Healthy Cosmetics
It is important to use makeup that doesn't harm your skin. Learn about surfactants, polymers, preservatives - types of ingredients commonly use...

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Using Healthy Cosmetics

Everyone want cosmetics to be age-defying, glow-enhancing, acne-fighting, sun-protective, skin-nourishing, hydrating, weightless, kiss-proof, long-wearing — and natural, too.

All this stuff matters for women and men, but it really affects women. Women use an average of 12 personal care products a day. Men use about half that many.

FDA, Labeling, and Beauty Product Safety

Many people seek out beauty products that are formulated from healthy, nontoxic ingredients. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy for consumers to recognize which brands are actually healthy for their skin. This is because the labels that claim the products are "green," "natural," or "organic" have no defined meaning.

There really is no government regulatory agency responsible for regulating the manufacture of cosmetics.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has some legal authority over cosmetics. However, cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to “premarket approval authority” (with the exception of color additives). In other words, the FDA isn’t checking to see whether that sunscreen is actually “100 percent organic.” In addition, the FDA cannot demand a recall of a dangerous product.

On the other hand, the FDA does have the power to take regulatory action against a manufacturer that is selling adultered or misbranded cosmetics on the market.

Cosmetics and Your Health

The FDA does not have the power to monitor cosmetics as closely as it does food and drugs. It’s important that you, as a consumer, take a more active part in making healthy purchasing decisions. Be aware that some of the chemicals contained in the products meant for you apply to your face and body may be toxic.

Prohibited Ingredients

According to the FDA, the following ingredients are legally prohibited in cosmetics:

  • bithionol
  • chlorofluorocarbon propellants
  • chloroform
  • halogenated salicylanilides (di-, tri-, metabromsalan and tetrachlorosalicylanilide)
  • methelyelene chloride
  • vinyl chloride
  • zirconium-containing complexes
  • prohibited cattle materials

Restricted Ingredients

According to the FDA, the following list of ingredients may be used, but are legally restricted:

  • hexachloropherene
  • mercury compounds
  • sunscreens used in cosmetics

Other Restrictions

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating consumers about what is actually in the products on the market. The EWG covers sunscreen, skin care products, makeup, toothpaste, baby products, and more. The EWG offers the following list of common ingredients to avoid:

  • benzalkonium chloride
  • BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole)
  • coal tar hair dyes and other coal tar ingredients (e.g., aminophenol, diaminobenzene, and phenylenediamine)
  • DMDM hydantoin & bronopol
  • formaldehyde
  • fragrance
  • hydroquinone
  • methylisothiazolinone and  methylchloroisothiazolinone
  • oxybenzone
  • parabens (propyl, isopropyl, butyl, and isobutylparabels)
  • PEG/ceteareth/polyethylene compounds
  • petroleum distillates
  • phthalates
  • resorcinol
  • retinyl palmitate and retinol (vitamin A)
  • toluene
  • triclosan & triclocarban

Understanding the “Make -Up” of Make Up

To help you make wise decisions, below are the four key categories of ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products. Many of the unsafe ingredients listed above belong to one or more of these categories.


According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, these are found in all products that are used for washing. They break up oily solvents produced by skin. When the oils are broken up, they can be washed away with water. Surfactants are combined with additives like dyes, perfumes, and salts in products such as foundation, shower gel, shampoo, and body lotion. They thicken the products, allowing them to spread evenly, and help them cleanse and foam.

Conditioning Polymers

Conditioning polymers retain moisture on the skin or in the hair. Glycerin, a natural component of vegetable oils and animal fats, is produced synthetically for the cosmetics industry. It's the oldest, cheapest, and most popular conditioning polymer.

In hair products, conditioning polymers attract water and soften hair while swelling the hair shaft. They also keep the product itself from drying out. They stabilize fragrances and keep the scent from seeping out through plastic bottles or tubes. In products such as shaving cream, they make the product feel smooth, slick, and non-sticky in your hand.


Preservatives are additives that have been of particular concern to consumers. They're used to retard bacterial growth. They prolong a product's shelf life and keep it from causing infections of the skin or eyes. The cosmetics industry is experimenting with so-called self-preserving cosmetics, in which plant oils or extracts act as natural preservatives. Studies show that some of these botanical preservatives also have deodorant, anti-inflammatory, or antioxidant properties. However, they can also irritate the skin or cause allergic reactions, and many have a strong odor that some people find unpleasant.


While not the primary portion of what makes up cosmetics, “fragrance” can often be the most harmful part of a beauty product. Fragrance often contains chemicals that might cause an allergic reaction. You may want to consider avoiding any product that includes the term “fragrance” in its list of ingredients.

Cosmetic Packaging Concerns

Choosing healthy makeup also means opting for packaging that's safe for you and healthy for the earth. Airless packaging, for example, creates an environment in which many bacteria can't reproduce. Jars with open mouths can become contaminated with bacteria. Pumps with one-way valves, however, keep air from entering the opened package and make contamination more difficult. Careful manufacturing processes keep the product sterile as it enters the bottle or jar.

Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: George T. Krucik, MD, MBA
Published: Aug 18, 2014
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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