Got a moment?
I dare you to do something.
Go onto the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, and check out the safety scores of your favorite shampoo, toothpaste, bath soap, and moisturizer.
If you’ve got a few minutes more, check out the safety scores of your favorite nail polish, fragrance, and home hair dye.
Those ratings are a real wake-up call.
We assume that just because a product is on the shelf in our local pharmacy, it’s safe.
Surely the FDA wouldn’t let anything be sold if it contained stuff that was bad for us.
But the FDA’s control over cosmetics is limited. Cosmetics don’t require FDA approval before they’re sold to the public. The company selling the product is responsible for doing the necessary testing to ensure its safety, but they don’t have to share that information with the FDA.
As a result, cosmetics companies can use anything in their formulations as long as it’s considered safe under customary conditions of use, properly labeled, and unadulterated.
But just what “safe” means is a matter of debate.
Junk food, artificially-flavored snacks, sugary sodas, and potentially carcinogenic processed meats all have the FDA stamp of approval. That doesn’t mean they’re good for you.
Luckily for consumers, EWG’s Skin Deep database launched in 2004 to address the gap between what the FDA considers safe and what picky customers consider safe.
It contains safety information for over 70,000 beauty and personal care products, representing over 2,000 brands.
Products are ranked as low hazard (green), moderate hazard (orange), or high hazard (red).
What does toxic look like?
Well, Revlon’s Scented Parfume Nail Enamel in Bubble Gum (no longer sold) has the dubious award of being one of the most toxic nail polishes in the database. Why?
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that many popular fragrances—including the original formulation of Vera Wang’s Princess, JLo’s Miami Glow, and Mariah Carey’s Luscious—also score in the red.
But what about those really toxic ingredients we hear so much about, like parabens, phthalates, and sulfates?
Does the database penalize personal care products for containing those?
Surprisingly, not all parabens, phthalates, and sulfates are created equal. Some are actually safe.
Here’s what you need to know.
Parabens are preservatives found in about 85% of cosmetics.
They’ve been used for decades to keep bacteria from growing and give cosmetics a longer shelf life.
Because they’re so ubiquitous, 90% of us already have parabens in our bodies.
Although the FDA considers them safe, parabens are known endocrine disruptors. They mimic estrogen, which has been linked to breast cancer.
So should we stick to paraben-free cosmetics?
That’s one solution. But that would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Parabens are important preservatives. No one wants to apply bacteria along with their mascara.
Are some parabens safer than others?
The answer is yes, and the EWG explains the difference.
There are at least 17 different types of parabens used in cosmetics. Some are low-risk, while others are high-risk (like propylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutylparaben).
The EWG database does the sorting for you, letting you know which parabens you should worry about and which you shouldn’t.
Same goes for phthalates.
Phthalates are plasticizers. They make plastics more elastic and soft. They can make the texture of a skincare product more smooth.
They’re endocrine disrupters as well. They can cause reproductive problems in men, and high levels have been linked to belly fat and insulin resistance.
The EWG database lists 13 different kinds of phthalates, ranging from safe to highly unsafe (biggest offenders: dibutyl phthalate and butyl benzyl phthalate).
Sulfates give you that great lather.
They act as a detergent, separating the oil and gunk from your skin or hair, so you can wash it down the drain and enjoy that squeaky-clean feeling.
The main concern with sulfates is that they’re too cleansing. They can strip the hair or skin of its natural oils, leading to dryness or frizziness.
There are over a hundred different kinds of sulfates, and most are safe to moderate. For example, one of the safest forms is magnesium sulfate, also known as Epsom salts.
However, there are a few high-risk sulfates, including toluene-2,5-diamine sulfate, found in hair dyes.
So don’t be fooled by brands that claim to be paraben, phthalate, and sulfate free. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe. Plug those products into the EWG database to find the truth about their ingredients.
Your skin deserves it.