The foundations of beauty care: is what you're putting on your body safe?

As a person who struggles with skin sensitivities and allergies, I’ve had to shop around to find brands that wouldn’t make me incredibly itchy, give me a rash, or cause me to break out in hives. While on my journey of discovery, I not only found products that were safe for my skin, I became aware of the abysmal lack of regulation surrounding the chemicals permitted in beauty care products. I learned, for example, that hypoallergenic products contain an ingredient that stops skin reactions from happening, rather than being free from problematic ingredients.

It is true what they say: beauty comes at a cost — namely, your health. 

The largest organ: your skin 

As the body’s largest organ, skin is one of our primary elimination pathways. Your skin is made of three primary groups of layers: the epidermis (top layer), the dermis (middle layer), and the hypodermis (bottom layer). Each is complex, and all act as barriers to protect the body. 

On average, your skin absorbs 64% of the product you put on it (Brown et al., 1984). Absorption depends on the type of chemical, its molecule size, and what it is paired with. Also, there is a difference between penetration and absorption. Penetration is when a chemical makes it to the deep layers of the skin. Absorption means the chemical made it to the bloodstream (Dallmeier, 2014). What we put on our skin matters, especially in thinner-skinned body areas, like our face or scalp, where absorption increases.

Personal care ingredients to avoid

In more than 40 nations, there are over 1400 ingredients banned for use in body care due to adverse side effects; these ingredients may cause reproductive harm, congenital disabilities, and cancer. In the United States, only 11 in that list are banned, however (Faber, 2019). This list from Environmental Working Group ( advises which top ingredients to avoid in your personal care products (Faber, 2020) (, n.d.):




Formaldehyde is carcinogenic; it also causes allergic reactions and irritates the eyes and respiratory system (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010). Formaldehyde is used as a hair straightener, nail hardener, and preservative.

Formaldehyde releasers

Formaldehyde releasers can have health effects similar to those of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde releasers are chemicals that release formaldehyde over time. They are used as preservatives.

Dibutyl phthalate

Dibutyl phthalate is an endocrine disruptor and a developmental toxicant that harms male reproductive system development. It can cause early puberty in boys and other changes in the reproductive system (National Toxicology Program U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). Dibutyl phthalate is used as a solvent and fixative in perfumes and as a plasticizer in nail polish.

Diethylhexyl phthalate

Diethylhexyl phthalate harms the reproductive system and can affect the developing fetus. It is a potential endocrine disruptor and is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans. Diethylhexyl phthalate is used in eyelash adhesive and fragrances.

Mercury and related compounds

Mercury is a heavy metal absorbed through the skin. Mercury can damage the kidney and impact the nervous system. It is especially harmful to the developing fetus (California Environmental Protection Agency, 2005). Mercury is used as a skin lightener. Some preservatives, like thimerosal, contain mercury and are still allowed.


Isobutylparaben is an endocrine disruptor that can harm male reproductive system development (Sauer, 2002). Isobutylparaben is a preservative.


Butylparaben is an endocrine disruptor that can harm male and female reproductive system development (Nishihama et al., 2016). Butylparaben is a preservative.


Propylparaben is an endocrine disruptor that can mimic estrogen (Hauser, 2013). Propylparaben is a preservative.


Toluene is toxic to the brain and the nervous system; it also harms the developing fetus. Toluene is a solvent used in nail polish, nail treatments, and hair dye.


Triclosan affects the thyroid and reproductive hormones (Zorrilla et al., 2009) (Stoker et al., 2010, #). Triclosan is an antimicrobial compound used in deodorants, mouthwash, hand sanitizer, shaving cream, and toothpaste.

Carbon black

Carbon black has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans. Carbon black is a pigment used in eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick.

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances)

PFAS chemicals harm the developing fetus, increase cancer risk, affect the immune system and disrupt hormones (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2020). PFAS is a class of more than 4,000 chemicals. They have been found in sunscreen, foundation, concealer, eyeliner, shaving cream, and hairspray.


Asbestos is a carcinogen and can cause lung diseases if inhaled (IARC, n.d.). Asbestos is a fibrous mineral. It can be found near talc deposits and may contaminate talcum powder and talc products. Talc can absorb moisture, make a product opaque, or feel smoother.

Lead and related compounds

Lead can affect children’s brain development and cause permanent nervous system damage. Lead also harms other organ systems, especially the cardiovascular and heart systems. Lead is a heavy metal that occurs as a contaminant in lipstick, eye shadow, blush, powders, shampoos, and lotions.

Fragrance, Parfum, or Aroma

They are known to cause allergies and immunotoxicity and are found in most personal care products.

