Natural Doesn’t Always Mean It’s Natural

by | Jan 8, 2024 | Blog, General Wellness

Just think about all the cosmetics, body care, and personal hygiene products you use every day. Soap, body wash, shampoo, conditioner, face wash, lotion, deodorant, and toothpaste are just the basics. You may be using a lot more than that, including make-up, nail polish, and perfumes. 

Unfortunately, conventional cosmetics are loaded with chemicals. What’s even worse: you may not be aware of all the toxins you are putting on your body. Labels like “natural”, “clean”, or “green” may sound convincing and healthy, but are often misleading. Due to the lack of regulations, many so-called “natural” cosmetics are filled with harmful chemicals.

In this article, I want to discuss the problem with chemicals in cosmetics, the health risks of these chemicals, and the lack of regulation in manufacturing and labeling cosmetics. Let’s get into it.

The Problem with Chemicals in Cosmetics

Conventional cosmetics, personal hygiene, and body care products are full of toxic chemicals. These chemicals can be incredibly harmful to your health. Some may irritate your skin or eyes. Others may disrupt your hormonal or endocrine system. Some may increase asthma or respiratory issues. You may even develop histamine intolerance, allergies, mast cell activation issues, or chemical sensitivity. 

Before I get into the lack of labeling of these chemicals in cosmetics, I want to go over the common chemicals used in chemicals and the potentially associated health risks.

Common Chemicals Used in Cosmetics

Some of the most common chemicals used in cosmetics may include (1, 2):

  • Sulfates: Sulfates are used for lathering purposes. They may irritate your skin and eyes. They may also be harmful to the environment, especially to aquatic species, when washed away (3, 4).
  • Parabens: Parabens are preservatives that help to keep your cosmetics germ-free and fresh. They may irritate the skin. They may lead to an increased production of estrogen and thus may disrupt reproductive function. The increase in estrogen may also increase the risk of breast cancer (4, 5).
  • Phthalates: Phthalates are used in lotions, perfumes, nail polishes, and softeners. They may disrupt the endocrine system, reproductive health and development (6).
  • Fragrances: Fragrances are found in shampoo, body wash, perfumes, and all kinds of other cosmetics and body care. They may increase the risk of dermatitis, skin allergies, skin issues, respiratory issues, and reproductive problems (7).
  • Triclosan: Triclosan is found in deodorants, antibacterial soaps, and toothpaste. It may irritate the skin, increase gut inflammation, and disrupt the endocrine system (8).
  • Toluene: Toluene is found in nail polish and hair dyes, among other products. It may increase the risk of immune system issues, birth defects, and blood cancer (9).
  • Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde can be found in nail polish, nail hardeners, deodorant, shampoo, hair products, and other cosmetics. It may increase the risk of hair loss, scalp burn, dizziness, asthma, and neurotoxicity (10).
  • Lead: Lead may be found in some lipsticks, foundations, and eyeliners. It may increase the risk of allergies. It may disrupt the nervous system and increase the risk of cancer (11).
  • Talc: Talc is a soft mineral found in baby powder, deodorant, eye shadows, blush, and some soap. It may increase the risk of ovarian and lung cancer (12).
  • Synthetic colors: Synthetic colors are found in lipsticks, eyeshadows, and similar products. They may increase the risk of skin irritation, acne, ADHD-like symptoms, and cancer (13).
  • Polyethylene glycol (PEG): PEG may be found in sunscreen, shampoo, lotions, and other body care products. It may increase the risk of respiratory issues and cancer (14).
  • Diethanolamine: Diethanolamine can be found in shampoo, body wash, and other foaming cleansers as a foaming agent. It may be a respiratory toxin and may increase the risk of cancer (15).
  • Alcohol: Alcohol can be found in many cosmetics, including face wash, creams, and lotions. It may lead to dry and flaky skin and skin issues (16).
  • Hydroquinone: Hydroquinone is a skin-lightening agent that may help to reduce freckles, age spots, and scars. However, it is also a carcinogen (17).
  • Petrolatum: Petrolatum can be found in moisturizers and lip balm. It may dry your skin and lead to the need for constant reapplication of the product (18).
  • Chemicals in a sunscreen: Sunscreen is full of chemicals, including PABA, benzophenone, oxybenzone, methoxycinnamate, and homosalate, which may all be endocrine disruptors (19).

Common Health Issues Linked to Chemicals in Cosmetics

Using chemical-filled conventional cosmetics may lead to a variety of chronic symptoms and health issues. Some of the common health issues linked to chemicals in cosmetics may include:

  • Skin irritation and skin issues
  • Eye irritation
  • Asthma and respiratory problems
  • Hormonal issues
  • Endocrine dysfunction
  • Neurological issues
  • Gut health issues
  • Reproductive problems
  • Cancer
  • Chemical sensitivities
  • Histamine intolerance and mast cell activation issues

Natural Is Not Always Natural

So if all these chemicals in conventional cosmetics are not good for you, then natural should be a better option, right?! Not so fast.

Unfortunately, seeing the words “natural” and “clean” on the cosmetic label doesn’t mean anything. There isn’t enough regulation, and nothing is stopping manufacturers, companies, or marketers from misleading you, the customer, about potentially harmful ingredients in their products.

