Cosmetic Catastrophe: Detoxing Your Makeup Bag

How Did We Get Here?

Ladies, they’ve been after us for over 100 years, with a product for every need (real or imaginary). Women throughout history have been bombarded by ad after ad from this company or that company, each time promising us that their “newer” and “better” products will leave us feeling more beautiful than before. All of us are guilty of buying into it at one point or another, and we do what society has trained us to do – we wear makeup.

At any point in the ceaseless beauty quest for the latest and greatest, who has ever stopped to think about what’s actually in these products? I’ll be honest, I never did. Not once. Even as I embarked on my journey into healthier living, makeup was nowhere on my radar. Not even a blip.

We’ve been conditioned over the years to never consider this aspect, instead only focusing on how a product performs. It’s just as true for makeup as it is for other beauty products: lotions, shaving cream, hair care products, skincare products, etc. And just like the ingredients in all those other products, makeup ingredients are not always safe. Not by a long shot. They’re not good for our skin, nor our bodies. But sadly, it’s a thing we’ve been conditioned not to think about – we’ve been led to believe that what’s in these products must be safe if they’re out on the market. Wrong again.

Would it shock you to know that most cosmetics do not require FDA approval before going to market? Yep, me too. I found this information directly on the FDA’s website:

“How does the law define a cosmetic?  The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) defines cosmetics by their intended use, as “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body…for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance” [FD&C Act, sec. 201(i)]. Among the products included in this definition are skin moisturizers, perfumes, lipsticks, fingernail polishes, eye and facial makeup preparations, cleansing shampoos, permanent waves, hair colors, and deodorants, as well as any substance intended for use as a component of a cosmetic product.

How approval requirements are different: Under the FD&C Act, cosmetic products and ingredients, with the exception of color additives, do not require FDA approval before they go on the market. Drugs, however, must generally either receive premarket approval by FDA through the New Drug Application (NDA) process or conform to a “monograph” for a particular drug category, as established by FDA’s Over-the-Counter (OTC) Drug Review.

How registration requirements are different:  FDA maintains the Voluntary Cosmetic Registration Program, or VCRP, for cosmetic establishments and formulations [21 CFR 710 and 720]. As its name indicates, this program is voluntary. The FD&C Act does not require cosmetic firms to register their establishments or list their product formulations with FDA. In contrast, it is mandatory for drug firms to register their establishments and list their drug products with FDA [FD&C Act, sec. 510; 21 CFR 207].”

True, there are some exceptions to this rule listed on their website, like in the instance of cosmetics that are categorized as drugs as well:

“Consequently, an antidandruff shampoo is both a cosmetic and a drug. Among other cosmetic/drug combinations are toothpastes that contain fluoride, deodorants that are also antiperspirants, and moisturizers and makeup marketed with sun-protection claims. Such products must comply with the requirements for both cosmetics and drugs.”

But, let’s be honest. Most products you use, especially those in your cosmetics bag, are going to slip right on by with hardly a glance from the FDA. With this lack of supervision, it’s more than a little scary that companies are essentially self-policing.

The Dangers Hiding in Plain Sight

So, let’s get down to it. What exactly is lurking in cosmetics that should be avoided, and how do you identify it? It’s not always easy to tell just from glancing at the label, because not every long name always equals a dangerous chemical. Well, let me once again bust out my handy-dandy guide to dangerous ingredients, plus give you another. Here’s the summary of ingredients you’re wise to avoid:

  • Parabens – anything ending in paraben (like Methylparaben, Butylparaben, etc.)
  • Triethanolamine (TEA)
  • Diethanolamine (DEA)
  • Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)
  • BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole)
  • BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene)
  • Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (like DMDM Hydantoin, Diazolidinyl Urea, Imidazolidinyl Urea, Methenamine, or Quaternium-15)
  • PEGs (Polyethylene Glycols) – PEGs are always followed by a number, like PEG-75
  • Steareths – also always followed by a number, like Steareth-20
  • Tetrasodium EDTA
  • Petrolatum
  • Mineral Oil
  • Siloxane family (the ingredient Cyclomethicone, or any ingredients ending in “siloxane”, like cyclotetrasiloxane)
  • Chemical sunscreens family (like Retinyl Palmitate, Oxybenzone, and Octyl Methoxycinnamate)
  • Aluminum/Aluminum Powder
  • Talc