Lack of a review process

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t have the authority to review chemicals in personal care products or cosmetics. As states, “Personal care product companies do not have to register with the FDA, provide the FDA with ingredient statements, adopt Good Manufacturing Practices, or GMPs, report adverse events to the FDA, or provide the FDA with access to safety records.” The FDA doesn’t even have the power to suspend registration or order recalls when a product poses a health risk (Faber, 2020). There is no oversight by any government body, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), regarding personal care products. Notice the lack of ingredient disclosure on household cleaning supplies when you visit the grocery store next. 

Which products to use 

Luckily, there’s an invaluable online tool I regularly use to determine the safety of a product while I’m shopping called EWG’s Skin Deep® program evaluates the chemical components in personal care products and gives them a rating of 0 to 10 (10 being the most toxic). You can easily search for individual ingredients, brands, or products on the site. And, once you’ve found what you’re looking for, you can see a breakdown of the ingredients with supporting evidence for their toxicology or lack thereof.


One of the most important ingredients you can avoid is an umbrella chemical known as “fragrance,” “aroma,” or “parfum.” This term represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients. It’s well known for causing allergic reactions, immunotoxicity, hormone disruption, lung health concerns, and migraines. Brands bury chemicals within this term to hide them from consumers. The average fragrance contains about 14 secret chemicals not listed on the label; on average, about 80% of them have not been tested for safety (Schrock, 2017). The International Fragrance Research Association (IFRA) has a published list of over 3,000 chemicals used in fragrance (About the IFRA Transparency List, n.d.) (Opdyke, 2022) (Scranton, 2015). 

In conclusion

It’s not very easy to find a personal care product that works for your skin or hair type. I’ve recommended some favorite brands below, but my perspective is skewed by my personal preferences, skin type, and hair structure. Using the EWG database, you can find products that will meet your needs and keep you healthy. I hope this makes your personal care journey easier.


Some of my favorite brands include: Alaffia, Acure, Mad Hippie, Prose, Derma-E, Mychelle, Attitude (kids), Mineral Fusion, Bare Minerals, BeautyCounter, Babo Botanicals (kids), Honest Beauty, Grove (cleaning), Earth Mama (kids), Rejuva Minerals, Burt’s Bees, Dr. Bronner’s, and EO. 


About the IFRA Transparency List. (n.d.). IFRA. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. (2020, June 24). Potential health effects of PFAS chemicals | ATSDR. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from

Brown, H.S., Bishop, D.R., & Rowan, C.A. (1984, May). The role of skin absorption as a route of exposure for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in drinking water. NCBI. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from


Dallmeier, L. (2014, March). Can Cosmetics be absorbed into your Bloodstream? Herb & Hedgerow. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from (n.d.). The ‘Toxic Twenty’ Cosmetic Ingredients and Contaminants. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from

Faber, S. (2019, March 20). On Cosmetics Safety, U.S. Trails More Than 40 Nations. EWG. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from

Faber, S. (2020, May 5). The Toxic Twelve Chemicals and Contaminants in Cosmetics. EWG. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from

Hauser, R. (2013, December). Urinary paraben concentrations and ovarian aging among women from a fertility center. PubMed. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from


National Toxicology Program U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2000, October 10). CERHR Monograph: Potential Human Reproductive and Di-n-Butyl Phthalate Developmental Effects of Di-n-Butyl Phthalate (DBP). National Toxicology Program. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from

Nishihama, Y., Yoshinaga, J., Lida, A., Konishi, S., Imai, H., Yoneyama, M., Nakajima, D., & Shiraishi, H. (2016, August). Association between paraben exposure and menstrual cycle in female university students in Japan. PubMed. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from

Opdyke, D. (2022, February 10). IFRA STANDARDS. IFRA. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from

Sauer, M. (2002, July). Oestrogenic activity of isobutylparaben in vitro and in vivo. PubMed. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from

Schrock, M. (2017, May 30). WTF Is In Fragrance And Is It harmful!? — Non Toxic Revolution. Non Toxic Revolution. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from

Scranton, A. (2015, December 3). Why you should be worried about toxic chemicals in fragrance. Safer Chemicals Healthy Families. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from

Stoker, T. E., Gibson, E. K., & Zorrilla, L. M. (2010, June 18). Triclosan Exposure Modulates Estrogen-Dependent Responses in the Female Wistar Rat. Toxicological Sciences, 117(1), 45-53.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2010, January 22). Final RoC Background Document for Formaldehyde. National Toxicology Program. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from

Zorrilla, L. M., Gibson, E. K., Jeffay, S. C., Crofton, K. M., Setzer, W. R., Cooper, R. L., & Stoker, T. E. (2009, January). The Effects of Triclosan on Puberty and Thyroid Hormones in Male Wistar Rats. Toxicological Sciences. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from

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