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Scary or Not Scary? 8 Controversial Beauty Ingredients

Posted on: September 29th, 2020 by Kristen Chang

You may have heard some scary claims about beauty products. A common one is that the average woman swallows six pounds of lipstick over her lifetime. Another is that your skin absorbs 60% of whatever you put on it, and it absorbs that in 26 seconds.*

The truth is more nuanced. Your skin is neither a sponge, nor stainless steel. It functions as a barrier to the environment, but can also be permeated by a portion of most products placed on it. Just think of nicotine, birth control or hormone replacement therapy (HRT) patches.* 

So how much beauty product gets through? That depends largely on the ingredients. For instance, the common silicone, dimethicone, has molecules so large that it sits on top of the skin, no penetration. At the same time, ingredients like alcohols and certain fatty acids can actually enhance penetration by other ingredients. You further increase your exposure to a product by smoothing it over your entire body, using it daily or leaving it on your skin. And you inevitably ingest products applied to the lips and mouth area.*

Scan Your Labels

Since you could take in ingredients one way or another, it’s sound practice to check for anything scary on beauty labels. A helpful source of ingredient information is the Skin Deep database run by consumer advocacy non-profit, Environmental Working Group (EWG). It rates beauty ingredients from 1 for safe to 10 for high hazard, based on credible testing data that the EWG generates and collects.* 

You’ve no doubt come across the following eight beauty ingredients, which have stirred up controversy over the last decade or two. Find out whether there’s cause for alarm.*


#1 – Parabens 

You increasingly see “no parabens” on cosmetics and skincare products. But why? Parabens are a highly effective preservative used far and wide for decades. And how else are companies supposed to keep their products fresh and free of bacteria, fungi and molds?*

This kind of preservative power can come at a cost. There are several types of parabens, and not all are created equal. For instance, ethylparaben is at the safer end with an EWG rating of 3. While propyl- and butylparaben are rated 9, and isobutyl- and isopropylparaben receive the highest hazard score of 10. They all are listed as a developmental/reproductive toxin, cause of allergies, endocrine disruptor (messes with your hormones and metabolism) and more — but to different degrees.*

Fortunately, formulators no longer have to compromise safety for product stability. Although certain paraben substitutes are mildly controversial in their own right, like phenoxyethanol (EWG 4), beauty science has come up with new, safer ways to preserve products.*

VERDICT: SCARY (propyl-, butyl-, isobutyl- and isopropylparaben)


#2 – Formaldehyde Releasers

Formaldehyde is a potent preservative. It is also toxic, irritating and carcinogenic. Formaldehyde releasers keep beauty products fresh by continuously releasing low levels of formaldehyde. Even though the specific ingredients lack the name recognition of parabens, they’re very common and increasingly coming under scrutiny.*

Some formaldehyde releasers widely used in beauty are quaternium-15 (EWG 5-7), DMDM hydantoin (EWG 6), sodium hydroxymethylglycinate (EWG 3-5) and diazolidinyl urea (EWG 3-5). They’re so pervasive, in fact, that you probably own products containing at least one right now. If you’ve had headaches, allergic reactions, irritated eyes or dizziness lately, try cutting these products from your repertoire.*



#3 – Retinol

Retinol (also retinyl palmitate and retinyl acetate) is a vitamin A derivative and little sister of prescription-only tretinoin (Retin A). Retinol has tiny molecules, allowing it to absorb deep into the skin to deliver rejuvenating benefits like increased collagen, decreased hyperpigmentation and softer wrinkles. The double-edged sword is that this ability to permeate could send an unhealthy amount of vitamin A into your system. Too much vitamin A has been linked to birth defects and reproductive toxicity.*

Despite occasional alarmism over retinol safety, chances are slim that your systemic levels of vitamin A will reach the danger zone. If you’re nervous, you can reduce the likelihood by using it only on your face, avoiding the mouth area, and applying it just at night. Another good reason to consider forgoing retinol during the day is that it enhances sun damage. Exposing retinol-slathered skin to UVA light can break down skin oils, resulting in cell damage that contributes to cancer and wrinkles. Retinoids also compromise your skin’s natural defenses against damaging UVA/UVB light. So if you won’t be able to dodge the sun, then wear and regularly reapply ample SPF 30+ sunscreen.*

If you remember one thing about retinol safety, make it this: it’s crucial that you protect your skin from the sun while on a retinol regimen!*

VERDICT: NOT SCARY if used smartly


#4 – Silicones

“No silicones” is now commonly touted on beauty packaging. That covers a lot of territory, considering that there are hundreds of types used in beauty products. Mainly derived from sand (silica), you can usually recognize silicones by the ”-oxane” or “-icone” at the end of their name. Most silicones receive an EWG 1-4 rating, but some score as high as 6. These are often, but not always, the ones with PPG or PEG in the name.* 