Naysayers will pooh-pooh the need for safer cosmetics as being “alarmist”, saying things like, “It’s just eye shadow, just a little on my eyelids! Who cares?” Well, let’s take parabens as an example. So if your eye shadow is loaded with them, okay, sure, that’s just a little bit. But a little bit every day over the course of a year? Several years? A lifetime? Not to mention that you’re also schlepping on eyeliner, mascara, foundation and/or powder, blush, and bronzer, in addition to your face wash, moisturizer, toner, or any other skincare product you use. When every single one of those has parabens too, just look at the amount of parabens you’re putting on your skin and into your bloodstream in just one day.

That example focuses solely on parabens – what happens when most of your products contain the majority of these red-flag chemicals? That is a whopping boatload of chemicals, don’t you agree? It’s not something to take lightly. The chemicals listed above are far from harmless. They each have various reasons why you should avoid them, ranging from allergy risk/skin and eye irritation, to more serious risks like immune system toxicity, bioaccumulation, reproductive toxicity, cancer, organ system toxicity, endocrine disruption, and neurotoxicity. Phew! All in the quest for beauty.

What’s in YOUR Makeup Bag?

Can it be true? Do these things really exist in your everyday products? You betcha! Here’s what my everyday makeup essentials sadly used to look like, with red being a definite no-no, and orange being debatable (click the arrow to open each one):

Liquid foundation (I’m choosing not to disclose who this was made by). Definitely my worst offender, which is unfortunate since foundation touches the largest area of skin.

Water, Cyclopentasiloxane, Cyclohexasiloxane, Cetyl Dimethicone Copolyol, Talc, Silica, Propylene Glycol, Isododecane, Sorbitan Isostearate, Cetyl Dimethicone, Polyglyceryl-4 Isostearate, Lemon Extract, Cucumber Extract, Quaternium-18 Bentonite, Magnesium Sulfate, Dimethicone, Octyldodecyl Neopentanoate, Phenoxyethanol, Hexylene Glycol, Dimethicone/Vinyl Dimethicone Crosspolymer, Diazolidinyl Urea, Dimethicone Copolylol, Glycerin, Methylparaben, BHT, Propylparaben, Tocopheryl Acetate, Lauramine Oxide, Disodium Edta, Sodium Citrate, Ascorbic Acid, C9-15 Alkyl Phosphate, PEG-75, PEG-150, Titanium Dioxide, Iron Oxides, Mica, Ultramarines

L’Oreal Voluminous Butterfly Mascara

Water, Paraffin, Potassium Cetyl Phosphate, Beeswax, Carnauba Wax, Acacia Senegal Gum, Glycerin, Cetyl Alcohol, HydroxyethylcellulosePhenoxyethanol, PEG/PPG-17/18 Dimethicone, Steareth-20, Phenyl Ethyl Alcohol, Sodium Polymethacrylate, Propylene Glycol, Rayon, Hydrogenated Jojoba Oil, Hydrogenated Palm Oil, Pentaerythrityl Tetraisostearate, Silica, Disodium Edta, Polyquaternium-10, Soluble Collagen, Panthenol, Sodium Chondroitin Sulfate, Atelocollagen

My concealer, CoverGirl Smoothers, wasn’t nearly as obnoxious as the above, but it was in fact guilty of one big one that gets it off my safe list (a paraben), plus in general it had a lot of ingredients that lacked info either way, which is concerning.

Squalane, PPG 2 Myristyl Ether Propionate, Ethylhexyl Hydroxystearate, Triisocetyl Citrate, Trimethicone, Euphorbia Cerifera (Candelilla Cera) Wax (Candelilla), Ozokerite, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract (Matricaria), Tocopheryl Acetate, Ascorbyl Palmitate (Vitamin C), Ginseng (Panax Ginseng) Root Extract, C10 18 Triglycerides, Propylparaben, Copernicia Cerifera (Carnauba) Wax (Carnauba), Titanium Dioxide, Iron Oxides

Neutrogena Healthy Skin Blush. This was the least dangerous of all my products. Nothing exceptionally offensive here, but it had a long list of synthetic ingredients that aren’t dangerous per se, but still unnecessary chemicals to pile on. (Now, if we were talking about the blush I used to use before that, by Maybelline, oh boy. That list is just as full of red as the ones above.)

