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  • Writer's pictureSarah

Makeup's Dirty Dozen: How to Find Low-Toxin Options

Updated: Dec 1, 2023


Marketing labels like “clean” or “natural” mean little when determining what makeup is actually safe to use. It is becoming harder and harder to navigate all the greenwashing in an industry that is so poorly regulated. But it is important to take the time to be mindful of what we apply to our skin since it can end up in our bodies. Let's take the difficulty out of navigating this overwhelming area and cover what toxic ingredients to avoid and how to make your makeup routine as sustainable and clean as possible!


Twelve Toxic Ingredients


There are thousands of ingredients used in makeup! In fact, the average woman uses 168 chemical ingredients daily! Sadly, many are unaware that they are using makeup that is toxic to their health!



Here are some toxic chemicals commonly found in makeup:


  1. Polyethylene Glycol (PEG): Derived from petroleum, PEG is used as a moisturizing ingredient in cosmetics. It is produced through a reaction between ethylene oxide (a known carcinogen when inhaled) and other less harmful substances. Unfortunately, this reaction can create by-products such as 1,4-dioxane (a probable human carcinogen). While manufacturers have the option to remove these by-products, many do not.

  2. BHA/BHT: These preservatives, commonly used in beauty products, have been associated with endocrine disruption and toxicity to organ systems.

  3. Parabens: Used as preservatives in beauty products and fragrances, parabens have been linked to endocrine disruption, cancer, and developmental and reproductive toxicity. When checking the ingredient list, parabens are identified by names such as ethyl-, butyl-, methyl-, followed by "-paraben."

  4. Ethanolamines: Found in cosmetics as pH adjusters, fragrance components, or emulsifying agents, ethanolamines have been linked to cancer, environmental concerns regarding bioaccumulation, and toxicity to organ systems. Look for ingredients labeled as MEA, DEA, or TEA.

  5. Fragrance/Parfum: This term represents a mixture of chemicals responsible for the scent of a product. Thousands of different chemicals can be included under the broad term "fragrance," which is not required to be disclosed to protect trade secrets. Some of these fragrance ingredients have been linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies, and sensitivities.

  6. Lead/Heavy Metals: While some products explicitly list lead or heavy metals as ingredients, others may be contaminated with these substances. Health concerns associated with lead and heavy metals include cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, toxicity to organ systems, and environmental concerns regarding bioaccumulation.

  7. Carbon Black: Used as a pigment in cosmetics like eyeliner and lipstick, carbon black is produced through the incomplete combustion of carbon-based products and has been linked to increased cancer incidence and negative effects on organs.

  8. Phthalates: These chemicals, linked to endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and cancer, are still prevalent in U.S. products despite being banned in the European Union. Look for ingredients labeled Phthalate, DEP, DBP, DEHP, and Fragrance. It is important to note that companies will often group them under the ingredient fragrances because they do not declare them as they are “trade secret.”

  9. Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives: These chemicals, used to prevent microbial growth, can be absorbed through the skin and are linked to cancer and allergic reactions. They are commonly found in mascara, press powders, and eyeliners. Look for ingredients named Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Diazolidinyl urea, Polyoxymethylene urea, Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol), Glyoxal, and methenamine.

  10. Octinoxate: Found in foundations, lipstick, and sunscreens, this unstable chemical is linked with endocrine disruption and thyroid disorders. Look for ingredients called octinoxate, octyl-methoxycinnamate, 2-ethylhexyl-4-methoxycinnamate, avobenzone (Parsol, Escalol), and Neo Heliopan.

  11. Talc: Commonly used in face powders and eye shadows, talc can be contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen.

  12. Siloxanes: Used in makeup to improve texture and spreadability. They also help soften and moisturize the skin. They can be found in various cosmetic products, such as foundations, primers, and moisturizers. Look for ingredients that end in -siloxane or -methicone and avoid these products!


If you are into the details, you can check out a table below that goes more in-depth about each ingredient and others, their uses, risks, and what to look out for!


Choosing a Low-Toxin Makeup

Here are three top tips on how to find lower toxin makeup.



Read Ingredient Labels Carefully

The smaller the ingredient list, the better! However, even cleaner brands may contain lengthy and complex ingredient lists. Consider using resources like the Think Dirty app (has a subscription cost) or the free option, EWG Skin Deep website, to assess the risk of the ingredients present in a product. Unfortunately, some apps may not be available in certain regions, such as NZ.


Look for Certifications

Look for certifications like MADE SAFE®, USDA Organic, COSMOS Organic, and EWG VERIFIED™, as they indicate a commitment to low-toxin ingredients.


Prioritise Transparent Brands

If a brand isn't fully transparent about its ingredient list, it's best to avoid their products. Safe-to-use brands should have nothing to hide.


Non-toxic Makeup Recommendations

Navigating the vast array of brands offering non-toxic makeup can be overwhelming. To simplify your search, here are some of my top recommendations for better, lower toxin foundation:

  • MG Naturals (bonus: titanium dioxide-free) (use LOWTOXINRABBIT for 10% off)

  • Blac Cosmetics - (Organic Foundation and Primer)

  • Kylie's Professional

  • Aleph

  • Ere Perez


Keep an eye out over the coming weeks as I will share more low toxin beauty favourites.


What's next…

Choosing safe makeup products can be challenging, but armed with knowledge, you can make informed decisions and opt for truly low-toxin options. Prioritise understanding the ingredients, seek certifications, and support transparent brands to ensure a cleaner and healthier makeup routine.


