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Clean Beauty

Por Consumer Reports -

Our investigative reporter uncovers hidden makeup health risks, plus easy ways to spot safer products.

I've noticed something funny happening in the cosmetics aisles
lately. They've become overgrown with labels covered in flowers and other greenery and words like natural and healthy. The marketing gnomes behind the trend are definitely onto something. I've fallen for these products plenty of times. They made me feel like I wasn't just buying goop to smooth my rough spots and cover my dark circles; I was doing something good for myself and maybe even for the planet—that is, until I started reading the ingredients lists and learning about some of the potential health risks.

Lots of us are scooping up natural-sounding cosmetics. From
2005 through 2011, sales of “natural” cosmetics and personal-care products in the U.S. jumped almost 78 percent.
Big companies are cashing in on the trend by rolling out new products, retooling old ones, and snapping up smaller natural cosmetics companies. Burt’s Bees is now owned by Clorox, Tom’s of Maine got swallowed up by Colgate-Palmolive, and The Body Shop has become a unit of L’Oréal. Though many manufacturers are catering to shoppers looking for healthier cosmetics, the problem is some are doing it by changing what’s on the container—not what’s in it. Yes, there might be aloe or shea butter added, but there might also be lots of stuff you don’t want to rub on your body every day. (See our “Ingredient Watch List.”) No surprise, almost half of shoppers who buy “natural” or “organic” personal-care products say it’s hard to tell which brands actually live up to those claims, according to Mintel, a marketing research company.

Makeup Fake-Out

There are so many products masquerading as natural or healthy that a backlash is growing. And marketplace, regulatory, and legal threats are starting to have an impact. The manufacturer of Organix, for example, recently settled a lawsuit that charged the packaging on some of its hair and skin products was misleading, making it look like they were organic. Organix is now named OGX.

As a result of consumer demand, some manufacturers have been phasing out certain problematic chemicals. Procter & Gamble has promised to remove triclosan and DEP from its products by year’s end (both chemicals may, among other things, pose reproductive and developmental health risks). Avon is also stepping away from using triclosan. And Johnson & Johnson promised (in 2012) to remove toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde releasers and phthalates from its personal-care products. (J&J did that after criticism for removing potentially harmful ingredients from its baby shampoo in Europe but not in the U.S.)

Other trends that are making it easier to find safer cosmetics include new seals (see the next page), apps (at right), and retailer policies. Whole Foods screens all of its personal-care products for 48 ingredients. And it doesn’t sell any that make an organic claim without being certified organic. Products that earn the Whole Foods Premium Body Care label prohibit 400-plus ingredients, including those on our watch list.

Walmart said last fall that it will prioritize 10 problematic chemicals in personal-care products that its suppliers will eventually have to reduce or eliminate. And Target is asking suppliers for info about ingredients so that it can rate products’ safety.

Industry actions are already having an impact. A recent study found that Americans’ blood levels of hormone-disrupting ingredients known as phthalates have changed in the past decade, in part because of a ban on certain phthalates and because of efforts by advocacy groups such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

The good news pretty much ends there. The biggest problem is our cosmetics laws. The reason makeup is loaded with risky ingredients is because when compared with Europe, the U.S. is a regulatory free-for-all. In Europe, personal-care products can’t have chemicals known or even suspected to cause cancer, genetic mutation, reproductive harm, or birth defects. As a result, more than 1,370 chemicals are banned in cosmetics in Europe vs. 11 in the U.S.

The $70 billion U.S. cosmetic industry is largely self-regulated. Under the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act of 1938, cosmetics do not have to be cleared by the Food and Drug Administration before they’re sold. Instead, the industry-funded Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel oversees cosmetics’ safety. And so far it has reviewed less than 3,500 of the more than 12,500 ingredients used. (Yes, that means we’re all a bunch of guinea pigs!) Not only does the FDA lack the power to assess products safety but it also can’t even require full disclosure of ingredients or mandate recalls.

The Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), a trade group, says that cosmetics are very safe, citing statistics showing that in 2012, when more than 11 billion cosmetic products were sold in the U.S., there were only 381 adverse reactions. But companies don’t have to report adverse events, so that number includes only incidents the FDA learns about through its voluntary reporting system. And they are “generally believed to represent only a small fraction of total adverse events,” an FDA spokesperson told us, adding that “in most cases, there is no evidence of a causal connection between a cosmetic product and a medical event until many consumers develop similar problems and report a possible association with a product.”

