Skin-product recipes for disaster

What you're putting on your skin could be poisoning your system.
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Our society puts such high value on youth and vibrancy that we’ve become deeply attached to skin-care and cosmetic products. They clean us, add color and expression to our faces and make our skin and hair lustrous and fragrant. But the ingredients lists on many of these products are literal recipes for disaster.

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act does not authorize the FDA to approve cosmetic ingredients. (The only exception is color additives that are not coal-tar hair dyes.) In general, this means companies that produce cosmetics are free to use whatever ingredients they choose, except for those few that are expressly prohibited.

Here are some toxic ingredients found in products that may be sitting pretty on your beauty shelf.

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1. DEA

Why use it: DEA (Diethanolamine), sometimes abbreviated DEOA, is a substance used to produce other ingredients that add foaminess and creaminess to shampoos, body washes, bubble baths and waterless hand cleaners. One DEA offshoot – Cocamide DEA – is an allergen which studies have shown to be irritating to the skin and associated with contact dermatitis, says Alan Greene, M.D., a pediatrician and author of Feeding Baby Green.

Why lose it: The biggest DEA-related concern, says Greene, is its potential harm to  fetuses, says Greene. One animal study done on mice showed that the ingredient could damage the developing brain and memory by blocking the absorption of choline, a B-vitamin associated with infant development. 

Substitute: Opt for natural foaming agents, such as those derived from coconut oil.

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2. Parabens

Why use it: Parabens, the most widely used preservatives in personal-care products, prevent the growth of microbial organisms. Found in shampoos, moisturizers, shaving gels, makeup and many other items, the most common parabens identified on labels are methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben.  

Why lose it: “The biggest concern is that parabens might mimic the hormone estrogen which has been tied to certain types of breast cancers,” says Greene, noting that one study in 2004 found them in human breast tumors. Although researchers aren’t sure how the parabens got into the tumors or whether they caused the tumors to appear, the study has raised the question of whether personal-care products containing parabens are the culprits.

Substitute: Europe, whose laws regarding possible product toxicity are typically more stringent than those in the U.S., does allow the use of parabens. However, for more cautious consumers, the best solution is to choose products containing natural preservatives, such as citrus seed extract or antioxidants like vitamin E. 

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3. Phthalates

Why use it: Phthalates are often called “plasticizers.” It’s an apt description because this industrial chemical has been used for decades in the manufacture of PVC plastics. “Today dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is typically found in nail polish to make it chip-resistant and less brittle,” says Greene, adding that diethyl phthalate (DEP) is often a component of some personal-care products’ fragrance. Phthalates are also used in hairsprays to decrease the stiffness factor.

Why lose it: Some laboratory tests have shown that phthalates disrupt hormone function. Animal studies have tied exposure to DBP and another phthalate, DEHP, to abnormalities in male reproductive organs, says Greene. And in 2008 the journal Pediatrics published a study that noted some infants showed increased levels of phthalate metabolites in their urine.

Substitute: More research needs to be conducted on the safety of phthalates, says Greene. In the meantime, concerned consumers can opt for phthalate-free nail polish and other beauty products. Because government regulations don’t require manufacturers to list fragrance components – one of which might be a phthalate – it’s best to avoid all products containing “fragrance” as an ingredient, he says.  

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4. Formaldehyde

Why use it: Formaldehyde, a preservative that prevents bacterial growth, is found in many personal-care products such as shampoos, liquid body soaps and baby wipes. It’s also used as an ingredient – typically as toluene sulfonamide–formaldehyde resin – in nail polish, nail glue and nail hardeners, says Greene. It’s also been found in certain hair-smoothing products.

The challenge for consumers is that if products contain formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) – a well-known one is quaternium-15 – labels typically don’t list formaldehyde as an ingredient.

Why lose it: Formaldehyde, a known skin irritant and a carcinogen, can be absorbed through the skin. Canada restricts the amount of formaldehyde in products, and Japan and Sweden have banned the ingredient outright in cosmetics. Most studies that associate formaldehyde with cancer have shown the connection to be through inhalation of the substance or skin absorption.

Substitute: Because exposure to formaldehyde can come from many sources – and not every manufacturer may follow guidelines for permitted levels – opt for formaldehyde- and FRP-free products. This advice especially applies to people who’ve experienced sensitivity or allergic reactions to nail products, says Greene.

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5. Triclosan

Why use it: Triclosan is an antibacterial and antifungal ingredient found in many antibacterial soaps, gels, toothpastes and some cosmetics. Because of increased interest in keeping germ-free, especially during the cold and flu season, many consumers believe a product’s use of triclosan is an added benefit, says Greene.