References:


Table 1

Toxic ingredients commonly found in makeup:

​Ingredient

​Risks

What to look for on the label

This carcinogen is often found as a contaminant in cosmetics

  • Sodium laureth sulfate

  • PEG compounds

  • Chemicals that include the clauses xynol, ceteareth and oleth

Butylated Compounds


Preservatives found in personal care products. These chemicals are associated with endocrine disruption and organ system toxicity.

  • BHA

  • BHT

Carbon Black

Used as a pigment in cosmetics like eyeliner and lipstick, carbon black is produced through the incomplete combustion of carbon-based products and has been linked to increased cancer incidence and negative effects on organs.

  • Carbon black

  • D & C Black No. 2

  • Acetylene black

  • Channel black

  • Furnace black

  • Lamp black

  • Thermal black

Ethanolamine Compounds (MEA, DEA, TEA And Others)

​Found in various consumer products, including cosmetics. They are linked to liver tumours and should be avoided

  • Triethanolamine

  • Diethanolamine

  • DEA

  • TEA

  • Cocamide DEA

  • Cocamide MEA

  • DEA-cetyl phosphate

  • DEA oleth-3 phosphate

  • Lauramide DEA

  • Linoleamide MEA

  • Myristamide DEA

  • Oleamide DEA

  • Stearamide MEA

  • TEA-lauryl sulfate

Ethoxylated Ingredients

Ethoxylation is the process of reacting ethylene oxide with other chemicals to make them less harsh. Ethoxylation can create small amounts of 1,4-dioxane and leave residual ethylene oxide in the product.

  • PPG

  • PEG

  • Polysorbate

  • Ingredients that end in –eth such as laureth, steareth, ceteareth.

  • Formaldehyde

  • DMDM hydantoin

  • Imidazolidinyl urea

  • Diazolidinyl urea

  • Polyoxymethylene urea

  • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate

  • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol)

  • Glyoxal

Fragrance

​Many products list "fragrance" without disclosing specific ingredients, which can include chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, and allergies.

  • Fragrance

  • Perfume

  • Parfum

  • Essential oil blend

  • Aroma

Lead And Other Heavy Metals

Heavy metals like lead, arsenic, mercury, aluminum, zinc, chromium, and iron can be found in various personal care products. These metals are linked to reproductive, immune, and nervous system toxicity

  • Lead acetate

  • Chromium

  • Thimerosal

  • Hydrogenated cotton seed oil

  • Sodium hexametaphosphate.

  • Note: products that contain contaminant metals will not list them on ingredient labels


Used as preservatives in many personal care products, parabens are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can be absorbed through the skin, blood, and digestive system.

  • Ethylparaben

  • Butylparaben

  • Methylparaben

  • Propylparaben

  • Isobutylparaben

  • Isopropylparaben

  • Other ingredients ending in –paraben

Petrolatum

The European Union classifies petrolatum a carcinogen.  PAHs in petrolatum can also cause skin irritation and allergies. 

  • Mineral oil

  • Petrolatum

  • Liquid paraffin

  • Paraffin oil/wax

  • Petroleum jelly

  • White petroleum

Methylisothiazolinone and Methylchloroisothiazolinone

These common preservatives found in liquid personal care products can cause lung toxicity, allergic reactions, and possible neurotoxicity.

  • ​Methylisothiazolinone (MIT): 2-methyl-4-isothiazoline-3-one, Neolone 950 preservative, MI, OriStar MIT and Microcare MT.

  • Methylchloroisothiazolinone (CMIT): 5-Chloro-2-methyl-4-isothiazolin-3-one and MCI.

Phenoxyethanol

This preservative, used in cosmetic products and perfumes, has been linked to allergic reactions and potential neurotoxicity. It can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane (a probable human carcinogen).

  • Phenoxyethanol

  • 2-Phenoxyethanol

  • Euxyl K® 400 (mixture of Phenoxyethanol and 1,2-dibromo-2,4-dicyanobutane)

  • PhE

These chemicals, linked to endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and cancer, are still prevalent in U.S. products

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, aka Teflon®)

Found in makeup, this ingredient and other fluorinated compounds have been associated with delayed menstruation, later breast development, and cancer.

  • Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)

  • Polyperfluoromethylisopropyl Ether

  • DEA-C8-18 Perfluoroalkylethyl Phosphate

Preservatives

Many cosmetics use preservatives to prevent bacterial and mold growth.

  • Formaldehyde

  • DMDM hydantoin

  • Quaternium-15

  • Imidazolidinyl urea

  • Diazolidinyl urea

  • Polyoxymethylene urea

  • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate

  • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) and glyoxal

  • Ethylparaben

  • Butylparaben

  • Methylparaben

  • Propylparaben

  • Isobutylparaben

  • Isopropylparaben

  • Other ingredients ending in –paraben

  • Benzylate

  • Benzoic acid

  • Benzyl ester

  • (more can be found on

Talc

Commonly used in face powders and eye shadows, can be contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen. Recalls have occurred due to asbestos contamination in talc-based products, and there have been legal cases linking talcum-based baby powder to ovarian cancer and mesothelioma.

  • Talcum powder

  • Cosmetic talc

Octinoxate

Found in foundations, lipstick and sunscreens, this is an unstable chemical is linked with endocrine disruption and thyroid disorders. It also as suspected environmental toxin.

  • Octinoxate

  • Methoxycinnamate (OMC),

  • Avobenzone (Parsol, Escalol

  • 2-ethylhexyl p-methoxycinnamate

  • Neo Heliopan

Siloxanes

Used in makeup to improve texture and spreadability. They also help soften and moisturize the skin. They can be found in various cosmetic products, such as foundations, primers, and moisturizers.

Ingredients ending in -siloxane or -methicone


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