tissues, raising the concern that cumulative exposure could cause hormone disruption. It should also be noted that we may be using multiple products containing parabens a day – not just one – which can lead to more paraben exposure.
Many products now contain alternatives to parabens. And many brands also list parabens as an ingredient that is not allowed in their products.
Phthalates are compounds used in plastics to make them flexible and in skin care products to improve product consistency. They are another endocrine disruptor, but they’re still permitted for use in the US because the FDA doesn’t believe that they present a safety risk when used in cosmetics.
Because we can’t exactly do a double-blind study, exposing people to a harmful substance, it’s difficult to obtain concrete evidence that phthalates in cosmetics should be deemed unsafe. While studies show that phthalates are a carcinogen and endocrine disrupter, the FDA cannot confirm that exposure to these via cosmetics is the reason for the issue.
In an evaluation of a study done on potential genotoxicity of phthalates esters (PAEs) in perfumes using in vitro assays, it is stated “This study demonstrates for the first time the possible contribution of PAEs in perfumes to DNA damage and suggests that their use as solvents or fixatives should be regulated.”
Phthalates can also be hidden within the term “fragrance” on product labels and are used to enhance smells and make smells last longer. The FDA does require cosmetics companies to list every ingredient in a product on a box or label, but fragrance falls into a loophole, as mentioned above.
Fragrance is considered a trade secret, so companies don’t need to list the ingredients that go into making a fragrance. While this loophole is intended to prevent other companies from replicating any secret formulas, it also means that fragranced products can contain many chemicals and compounds you don’t know about, and phthalates are often used in fragrances.
Tips to help decrease potentially harmful substances in your life
Learn to read the label
Research takes a lot of time and a lot of money, so waiting for research to prove whether or not something is safe or harmful probably isn’t the way to go if you’re worried about potential harm from cosmetic ingredients.
But you can start by learning about potentially dangerous ingredients and reading product labels carefully. If you find any ingredients you aren’t sure of, you can look them up. The EWG has many great resources for looking up ingredients. Keep an eye out for any ingredients you’re concerned about and avoid any products that contain them.
Because companies don’t have to disclose all the ingredients behind a fragrance, you can opt for fragrance-free options as a precaution or purchase products that provide a list of fragrance ingredients.
Take it a step further and learn which companies provide great products and dedicate their companies to only providing products with safe ingredients. This ensures you can pick a product from a trusted company and know it will be safe.
Support your liver
Helping your body metabolize and get rid of harmful compounds and chemicals may prevent adverse health outcomes if these ingredients are proven to cause problems.
Your liver is responsible for many processes in your body, such as balancing glucose levels, metabolizing toxins and removing them from your bloodstream.
You can help your liver in many ways, such as by limiting alcohol. When you drink alcohol, your liver metabolizes the alcohol as the top priority. Thus, it won’t be metabolizing other substances in your body, like hormones and hormone disruptors.
Less alcohol can give your liver some space to process the things necessary for keeping your hormone system in balance and getting rid of any substances in your body you might not be aware of.
You can also help your liver by consuming more cruciferous vegetables, blueberries, and cranberries.
Cruciferous veggies, like brussels sprouts and broccoli, contain beneficial plant compounds that have increased liver-supporting enzymes. The substances in these veggies were shown to protect the liver from damage in animal studies. Similar findings resulted from studies on human liver cells.
Blueberries and cranberries contain antioxidants, which help decrease inflammation in the body. Research in mice shows that consuming these fruits helps protect the liver from damage and increases immune cell function, which is a bonus.
The bottom line
The US and EU have different regulations for cosmetic ingredients. While the EU takes more of a proactive approach, banning numerous substances before they’ve proven to be harmful, the US may only ban something after sufficient evidence proves it harmful.
There are several ingredients to watch out for in your cosmetics if you’re concerned about your health. Reading product labels, researching brands, and supporting your liver can help reduce exposure and the impacts of potentially harmful cosmetic ingredients.
The next time you are running low on a product, check your product’s ingredients, either by reading the label, or visit the EWG Skin Deep database. If your product is containing harmful ingredients, consider replacing it with a product with cleaner ingredients or an EWG rating of 2 or less.
Here are some brands to consider that we love. You can feel confident purchasing any products from any of these brands, as their entire companies are dedicated to limiting toxin exposure.
Beauty Counter: Great makeup and skincare products. Their products work like department store brands (think Bobbi Brown and Nars) but are tested regularly for safety. Beauty Counter bans all of the EU’s banned products and more. Our favorites:
- Think Big All in One Mascara
- Countermatch Regimen Set
- Flawless in Five
- Dew Skin Tinted Moisturizer – can be added with Flawless in Five set
- Color Define Brow Pencil – can be added with Flawless in Five set
Hugh and Grace: Founded and built upon specifically keeping endocrine disrupters (even natural products, like lavender) out of all products. They make their full list of ingredients available and have the most luxurious line of oils for your skin. Our favorites:
Henry Rose: A perfume company formed with the help of the EWG to create fragrance, which openly lists all their ingredients and are tested for safety. These are high quality perfumes that are along the lines of Jo Malone quality. Our favorites:
- Henry Rose Discovery Set – this is the best way to discover their different scents. This set comes with a $20 off coupon to use on a full-size bottle.
- Queens and Monsters
- Windows Down
- Flora Carnivora
Wellness Trickle is constantly researching products and companies to help you find trusted products and companies. Follow along for more recommendations.
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How do you limit your toxin exposure in your cosmetics and beauty products?
A great article. Thanks for doing the research!
Jennifer Farley says
Thank you so much, Minh!
Obsessed with the purifying cleansing bar!!!!
Thanks for the suggestion