There are growing concerns about endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, and other toxins in cosmetics and other personal care products and an increased interest in sustainable shopping and healthy ingredients (20, 21, 22). Yet, companies and regulations are not catching up — at least not fast enough.

There is not much regulation or oversight when it comes to manufacturing processes, the safety of ingredients, and proper labeling. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate or pre-approve the labeling of cosmetic products. The same holds true in Canada. 

Selecting safe products becomes the responsibility of the consumer. This can be very difficult when labels are not regulated, and some companies downright lie to you.

There are some strides in the right direction, but not enough. In 2022, the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act (MoCRA) was passed by Congress, requiring companies to label any allergens and include potential risks of serious adverse reactions on cosmetic products (23). However, there are still no clear directions on what needs to be labeled or regulations on what can be included in their products. Labels are complex and inconsistent, making them very difficult to understand for customers.

Companies can use the words “natural”, “clean”, “green”, or “chemical-free” on their labels without any actual meaning behind them. We know from the food industry that “natural” means nothing. The product may have some ingredients that come from nature, but it doesn’t mean that it is completely natural or free from harmful toxins. The ingredients that were once natural might’ve gone through some extensive processing, resulting in harmful ingredients. Even “100% natural” and “all-natural” products may contain unnatural, synthetic, or harmful ingredients (24).

The word “clean” is even more ambiguous. It sounds good, but it doesn’t mean anything. Does it mean that it’s free from fragrances? Free from a specific phthalate? Healthy? Natural? Or is it simply a catchy word? Usually, it is the latter.

Moreover, the terms “green”, “eco-friendly”, or “environmentally friendly” are not regulated either. It can mean a lot of things — or nothing at all. If you want to avoid greenwashing, you need to look for legitimate certifications, such as USDA organic, on the label instead of a pretty artwork that looks nice but means nothing (25, 26, 27). 

Even the term “chemical-free” is meaningless when it comes to cosmetics. When it comes to cosmetics, personal care products, and cleaning products, everything is a chemical. Even when it comes from safe and natural ingredients, soap and other products are made through chemical reactions. This only becomes a problem if we are dealing with harmful chemicals and toxins. Terms such as “fragrance-free”, “paraben-free”, or “dye-free” are better and more specific than “chemical-free”, but they don’t say much about what’s in the product. A cosmetic product may be free of parabens or dye, but may have some other harmful toxins in them.

Besides the problem with labels and marketing gimmicks, there is a lot of debate on what’s safe and what isn’t in cosmetics. Though there are some studies on the safety of different ingredients in cosmetics, results can differ, and the framing of these results can too. Some believe that some ingredients are safe or safe to a certain extent, while others disagree (28). For example, some advocacy groups are greatly concerned about parabens as hormone disruptors and skin irritants, while the FDA claims that there is no proof of them having adverse effects on human health (29, 30). 

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in make-up and cleansers may increase the risk of liver problems and high blood pressure according to some groups, but the FDA says that there is limited research on the topic and PFAS are not absorbed in harmful levels through cosmetics (33, 34). The same holds true for plasticizers in nail polish and fragrances. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), they may be endocrine disruptors and may increase the risk of cancer; the FDA and the CDC claim there is no known association between phthalates and health risks (31, 32).

Nevertheless, some states have taken action (35). For example, California has banned the use of some parabens, phthalates, and PFAS, Washington has banned phthalates and PFAS, and Minnesota and Colorado have banned PFAS (36, 37, 38, 39). As part of the MoCRA, in June 2024, the FDA should release a list of allergens that should be clearly listed on cosmetic labels. But this will still not include every potentially risky ingredient.

What Can You Do to Avoid Chemicals in Cosmetics?

So what can you do? Stop relying on marketing terms and cute graphics. Look at the ingredient lists. The main ingredients of the product should be at the top to help you out. 

  • Pay attention to the most common chemicals in cosmetics I listed earlier. 
  • Pay attention to any ingredients you may be personally sensitive or allergic to.
  • Look for products with a short ingredient list. 
  • Look for ingredients you can understand, such as coconut oil, shea butter, or cocoa butter. 
  • Choose certified organic products. 
  • Learn to make your own products from ingredients you know or buy from a local artisan that you can talk to about their ingredients and process.
  • Support your detoxification pathways and follow an overall healthy lifestyle to support your body in fighting any potential toxins you may encounter.

Next Steps

If you are experiencing symptoms related to chemical sensitivity, histamine intolerance, or allergic reactions, I invite you to schedule a consultation with me here to see if you can benefit from the strategies listed in this article. 

If you are dealing with any chronic health issues and need advice on how to improve your nutrition and health, I welcome you to start a functional medicine consultation with me for further personalized guidance. You may book your consultation here

Check out my Histamine Intolerance Course here. Learn on your own time, from anywhere. Get an inside look at the most helpful functional medicine tests for pinpointing imbalances, ways to identify and manage the most common (and sometimes surprising) mast cell triggers, and learn what to eat, what to avoid, and why.

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