Octyldodecyl Stearoyl Stearate, Polyethylene, HDI/Trimethylol Hexyllactone Crosspolymer, Dimethicone/Vinyl Dimethicone Crosspolymer, Lauroyl Lysine, Squalane, Cetearyl Ethylhexanoate, Silica, Trimethylsiloxysilicate, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Carthamus Tinctorius (Safflower) Seed Oil, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Isopropyl Myristate, Isostearic Acid, Lecithin, Polyhydroxystearic Acid, Polyglyceryl-3 Polyricinoleate, Sodium Dehydroacetate.

Maybelline Expert Wear Eyeshadow (various colors).

Talc, PTFE*, Magnesium Stearate, Trioctyldodecyl Citrate, Octyldodecyl Stearoyl Stearate, Tridecyl Neopentanoate, Boron Nitride, Dicaprylyl Maleate, Lauroyl Lysine, Methylparaben, Imidazolidinyl Urea, Polyethylene Terephthalate, Propylparaben, Silica, Carnauba Wax, Polyperfluoromethylisopropyl Ether, Lecithin, Ethylhexyl Palmitate [*PTFE = Teflon! What the heck is Teflon doing on my skin!?]

Chapstick, Classic Strawberry (or other flavor). Since I don’t wear lipstick, this used to be my go-to. Yuck. Toss!

ACTIVE INGREDIENT: White Petrolatum, 45%; INACTIVE INGREDIENTS: arachidyl propionate, camphor, carnauba wax, cetyl alcohol, fragrance, isopropyl lanolate, isopropyl myristate, lanolin, lemon oil, light mineral oil, maltol, methylparaben, octyldodecanol, paraffin, phenyl trimethicone, propylparaben, red 6 lake, saccharin, white wax

As you can see, I had a pretty typical cross-section of brands the average woman may have. I had a few other odds and ends in my collection, like a few Avon items or things I found at Sally Beauty, but unfortunately they were just as chemical-filled.

The only thing blatantly missing from this list is lipstick, because I’m a lip-balm gal. But, just because it’s not on my list, don’t think it’s not part of the problem! Lipstick is just as dangerous chemical-wise, and even more so, because it’s a product prone to containing lead and other heavy metals that get in there via contaminated ingredients (meaning it’s not something you can avoid simply by reading the ingredients). Lipstick isn’t the only cosmetic that can have heavy metal contamination, but it’s often the worst.

The Times They Are A-Changin’: What Can You Do?

I know it’s no fun, but you’ve got to start by unlearning old buying habits. The major brands have worked hard to embed themselves in our minds and makeup bags, but those same ones, the ones that are everywhere, are some of the worst offenders. The deeper you get into switching to better products, you’ll learn that big brand names are no longer a good thing, and certainly not to be trusted. It’s time to leave them in the past until they clean up their acts. I can understand if you’re feeling a tad violated right now – I did too. It’s tough to let go of brands you used to trust and love, but it’s all about what’s worth it in the long run. The tide is definitely rising in favor of better products from responsible companies and stricter regulations against dirtier companies.

To be clear, it’s not just inexpensive drugstore/retail products that are guilty – a high price tag (even with department store brands) does not necessarily mean safe quality! For example, my foundation was nearly $20 a bottle. Although the product did perform, due to its content, I’m no longer okay putting it anywhere near my skin. Unless the company creates a verified organic line, I won’t return.