The most common silicones in beauty products are dimethicone and cyclopentasiloxane. They lend their smoothing, silkening properties to products from face primers to hair elixirs. With the EWG giving them fairly safe ratings — dimethicone EWG 1-3, cyclopentasiloxane EWG 3 — what’s all the fuss about?* 

Both, but especially cyclopentasiloxane, are bioaccumulative and harmful to aquatic life (please don’t wear silicones when you scuba dive). They can also build up on and dry out hair and, particularly dimethicone, can smother your skin. On the plus side, this means they can help lock moisture into your skin and smooth over skin texture. On the down side, that also makes them hard to fully wash off and, along with moisture, silicones can trap in sweat, bacteria, sebum and other impurities, potentially leading to enlarged pores and breakouts.* 

VERDICT: SCARY? Nah (dimethicone and cyclopentasiloxane)


#5 – Talc

Talc is a mineral composed mainly of silicon, magnesium and oxygen. It used to be the go-to powder in cosmetics like blush and eye shadows. Increasingly, however, it has been replaced as the safety of talc has come into question.*

The problem is that natural talc usually contains asbestos, a well documented carcinogen. All talc used in cosmetics since the ‘70s is supposedly free of asbestos, but may still be contaminated with it. Some studies on asbestos-free talc report a link between routine exposure and lung, ovarian and uterine cancer.* 

The way you use talc can determine the risk, which is why EWG rates it 5-8 (moderate to high hazard). For instance, talc products that you could inadvertently inhale, like face powders, could increase your risk of lung cancer. And body powders that you use to keep your panty contents fresh could promote ovarian or uterine cancer.*



#6 – Phthalates 

With all the beauty labels announcing that they’re phthalate free, it’s natural to assume that every member of this ingredient family is very scary. In fact, phthalates are rated 1-10 by the EWG — safest to highest hazard. The most unhealthy are butyl benzyl phthalate and dibutyl phthalate (DBP), which used to be common in nail polish. These two receive a 7-10 for all kinds of fun stuff, including hormone disruption, environmental toxicity, and developmental and reproductive toxicity, but are rarely used in beauty products anymore.*

Thankfully, only diethyl phthalate (DEP) is still commonly used in cosmetics, namely as a solvent and fixative in fragrances. DEP only mildly contributes to the same issues as its scary cousins, so earns just a 3 from the EWG. In other words, you’re probably only at risk if you’re dipping your body in a perfume loaded with DEP every day.* 

Tip: Don’t drink your perfume. 

VERDICT: NOT SCARY to SCARY (butyl benzyl phthalate and dibutyl phthalate/DBP)


#7 – Fragrance 

Fragrance is one of the biggest causes of contact dermatitis, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). It may be at the root of other problems too, but that’s hard to know because fragrance contains mystery ingredients. Say what? That’s right. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires cosmetic companies to list all ingredients, except the ones comprising fragrance or flavor. This is because of the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FLPA) of 1966. It allows companies to simply list “fragrance” or “flavor” in order to protect their formulas as “trade secrets.”* 

Fortunately, under pressure from the scientific community and public, the FDA seems to be on the verge of forcing full ingredient disclosure. Some companies, like Unilever, have already voluntarily begun to list out full fragrance composition on their websites. Unfortunately, until there’s a mandate, other companies can continue to bundle any of more than 3000 chemicals into “fragrance.”*  



#8 – Animal Testing

Not an ingredient per se, animal testing does go into a huge number of products, with some of the world’s biggest cosmetics brands either contracting or carrying it out directly or by contracting third parties. You’re probably aware of the rabbits, rats and guinea pigs used for cosmetics testing. But did you know that beagles are also sometimes used? Without detailing lab animals’ short and miserable lives, suffice it to say that animal testing is a cruel practice.* 

“But without animal testing, how can we know if a product is safe?” you might ask. Well, a puppy is not a human. That’s to say that animal tests aren’t always accurate. There are now quicker, cheaper, more accurate alternatives like testing human tissue samples, computer modeling and human trials.*


Tip: California Skin Institute’s skincare products are not tested on animals.


Keeping It Clean

Using clean, scary-free beauty products is a good call. And remember that what you wash off of your skin is nearly as important as what you put on it. Be sure to cleanse regularly with a healthy, high-quality cleanser. For a deeper detox of your skin — and your mind — reward yourself with a facial. There’s nothing like one for deep cleansing to remove pollutants, damaging free radicals, and (Halloween!) makeup and skincare-product residues, while relieving stress with relaxing massage. No tricks, just treat yourself.*

Make a facial appointment at select California Skin Institute locations.*


* Individual results may vary and are not guaranteed.