The word “clean” has never been so, well, murky. When it’s applied to the serums and shampoos that we use every day, it can mean very different things to different people (and different brands and different retailers). That’s why we took it upon ourselves to analyze the research, talk to experts on all sides (toxicologists, dermatologists, chemists), and determine which ingredients we think a “clean” beauty product should not contain. There are those that could pose health risks (phthalates, formaldehyde); others are just potentially irritating to some (certain sulfates).
And others, frankly, are big old question marks. But with the clean beauty market expected to reach $22 billion by 2024, we’re going to keep looking for answers. So while we can’t resolve all the unknowns and confusion in this area today, we can be very clear about one thing: Any product that bears the Allure Clean Best of Beauty seal is free of these 15 ingredient classes. Here’s exactly what they are, and why some people are choosing to avoid them.
- 0.1 Chemical sunscreens (such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octinoxate)
- 0.2 Parabens
- 0.3 Phthalates
- 0.4 Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate
- 0.5 Silicones
- 0.6 Polyethylene and polypropylene (microbeads)
- 0.7 Metallic aluminum
- 0.8 Hydroquinone
- 0.9 PEGs
- 0.10 Triclosan
- 0.11 Talc
- 0.12 Mineral Oil
- 0.13 Petrolatum
- 0.14 Formaldehyde
- 0.15 Toluene
- 1 The Absorption Question:
Chemical sunscreens (such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octinoxate)
What are they: Ingredients that absorb UV rays to protect skin from their harmful effects (an alternative to “physical” or “mineral” sunscreens, which are also made in a lab but do their job by reflecting UV rays).
Why you might want to avoid them: In February, the FDA announced a new proposal on sunscreen safety noting that there’s not enough data on chemical sunscreen agents to determine whether or not they’re safe for humans. (The FDA has already declared two ingredients — PABA and trolamine salicylate — unsafe for use in sunscreen. But don’t worry: neither has been used for about 20 years.)
In May, a small, preliminary study published in JAMA showed that, as we’ve long suspected, these chemicals don’t just sit on the skin’s surface and can enter the bloodstream. It also uncovered something potentially problematic: They actually do so at levels that exceed the FDA’s recommended safety thresholds. But it’s important to note that there’s no proof that these chemicals are dangerous to humans — there just isn’t sufficient proof that they’re safe, either.
Still, you might not want to wear them in the ocean: Last year the state of Hawaii banned the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate because they’re suspected to damage coral reefs. The onus now is on sunscreen manufacturers to provide data to the FDA so it can evaluate ingredient safety and efficacy before it publishes a final report in November 2019. In the meantime, if you’re concerned, use sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, ingredients the FDA has already deemed “Generally Recognized as Safe and Effective.”
What they are: A family of chemicals (including butyl-, methyl-, and propylparaben) used as preservatives to extend beauty products’ shelf-life by keeping them germ and mold-free.
Why you might want to avoid them: Back in 2014, researchers found parabens — which are absorbed through the skin — could have estrogen-mimicking properties associated with an increased risk of breast cancers. Earlier research found parabens in women’s breast tumors (though it wasn’t clear that these came from cosmetics). But scientists have also found parabens in non-cancerous tissue, and the FDA says that there’s no conclusive evidence that long-term use of cosmetics that contain parabens is harmful.
“The research is still nascent,” says epidemiologist Kim Harley, an associate adjunct professor in the School of Public Health at the University of California Berkeley. “They’ve been shown to have weak estrogenic activity in the lab, but at this point, we don’t know how much they might affect human health.” Still, consumer concerns have led many companies to voluntarily remove parabens from their products.
What they are: Chemicals used to make plastics and other materials (like those found in nail polish, hairspray, soaps, and shampoos) more flexible.
Why you might want to avoid them: Some studies have linked them to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and breast cancer. Research suggests they could also cause reproductive issues, but a panel by the National Toxicology Program concluded these risks were “minimal to negligible in most cases.” One of the things researchers are most concerned about now: phthalate exposure in pregnant women.
A 2016 study from Harvard University discovered moms-to-be who were exposed to a phthalate commonly found in fragrances experienced weight gain and impaired glucose tolerance (higher-than-normal blood glucose levels) — risk factors for gestational diabetes. Other recent research found a link between exposure to certain phthalates prenatally and during early childhood and decreased motor skills in pre-teens. Many companies have removed phthalates over their potential risks.
Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate
What they are: Cleansers that trap oil-based dirt so it can be rinsed away from skin or hair with water. They also create lather and bubbles in shampoos, toothpastes, and soaps.
Why you might want to avoid them: The American Cancer Society has long since debunked the concern that sulfates cause cancer. The worst these cleansers can do is irritate and dry skin, especially around the eyes, and strip the color from hair dyes. If you have sensitive skin or want to extend time between your salon visits, there are plenty of sulfate-free shampoos and facial cleansers available from both drug store and prestige brands. They won’t produce the same lather as formulas that contain sulfates, but you’ll be just as clean when you rinse off.
What they are: Slippery, waterproof chemicals derived from silica, a form of sand. They’re used in primers, foundations, and lotions to fill in lines, and in conditioners and detanglers to make hair shinier and easier to comb through.
Why you might want to avoid them: Cosmetic-grade silicones are safe to put on your skin and hair; in fact, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) suggests silicone-based makeup can reduce redness and irritation in people who have acne and rosacea. But they might not be so great for the environment. In 2018, the EU limited the concentration of cyclopentasiloxane (D5) and cyclotetrasiloxane (D4) in wash-off cosmetics to 0.1% over concerns that they can accumulate in the water supply.
Polyethylene and polypropylene (microbeads)
What they are: Plastics found in microbeads, tiny spheres used in body washes, exfoliators, and toothpastes to supply scrubbing power.
Why you might want to avoid them: You’re unlikely to see these ingredients anymore, and that’s a good thing: Microbeads were banned in the U.S. in 2015 after scientists found the plastic orbs were making their way into open water, and potentially harming marine life that ingested them. Other countries, including the U.K., Canada, Taiwan, France, and New Zealand have also banned the beads.
What it is: A metal used as an antiperspirant to plug sweat ducts so they can’t release fluid to the skin’s surface.
Why you might want to avoid it: There was a concern in the past that aluminum could cause breast cancer, as most breast cancers develop in the part of the breast nearest the armpit. Recent research, however, doesn’t support that claim. (It’s more likely that cancer develops in this area because there’s just more tissue there.)
A few studies found high levels of aluminum exposure might lead to Alzheimer’s disease, but others found no associations. What aluminum might do: Mess with your microbes. Research published in the journal PeerJ found that antiperspirant users have fewer bacteria (including Corynebacteria, bugs associated with body odor) growing in their armpits than those who use deodorant or go au natural. But less might not be more in this case, since Corynebacteria may also protect us from the pathogens that can throw our skin’s microbiome out of whack and potentially cause skin conditions like psoriasis, rosacea, and acne.
What it is: A chemical skin lightener used to brighten dark spots and treat hyperpigmentation.
Why you might want to avoid it: Studies have shown that hydroquinone may be a carcinogen when ingested by rats, and it has been banned in Europe for many years. The FDA proposed a similar U.S. ban in 2006 but is still reviewing hydroquinone’s safety. In the meantime, the biggest concern is overuse. Too much hydroquinone can kill the cells that produce the pigment melanin, causing the skin to appear white, says cosmetic chemist Ginger King. That’s why the concentration is restricted in cosmetics: Prescription formulas can contain up to 4 percent; OTC creams are limited to 2 percent.
What they are: Polyethylene glycols — petroleum-based polymers used to soften skin and stabilize the oils in shampoos, creams, and lotions.
Why you might want to avoid them: There’s a big fat question mark about PEGs because research on them is scant. There’s some worry that they can be contaminated with potentially harmful chemicals like ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, a possible carcinogen, but the few studies that do exist on PEGs show they’re unlikely to penetrate the skin, so they’re considered safe. Some PEGs can be irritating, though, so if you have sensitive skin you may want to skip products with them.
What it is: An antimicrobial chemical found in toothpaste and some cosmetics.
Why you might want to avoid it: The FDA banned triclosan from OTC soap products in 2016 and in hospital antiseptic products in 2017 after lab studies linked the chemical to altered thyroid levels, cancer, hormone disruption, and antibiotic resistance. But it’s still allowed in toothpaste, and may help ward off gingivitis, according to the FDA. There’s still not a ton of research on how triclosan impacts human health, but a 2018 study published in the journal Human Reproduction found that the daughters of mothers who had higher levels of triclosan in their bodies during pregnancy entered puberty four to six months earlier than girls whose moms had the lowest levels.
What it is: A mineral used in eye shadows and face powders to absorb moisture and prevent caking.