Also, health problems generally result from chronic long-term exposure. Serious concerns such as reproductive harm or cancer caused by chemicals may not become apparent for 20 years or more, so the link can easily be missed. FDA officials finally seem ready to do something about that. After a recent tussle with cosmetic industry leaders to hammer out new laws, Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor put his foot down, declaring that the industry’s proposed legislation “could put Americans at greater risk from cosmetic related illness and injury than they are today.” He said one industry proposal would all-out eliminate state powers.

PCPC President Lezlee Westine says the industry wants a national safety standard so that consumers know the products they buy in Kansas are the same as the ones they buy in Florida. But more agile state governments have played a key role in protecting consumers. For example, California’s Proposition 65 law requires disclosure of ingredients known to cause cancer. And thanks to the California Safe Cosmetics Act, a public database was recently launched (check it out at In addition to cosmetics sold by retailers, it includes salon products, which usually are not required to disclose ingredients. When I took a peek at the database, I almost wished I hadn’t. For instance, I saw a report from Regis Corp.—which sells professional hair products and owns salons, including the Supercuts chain—that showed its Designline moisturizing shampoo contains toxic chemicals such as lead and arsenic.

Our best shot right now for tougher federal legislation is the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act introduced last year by U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky.The bill calls for the FDA to come up with a list of ingredients containing carcinogens and other toxins that would be banned. It would also require manufacturers to provide reports of adverse events to the FDA and give the FDA recall authority.

Shopping Smarter

Until the laws change, a nobrainer way to avoid many risky chemicals in your cosmetics is to shop at Whole Foods. (Check out its affordable 365 Everyday Value line.) If you shop in other stores, you can look for the seals on the facing page, download the apps on page 59, and go to and, which can help you pick safer products. Also, you can read ingredients labels using our watch list on the next page.

Be open to trying different brands. Dr. Bronner’s, a pioneer in natural cosmetics and a fierce advocate for high industry standards, is really different. Its wacky labels are covered with sayings such as “Absolute cleanliness is Godliness” and “We’re all-one or none!” There’s even a Rudyard Kipling poem wedged in there. As crazy as that sounds, Dr. Bronner’s is being taken very seriously now that the natural products market is exploding. The company’s sales rose to more than $75 million from $6 million in 1998, thanks in part to deals with Target and other major chains.

If you’re like me, you’re not going to load up exclusively on products such as Dr. Bronner’s soaps and make yourself crazy trying to avoid every problematic ingredient every time. Instead of tossing out my makeup bag, I’m experimenting with safer alternatives and selectively replacing products as they run out. I’m also paring down. Instead of using a night cream, a day cream, and an eye cream, I’m buying just one facial moisturizer, from Derma e. It helps simplify my life. And it makes me feel better about the stuff I’m buying, especially because I know I’m helping to support companies including Dr. Bronner’s, which are making safer products and prodding other companies to also do the right thing.

Ingredient watch list


  • Where You'll Find It: Hair straighteners, nail products, and eyelash glues.
  • Safety Concerns: Formaldehyde, a preservative, is classified as a human carcinogen when inhaled. When you use personal-care products with formaldehyde, you can expose not only your skin to the chemical but also your lungs. European regulators ban formaldehyde in aerosol products and impose other restrictions to limit exposure to the chemical.
  • What To Look For On Labels: Scan ingredients lists for formaldehyde, formalin, or methylene glycol.

Formaldehyde releasers and 1,4-dioxane

  • Where You'll Find Them: Anti-wrinkle creams, mascaras, makeup removers, hair conditioners, and body washes. They can contain preservatives that release formaldehyde over time or when mixed with water. Other chemicals that are used in makeup or as foaming agents in shampoo, toothpaste, and body wash can contain a contaminant called 1,4-dioxane. You won’t see it on labels because it’s formed as a by product during the manufacturing process.
  • Safety Concerns: Formaldehyde releasers pose the same risks as formaldehyde; 1,4-dioxane is a possible carcinogen that ingredients can release. It may be removed, but you can’t tell.
  • What To Look On Labels: There are many formaldehyde releasers, including quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin. Signs of 1,4-dioxane include polyoxyethylene and ingredient names that begin with “PEG” or polyethylene, or end with “eth” or “oxynol.”