Buyer Beware – Making Truly Better Choices

In your search for better products, you do have to be careful not to get bamboozled by three things:

  1. Companies mis-using trigger words like “natural”, “mineral”, “bare”, “pure”, etc. They do this to convey safety or ingredient simplicity, when in reality, products may still contain plenty of synthetic chemicals (some of which are still dangerous).Okay, maybe they’re still a step better than your Cover Girl or Maybelline-type products, but it’s very misleading marketing to make people think they’re getting a wholly safe product if it’s still got some undesirable ingredients.
  2. Companies that target the demographic who’s actively trying to be cleaner with their choices. So, companies will make a statement like “free of parabens, phthalates, artificial colors/fragrances, talc, gluten, etc.”, but some products still contain other questionable ingredients! For example, in my search for better mascara, one such “clean” company sells one that still contains undesirables like triethanolamine, propylene glycol, and phenoxyethanol. What?! So misleading!
  3. The word “organic”. This one is a tricky one. Did you know, that if at least 70% of the ingredients in a product are certified organic ingredients, “organic” can be used in its labeling? Potentially, that leaves 30% that could be questionable. In general, most organic companies worth their salt won’t abuse this, but still beware.

No matter what, you’ve got to read ingredients! I do this no matter how clean a company presents itself. Misplaced trust in companies is what got us into this situation, so we certainly don’t want to open ourselves up for that again. Also, FYI – if a company doesn’t list the ingredients outright on their website, that’s a bad thing. Run!

Don’t forget your apps that I showed you in my previous blog post – the SkinDeep and GoodGuide apps (or their websites) are great resources for researching products/ingredients. Of course, not every brand is listed, especially if we’re talking about online, lesser-known brands. As I’ve discussed before, there can be some discrepancies between the two and how they rate certain ingredients. If you’re in doubt, try Googling.

Finding the Good Guys: Choosing the Right Company

Okay, so you want to get away from the truly dirty companies, right? In this battle, not every company is created equal. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve been to a ton of various websites for brands that claim to be good for you. Many live up to that promise, but some don’t. Even among the ones that get recommended in health blogs, I was very surprised to stumble on several that actually look just as bad (or worse) ingredient-wise than everyday, non-“natural” products. Yikes.

Some companies seem to have their hearts in the right place, and have better than normal products in most ways (like avoiding parabens), but still use certain ingredients that are best avoided. Mineral Fusion is one. They’re good products, but still have room for improvement. BareMinerals is another, but kind of drives me crazy because their website boasts, “We create innovative products that are powered by nourishing, skin-loving minerals.” Yeah, but when you junk up those minerals with synthetic chemicals, that means it’s not a truly natural product! Are they a step up from what you’ve been using? Yes. Are they the very best option? Probably not. For your money, you can go cleaner.

Surprisingly, a really great option is the Physician’s Formula Organic Wear line, available in most stores like CVS, Walgreen’s, Target, and Walmart. The only downside is that it’s currently limited at this time to several mascara varieties, BB Cream, Color + Correction Cream, and Tinted Moisturizer. That’s a start though! In terms of price and ease of access, this is a great way to start cleaning up your makeup bag.

But if you want to really go for the cleanest of the clean, there are still plenty of great options to choose from. Unfortunately, most are online only, but if you have any health food markets near you (like Whole Foods or Earth Fare), there’s a good chance they’ll carry at least one cosmetics line in their beauty section.

Here is a list of companies I’ve seen recommended time and time again, and I’ve bopped around on each of their sites, and haven’t seen anything that contradicts the good reputation that precedes them:

*My top two picks have been left off this list, because they will soon be getting their very own special product-feature blog post!*

Each company has its own vibe, so you’ve got plenty of choices to explore to find your own best fit. Prices will vary, but keep in mind that many of the companies offer a % off coupon for signing up for their emails. Another great thing to do is start following your favorites on social media, so that you can be aware if a sale pops up. I was lucky enough to score my stash of my #1 pick on a fantastic Black Friday sale. Last but not least, some of these companies sell cheap samples, so take advantage of test-driving where you can.

Keep in mind, of course, this list is not even close to all-inclusive. There are a million wonderful natural companies out there just waiting for the next escapee from Chemical Makeup Land! Will it be you? I hope so!

Stay tuned for the upcoming post featuring my favorite natural makeup!

Wishing you healthier, happier days!


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