Why you might want to avoid it: The research on whether talc itself is cancerous has been mixed, though several studies have shown a possible link between regular exposure to talc, which can be contaminated with asbestos — a known carcinogen — and ovarian, lung, and endometrial cancers.
Outside the lab, the consensus is equally inconclusive: In March, a California court ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay more than $29 million to a woman who claimed that long-term exposure to asbestos in the company’s talc products had caused her mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the internal organs); later the same month a New Jersey jury said there wasn’t enough evidence to prove J&J’s baby powder had caused the same cancer in a plaintiff there. The FDA occasionally spot-tests cosmetics for asbestos and investigates reports of contamination; earlier this year, they issued an advisory warning consumers not to use certain cosmetic products that tested positive for the chemical.
What it is: A lightweight moisturizing agent made from refined, processed petroleum.
Why you might want to avoid it: Untreated or lightly treated mineral oil is a known carcinogen, and like PEGs, there is a concern that mineral oil could be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane. A big but here, though: There’s no evidence that the trace amounts of these compounds in the ultra-refined mineral oil used in cosmetics is unsafe. “The biggest unknown is: what level of 1,4-dioxane is safe?” says cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson. “The studies so far have involved giving the raw material to animals; that’s not the same as applying a diluted version to the skin.” Some beauty consumers still choose to steer clear of it, though.
What it is: AKA petroleum jelly, a skin protectant derived from refined crude oil that helps skin retain moisture
Why you might want to avoid it: Chemicals in oil called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are a confirmed carcinogen but these are removed during the refining process, so aren’t a danger in cosmetics. Petroleum jelly doesn’t clog pores, but can trap other irritating bacteria against the skin.
What it is: A preservative added to beauty products such as nail polishes and polish removers to keep them fresh.
Why you might want to avoid it: The EPA has acknowledged formaldehyde as a possible carcinogen since 1987. Last year it was reported that the EPA had drafted a new assessment of the chemical that linked inhaling normal levels of formaldehyde vapor with leukemia — but that assessment has yet to be released. Researchers at the National Cancer Institute found a link between formaldehyde and the blood cancer in 2003.
Most recently, a study found that nail salon employees face potential health risks (including for cancer) similar to those working at an oil refinery or an auto garage, due to high levels of indoor airborne pollutants including formaldehyde.
What it is: A solvent used in nail polish (usually listed as benzene, methylbenzene, phenylmethane, and toluol on the ingredient list).
Why you might want to avoid it: Toluene fumes can be inhaled and absorbed through the skin. They’re typically flushed out within a day, but a small amount can build up in fat tissue. The EPA says toluene isn’t carcinogenic, but it can cause nausea, tiredness, and drunken-type actions. Reproductive effects, including miscarriage, have also been shown. All these negative effects occurred at toluene levels much higher than what you’d get from regular use of nail polish, but still most brands have phased it out of their formulas.
The Absorption Question:
There’s been a lot of ink spilled in recent years about what happens after we use a serum or foundation (aside from the smoother or more even skin part): “60 percent of what you put on your skin is absorbed by your body!” “Chemicals from beauty products soak into your bloodstream!” Here is the truth, as far as we know it:
- Yes, the beauty products that you use are often absorbed by your body. Many have to be in order to work, point out toxicologist Jean Krutmann. For example, serums are formulated to deliver ingredients like peptides and antioxidants deeper into the epidermis — they wouldn’t do much if they just sat on top of your skin. “You have to assume that whatever you put on your skin, sooner or later, some will get in,” says New York dermatologist Macrene Alexiades. The more often you apply something, and the more skin you cover, the more your skin is going to absorb. And if your skin is damaged (say, you have a condition like eczema), then you’ll absorb more, too. “But to say ‘60 percent’ — that’s a made-up number,” says Alexiades. “So many skin-care products contain ingredients like shea butter and petrolatum that are not going to be able to penetrate below the epidermis.”
It’s only the smaller molecules — especially those that are fat-soluble or ingredients that are encapsulated — which can reach the bloodstream. Many ingredients on this list have been found in the bloodstream, but they could’ve gotten there by other exposure methods, like ingestion or inhalation.
- While having ingredients from your beauty products coursing through your veins doesn’t sound great, the mere fact that a chemical shows up in your blood (or urine) does not mean it’s causing any harm to your body. “It’s all dose-dependent. Something may be toxic in high levels to a cell in a petri dish, but that doesn’t mean a topically applied product containing a small amount of that chemical is at all toxic” says Alexiades. Some may be toxic at certain levels but there are a lot of unknowns.