  • Where You'll Find Them: Nail polishes, hair sprays, perfumes, deodorants, lotions, and other products with “fragrance” as an ingredient.
  • Safety Concerns: Diethyl phthalate (DEP), which is found in fragrance, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP), a plasticizer in nail polish, are deemed toxic by the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, based on animal studies suggesting they may pose reproductive and developmental-health risks. Europe bans DBP in cosmetics. In the U.S., DBP can be used in personal-care products but is prohibited in children’s toys. The phthalate found in hair spray—dimethyl phthalate (DMP)—is also of concern, but there have not been enough studies to gauge its potential health risks.
  • What To Look For On Labels:  To steer clear of DEP, avoid products with ingredients lists that include the word “fragrance.” Look for nail polishes and hair sprays that do not have DBP or DMP in their ingredients lists, or that claim they don’t have those chemicals.

Triclosan and triclocarban

  • Where You'll Find Them: Hand and body washes, deodorants, toothpastes, and some cosmetics.
  • Safety Concerns: Recent animal studies have shown that these antibacterial agents can affect reproductive growth and developmental systems. They might also be fueling an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Minnesota recently became the first state to ban triclosan in those products. The law won’t be effective until 2017, but some companies such as Avon and Procter & Gamble have stopped using the ingredients or have plans to discontinue their use.
  • What To Look For On Labels: Scan ingredients lists for triclosan or triclocarban. As you’ll see, those chemicals are easy to avoid. For instance, Colgate Total Advanced Whitening toothpaste contains triclosan, but Crest toothpastes don’t.

Coal tar

  • Where You'll Find It: Dandruff shampoos and ointments to treat skin conditions such as eczema.
  • Safety Concerns: Derived from coal, this complex mixture of hundreds of chemical compounds is classified by the U.S. National Toxicology Program as a known human carcinogen. There are known cases of skin cancer among patients using therapeutic coal-tar preparations. In Europe, coal tars are banned in cosmetic products, including anti-dandruff shampoos. In the U.S., federal regulations allow coal tar to be used in nonprescription products for treating dandruff, psoriasis, and similar skin conditions.
  • What To Look For On Labels: Scan product ingredients lists for coal tar.You may also want to avoid selenium sulfide, a coal-tar alternative used in some shampoos that is a probable human carcinogen based on animal studies. (A better bet: Buy anti-dandruff shampoos with active ingredients such as salicylic acid.)

Other chemicals to watch out for that are tougher to avoid

Coal-tar color

  • Where You'll Find It: Hair dyes.
  • Safety Concerns: One of the most widely used forms of coal-tar color is p-phenylenediamine, or PPD. Cancer studies of PPD have been worrisome though inconclusive, but evidence from an animal study suggests that it may be carcinogenic when paired with hydrogen peroxide, which is used to activate PPD in hair coloring. Dyes with PPD also may cause allergic reactions, skin irritation,and blindness if used on eyelashes or eyebrows. If you dye your hair yourself, wear gloves, don’t leave dye on longer than necessary, and rinse your scalp thoroughly afterward.


  • Where You'll Find Them: Makeup, face creams, and personal-care products such as toothpaste and sunscreen.
  • Safety Concerns: A Rutgers University study testing the effects of using blusher and other cosmetic powders with nanoparticles found “a strong potential” for breathing them into the lungs and upper airways in the throat and head. Nanoparticles are so tiny that they can cross the blood/brain barrier and reach other organs more easily than other particles can. Some companies boast about nano’s wonders. But many brands keep mum about it, and disclosure isn’t required. 
  • A 2012 study of liquid and mineral powder foundations, concealers, and other products from 10 brands, including Clinique, L’Oréal, Revlon, and The Body Shop, found they all contained nanoparticles. Tip-offs of possible nano ingredients: acrylates, alumina, carbon black, cerium oxide, colloidal gold, fullerene, iron oxides, platinum, silica, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide.

For more information on cosmetics and your health, download the complete guide from Consumer Reports here


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