The cosmetics industry thrives off convincing consumers that, if they apply specific products to their bodies, they will look and feel better. That’s not a hard sell. Especially not in our digital age which is full of online influencers and social media advertising. We consumers are drawn to the industry from more angles than ever before and have ensured that beauty is big business in the UK. In 2019, the country spent a whopping £33 billion on personal care products, but was there a hidden cost to this?
Have you ever stopped to consider what ingredients are in your cosmetics? I hadn’t until recently. I am very conscious of what I put into my body. I scrutinize food labels and do my best to understand the function of different ingredients. That’s not to say I don’t eat ‘bad’ things, but I do so on my terms. On the flip-side, I spent years of my life mindlessly buying and using cosmetics products without ever considering what they were made from.
Given the rate us Brits are buying into these products, I’m guessing that I’m not alone. So, when I finally stumbled upon the clean beauty movement, I was horrified to learn about the toxins that can be present in our cosmetics. I was alarmed that such an influential industry could use toxic ingredients in their products without it being common knowledge that they were doing so.
Let’s look at some toxins which are currently present on Britain’s beauty shelves:
Parabens can be used as preservatives in beauty products to halt the growth of microbes and bacteria within them. Look out for methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben on ingredient lists. When applied to the skin, parabens can be absorbed into our bodies. Thankfully, there is no research to conclude that parabens are carcinogens (i.e. cause cancer), however, studies have shown that parabens can mimic oestrogen which is associated with greater risk of breast cancer.
Phthalates are used in all sorts of products, not just make-up. They are plasticisers which are used to make a range of products more pliant or to make their fragrances last longer. In EU cosmetics, only diethyl phthalate (DEP) is used. This ingredient is an Endocrine Disrupting Chemical (EDC) which is a term for any chemical which can affect the body’s hormones and lead to health implications. It is thought that DEP may be linked to breast cancer and other health problems such as reproductive development. Often, phthalates are listed under the blanket ingredient term “fragrance”.
3. Synthetic Fragrance
EU regulations state that companies do not need to identify what specific ingredients are used to create their synthetic fragrance. They simply need to denote that the product contains “fragrance” or “parfum”. This is not remotely helpful as the blanket term can hide nasties such as the phthalates mentioned above or other nasty ingredients such as toluene or synthetic musks (each worth research in their own right). This makes it difficult for consumers to know exactly what they are consuming.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate are both surfactants which can help to trap and remove oil and cause the lather effect that we’ve all come to expect and enjoy from our products (think: shampoo, body wash and bubble bath). The debate surrounding these two ingredients is HUGE. To keep it simple: they have been deemed as safe for use in cosmetics by the EU and are not known carcinogens like many people believe. However, they are both skin irritants and can cause problems for sensitive skin and they are made using palm oil.
Butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene can sometimes be used in cosmetics as preservatives. Similarly to parabens, they have been found to mimic oestrogen which can promote breast cell growth and the growth of tumours.
Triclosan is an antimicrobial ingredient which can be found in things like toothpaste, deodorants, soaps and hand sanitizers. However, it has been found to be a skin irritant and a possible oestrogen mimic.
Thankfully, formaldeyde or formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are heavily restricted within EU cosmetics. They are colorless gases which are often used in nail products to strengthen nail enamel but can be found in make-up and creams. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that is believed to have carcinogenic potential for humans if they are over-exposed to it. It does appear in UK cosmetics so long as it is at a safe amount, in line with EU regulations.
This list does not mean that every product in your bathroom cabinet is going to cause you harm. Just because a product contains a toxin, does not mean it contains it at a harmful level. Plus, we UK consumers are already protected from 1328 toxic chemicals in our cosmetics thanks to EU laws and the levels of toxins which we are exposed to are generally tightly regulated too. However, what this list does mean, is that there are toxic chemicals in your bathroom cabinet and in your make-up drawer and, tightly regulated or not, you are more than likely applying them to your body every day.
Whether you are happy with the presence of these toxins or not, is entirely up to you but the fact that they are there is something you should know about. Therefore, my advice to you is to get reading. Read about toxins in cosmetics from reputable sources. Seek out articles relevant to your location and from experts in the science behind cosmetics. My article comes from a place of love and concern but certainly not from a scientific perspective. Consumers deserve to know what they are buying; only then can they make informed decisions.
If you’re still reading, I’m presuming you are keen to know how to start cutting toxins out of your daily routine. This is where I can be of more help. I don’t for one second expect any reader to remember all the ingredients I mentioned above and go looking for them in their products, that’s time-consuming and unrealistic. There are much easier ways to seek out non-toxic products. My first tip would be to download a product checking app. These apps are free, they let you search a product and find out detailed information about its ingredients and the safety of them. I use a combination of CodeCheck, CosmEthics and Think Dirty. I’m not affiliated with any of them but I find them helpful when trying to access product information fast.
My next tip is to think carefully about where you source your products from. Get to know your brands. Ask them questions about what toxic ingredients are in their products and why. To me, transparency is key. If a brand isn’t happy to discuss these things with me, then it’s a firm no. If you’re on the hunt for something new, look out for brands and products with certifications like COSMOS, EWG verified, EcoCert or the Soil Association to show they do not use dangerous chemicals. When shopping online, consider searching clean beauty sites that allow you to browse a range of products whilst knowing that the retailer only supports ethical, toxic-free brands. Finally, if you don’t like something you find: talk about it. Spread the word to friends, family, your online following or the brand itself. We can’t instigate change if we stay quiet about a problem.
Ultimately, I urge every reader to get to know your cosmetics. Become a conscious consumer and scrutinize the cosmetics you buy. The bare minimum we all deserve is to use products that are safe. I hope this helps you on your journey to do so.
I fully appreciate that I’ve written this article from a privileged standpoint. I have the time, money and resources to search for and buy non-toxic cosmetic products and that’s not possible for every reader. I believe those with privilege have a role to play in popularizing safe and clean cosmetics so that they can help to increase demand, drive down market prices and make them more accessible for everyone. I also believe that maintaining the conversation can bring power to all consumers.
I further wish to highlight that this article has been written from a British perspective. Not every reader will be afforded the protection from toxins that EU regulations provide, and, for that reason, I would urge non-UK readers to seek out information relevant to their context.