What ingredients should I avoid in makeup and cosmetics?
The list of ingredients on some products can be long and unpronounceable! We look at some of the ingredients you might not want to see on the label.
Did you know that polyethylene can be found in a non-solid form in eyeliners, mascara, eye shadows, eyebrow pencils, lipsticks, face powders, and foundations? It can be used to hold together ingredients, increase thickness, or form a coating on the skin.
Odylique, Green People, and Dr Hauschka were the only brands with explicit statements against these poorly biodegradable ingredients. Dr Hauschka uses natural waxes and oils instead.
Lavera said all of its products were biodegradable and certified by NATRUE which does not allow synthetic polymers. PHB Ethical Beauty said it did not use ingredients derived from petrochemicals. No common polymers were found amongst its ingredients, nor for Ethique.
Toxic chemicals in makeup
There are thousands of ingredients used in personal care, many of them have negative environmental impacts and health effects ranging from skin irritation to carcinogenicity. Parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde and triclosan have been selected by Ethical Consumer as important indicators for our own toxics rating. Some forms or uses of these chemicals are banned or restricted in the EU or the USA.
We look for company policies on chemicals of concern that they may use in makeup or other products, specifically preservatives in the form of parabens, formaldehydes, and triclosan, and phthalates which can be used in fragrances.
The majority of the companies we rated lost marks under our toxics rating, with the exception of Beauty Without Cruelty, Dr Hauschka, Ethique, Green People, Lavera, Odylique, and PHB Ethical Beauty.
Beauty Without Cruelty lost a mark for microplastics however, due to our polymers rating, and Ethique due to its private equity owner also owning a pest control company.
‘Forever chemicals’ in makeup
PFAS, or Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, are widely known as ‘forever chemicals’ due to their highly persistent properties in the environment. In fact, they barely degrade at all. It may not be surprising to some that they are derived from fossil fuels.
The CHEM Trust have described PFAS’ concerning properties as including their persistence in the environment, that they bioaccumulate, are highly mobile, and many are extremely toxic to human and non-human health. Out of several thousand substances, only a handful are currently regulated.
As well as being used in disposable food packaging, non-stick pans, waterproof jackets, and electronics, PFAS are also widely used in cosmetics. Some of the most common makeup products containing PFAS include mascara, foundation, and liquid lipstick.
The BBC found that many brands selling makeup in the UK contain PFAS. An article from Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet also recently reported on companies including L'Oréal and Estée Lauder that are still using PFAS in their products, although the number of cosmetic companies using PFAS will be many more. Some companies are phasing out the use of PFAS, but not acting quickly to remove them altogether.
The issue of PFAS in makeup will be debated in Swedish Parliament. The article quoted Jytte Guteland, Member of Swedish Parliament's Environment and Agriculture Committee, who said, “It is ignorant of big companies like L'Oreal, who are supposed to protect their customers and health, to drag this out and not take it seriously. To talk about phasing out something when it is obvious that they want to make money from it in the future. Then you don't take human health seriously. PFAS should have been banned yesterday”.
Although the contamination caused by PFAS could be found everywhere in the environment, in cosmetics, avoid buying products with “fluoro” or PTFE in the ingredients list.
You can follow the Ban PFAS Manifesto for more information.
Reducing your risk from toxic makeup
To avoid some of the risks of harmful ingredients in cosmetics, you could:
- Buy from companies you trust. These could include brands that get our best rating for toxic chemicals policies.
- Use less of the product at each use.
- Use fewer products, less often.
- Check ingredients lists before you buy.
- Make your own if it's a product where you can do that.