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5 Non-Toxic Make-Up Ingredients To Avoid

By Rachael Curry

Did you know that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require safety tests for makeup products before they're released to unaware consumers? read that right.

There are only 11 ingredients and color additives that the FDA has actually prohibited. This might be shocking, until you attempt to read the ingredient names on the back of your bottle of foundation. If you can't pronounce any of them, you're not the only one!

Our skin is our largest organ. What we put on our face can penetrate into the deeper levels of our skin and be absorbed into our bloodstream. While it is not as literal as dabbing lavender essential oil on our wrist and wondering if it will show up the next time we have your bloodwork taken, there is some truth in knowing what we lather, rub, spray and pencil onto our faces can enter into our bodies. 

So, what exactly are we putting on our skin? And why is "clean beauty" (defined as beauty products composed only of ethical and proven ingredients) so important? 

In the EU, cosmetics ingredients must be assessed for safety before entering the market. Those that are linked to harm are restricted. Unfortunately, this level of oversight does not exist in the US, thus enabling cosmetic companies to prey on the unwitting US consumer as a test subject - which is both unethical and dangerous!

I am not saying you must immediately toss out all of your makeup products, shampoos, and cleansers, but I would argue that we should make the transition to conscious beauty. If we want to be healthy, not just in terms of diet and nutrition, but lifestyle, then let’s also start to make the shift in terms of how we are taking care of our bodies on the outside!

Let’s start with the basics as we make this transition to being more aware of toxins in our everyday products. Here are my top 5 to look for when searching for cosmetics and self-care products:

1. Parabens

According to the Environmental Working Group, (EWG), parabens can act like the hormone estrogen in the body and disrupt normal hormonal function. There is concern that exposure to environmental estrogens may contribute to the risk of breast cancer in women by changing the gene expression and accelerating the growth of breast cancer cells (Wróbel 2014, Okubo 2001). 

Long-Chain Parabens

Long-chain parabens, like propylparaben and butylparaben have been linked to

increased levels of estrogen activity. Most recently, European Chemicals Agency has

listed butylparaben as a substance of high concern and will be phasing out

products that contain this hazardous chemical.

2. Phthalates

Phthalates are another endocrine disruptor to watch out for. They are typically found in self-care products like deodorant and nail polishes - which add to the plasticity of the product.  

3. Ethylene Oxide

According to, this carcinogen can be linked back to breast cancer. It is commonly found in Formaldehyde. Ethylene oxide is on the list of what I call the “Unknown 7”. That is because there are 7 ingredients that US manufacturers do not need to disclose. While Canada and the EU are required to disclose the information, there is currently no legislation on the regulation of this toxic, cancer causing substance within the US.

Ethylene oxide is found in common products such as nail polish and eyelash glue, as well as baby soaps and shampoos. Since this is one of the “hidden” ingredients, the only way to avoid this carcinogen is by looking for ingredients that enable the slow release of formaldehyde such as:

  • Diazolidinyl Urea

  • DMDM Hydantoin

  • Imidazolidinyl urea

  • Quaternium-15

  • Tosylamide/Formaldehyde Resin

  • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate

  • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bronopol)

  • Polyoxymethylene Urea

  • 5-Bromo-5-Nitro-1,3 Dioxane

  • Methenamine

  • Glyoxal

  • Benzylhemiformal

4. Petroleum Distillates

These ingredients are often produced in the same location as the cancer-causing chemicals found in gas and oil. It is most commonly found in mascara - and besides the harmful chemicals, it can cause skin irritation and dermatitis.

5. Fragrances

Fragrances as a whole might seem like quite a large category. However, fragrances can be potentially harmful as the US does not require manufacturers to list the chemicals that their fragrances are actually composed of. So, when you see “fragrance” listed as an ingredient, it could be referring to a number of different chemicals. For those with sensitive skin, fragrances can be extremely irritating, and in others, can even cause potential allergic reactions. And because the actual chemicals are not disclosed, fragrances can sometimes be cancer-causing.

All of this information may seem overwhelming at first! It is hard to be conscious of what’s inside every product we purchase - from food, to cleaning supplies, to makeup, and more. It is also okay if you do not have the energy or resources to completely transform your beauty products. Perhaps there is just one type of product you’d like to think more consciously about, and that is a great place to start!

If clean beauty interests you, there are many brands within the US that have begun to focus on creating safe and ethical cosmetics:

Thrive Causemetics is one clean beauty brand that sells products free of parabens, phthalates, sulfates, and fragrances. Additionally, a percentage of their profits are donated to partners, several of which are breast cancer organizations including ours,!

Follain is another brand that has a laundry list of restricted chemicals for their products. They also use safety reviews and performance reviews to ensure that their cosmetics are both safe and good quality before entering the market. (Follain also has two storefronts in Boston, located in Beacon Hill and the South End!) They have also expanded to TX, WA, and MD as well!

Now, some major makeup retailers such as Sephora will even allow you to filter their products in order to view only the clean beauty products.

One easy way to make the transition to clean beauty might be to replace old products as you run out - such as purchasing a “clean” eyeliner when you run out of your old eyeliner. If you are someone who prefers to buy makeup at the drugstore, you might just look for products that have smaller lists of ingredients or lower concentrations of the ingredients above. There is never a bad place to start!


If you are interested in learning more about clean beauty, hear from reps at Follain, Ecothriver Cultivate Cleaner and Amy Ferraro Whitset who is an Independent Consultant for Beautycounter on the podcast, Breast Cancer Conversations.

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