How to know if a product is safe for your skin

September 05, 2018 | by Christine Gresik, MD

Your skin is your largest organ. It protects your body and helps you stay healthy. It also absorbs whatever you put on it. Since the ingredients in your skin care products make their way into your bloodstream, you don’t want them to be toxic.

Yet, if you sit down and really look at the ingredients in your cosmetics and skin care products, you may have a hard time pronouncing what’s in them. So how can you be sure that what you’re putting on your body is safe?

According to the American Cancer Society, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires cosmetics be safe, but it does not have the authority to require companies to test their cosmetic products (except some color additives) before they put it on the market. Instead, products that have not been tested must carry a warning label that reads, “Warning – the safety of this product has not been determined.”

This means that the FDA is not required to label harmful chemicals and ingredients, including carcinogens that they may contain. Each company has the authority to decide what types of chemicals, or ingredients, go in their products.

There are lots of studies on the short-term effects of the ingredients in skin care products. Most products, if not all, are more likely to cause skin irritation than cancer, but it is important for you to be aware of what’s inside the products you’re using.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is looking into the health effects of endocrine disruption chemicals (EDCs) found in many of the everyday products we use. Even though there is limited scientific information on the adverse health effects of these chemicals, researchers are concerned since many cancers are the result of changes in our hormones.

Two types of chemicals found in some personal care products are currently being studied for their effect on hormones in the body:

  1. Parabens. The most common parabens are methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, and butylparaben. Commonly used as preservatives in many cosmetic products, parabens can penetrate the skin and act like a weak estrogen in the body. 
  2. Phthalates. Phthalates are commonly used to hold color and reduce brittleness in nail polish and hairspray. Phthalates are a hormone disruptor — they don’t act exactly like estrogen but they can disrupt the balance of other hormones that interact with estrogen, including testosterone.

Other potentially harmful ingredients found in some products include: oxybenzone, formaldehyde, BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), boric acid, sodium borate, coal tar ingredients, PEGs/polyethylene compounds, retinyl palmitate, retinol, lead acetate, methylisothiazolinone, hydroquinone, (SLS) sodium lauryl sulfate, (SLES) sodium laureth sulfate, toluene, triclosan, and triclocarban.

And just because a product is labeled “natural,” “organic,” or “green,” doesn’t mean that it’s safe. The American Cancer Society advises consumers to be aware that these products are not necessarily safer than products that do not carry these labels.

Check the EWG's Skin Deep database for safety profiles and ratings of personal care products.

More long-term research is needed to determine whether the use of certain personal care products has a link to cancer. The best thing for you to do is consult with your doctor, stay up-to-date on the latest news, and do your own research on skin care safety.

How do you make sure you’re using safe cosmetics? Tell us in the below comments.

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