Why lose it: Although one study on a popular toothpaste containing triclosan was effective in preventing gingivitis, animal studies have tied triclosan to hormone disruption, says Greene, adding that there’s additional concern that the ingredient may even contribute to making bacteria antibiotic-resistant. Because of concerns posed by animal research, the FDA is conducting a comprehensive scientific and regulatory review of the safety and effectiveness of this ingredient.

Substitute: The FDA has no evidence that triclosan-containing soaps or body washes are more effective than washing with regular soap and water.

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6. Lead

Why use it: Ever wonder why lead-based paints were so popular? Lead makes color vivid, which makes it an obvious ingredient in lipsticks, says Greene. Lead acetate is also used as a color additive in hair-dye products that color the hair gradually with continued use.

Why lose it: Because of consumer concerns over lead poisoning – both the metal’s toxicity to certain organs in the body and its ability to interfere with certain bodily processes – the FDA conducted its own research on lead in lipstick.

The FDA’s expanded findings in 2011 confirmed that the amount of lead in lipstick is very low and doesn’t pose safety concerns. However, says Greene, there’s reason for concern when using lead-containing items produced in other countries. In those products, lead levels may be higher than those produced in the United States, where the FDA limits lead in color additives to specific levels.

Substitute: Read labels carefully for mention of lead acetate. Be especially wary of imported lipsticks or hair dyes.

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7. Sodium laureth sulfate

Why use it: Sodium laureth sulfate – also known as sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES) – is a cleaning agent. It makes products foam by reducing the surface tension of the water. Sodium laureth sulfate is found in soaps, shampoos and toothpastes – products that produce suds, says Greene, noting that many people erroneously connect this foaming quality with better cleaning power.

Why lose it: Some people experience sodium laureth sulfate as a skin, scalp and eye irritant. However, says Greene, the biggest concern for worry is that sometimes this ingredient contains 1,4-dioxane, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers a probable human carcinogen.

The FDA encourages companies to remove 1,4-dioxane but product manufacturers may find this challenging. That’s because 1,4-dioxane is a byproduct of sodium laureth sulfate and suppliers would need to eliminate it at additional cost.

Substitute: Unless consumers are certain that manufacturers of their favorite products have eliminated 1,4-dioxane, it’s best to opt for products that are sodium laureth sulfate-free.

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8. DHA

Why use it: DHA – its scientific name is dihydroxyacetone – is the main ingredient in some sunless-tanning products which causes the uppermost layer of skin to darken and brown, says Dr. Alan Dattner, a board-certified dermatologist in private practice in New York City.

Why lose it: Getting a toasty tan through direct exposure to the sun is more harmful to the skin than using sunless-tanning products. But using these products can also be tricky, says Dattner, who’s practiced holistic dermatology for more than three decades and has expertise is cellular immunology.

Applying DHA to the skin is the first step in the formation of advanced glycation end-products (AGEs), which causes the formation of free radicals. Another concern, he says, is that not enough research has been done to determine how much of the ingredient penetrates into various systemic channels, such as sweat ducts, oil glands and hair follicles.

In the past, these self-tanning items used to be painted onto the body. “Now, the increased spraying of these products on the skin means that DHA can penetrate clients’ eyes and noses and lungs if they’re not properly protected during the spraying,” he says, adding that some salons don’t offer protective shields or plugs. Animal research has shown that exposure to the sun after DHA application causes the skin to produce even more free radicals than untreated skin.

Substitute: None. “The long term safety with long term use of these products is still unclear,” says Dattner.

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9. Oxybenzone

Why use it: Oxybenzone is a popular ingredient in sunscreens. Although oxybenzone absorbs some of the sun’s burning rays, reduces skin burning and darkening, and even reduces the formation of certain skin cancers, says Dattner, it’s also an ingredient with potentially harmful side effects.

Why lose it: In addition to causing a photo-allergic reaction in some people, the ingredient can also cause free radical damage. However, says Dattner, the biggest area of controversy is oxybenzone’s reputation as an estrogen mimicker. “Animal studies have shown that oxybenzone has a weak estrogenic effect and may even interfere with hormone signaling in the body,” he says.

Substitute: “Wear hats and clothing to protect the body from the sun’s rays,” he says. “Using this first line of defense means you won’t have to slather on so much sunscreen.” When you choose sunscreen, use products that contain zinc oxide.”

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