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Watch out for hidden health risks in beauty products

Cosmetic Triclosan ucm206191The labels on beauty products and cosmetics are covered with flowers and greenery and words like natural and healthy.

However, consumers need to be aware of hidden risks from harmful chemicals.

While manufacturers have been phasing out some chemicals due to consumer demand, there are still dangers consumers should be aware of, according to ShopSmart, a publication of Consumer Reports.

“The problem is that some of these manufacturers are appealing to shoppers looking for healthier beauty products by changing what’s on the container – not what’s in it,” said Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief of ShopSmart. “Yes, there might be aloe or shea butter added, but there might also be lots of stuff you don’t want to rub on your body every day.”

Ingredient watch list

When buying cosmetics, ShopSmart recommends checking ingredients lists for chemicals including the following – some of them are banned or restricted in other countries:

  • Formaldehyde releasers and 1,4 dioxane, both possible carcinogens, may be found in some anti-wrinkle creams, mascaras, makeup removers, hair conditioners, and body washes. They can contain preservatives that release formaldehyde over time when mixed with water. Avoid products with quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin listed as ingredients.
  • Phthalates. Diethyl phthalate, which is found in fragrance, and dibutyl phthalate, a plasticizer in nail polish, are classified as toxic by the Federal Hazardous Substances Act. Avoid products with ingredients lists that include the word “fragrance,” and look for nail polishes that don’t have DBP or DMP in the ingredients lists.
  • Triclosan and Triclocarban are found in hand and body washes, deodorants, toothpastes, and some cosmetics. These antibacterial agents can affect reproductive growth and developmental systems. Choose products that don’t list triclosan or triclocarban on their ingredients list.

Meaningful labels

The terms “natural,” “dermatologist tested,” and “hypoallergenic” aren’t meaningful because they aren’t independently verified. Below are some examples of terms and seals that are legitimate, according to ShopSmart’s researchers:

  • USDA Organic. It requires that at least 95 percent of the ingredients be organically grown and prohibits the use of all potentially harmful synthetic ingredients.
  • Natural Products Association Certified or NPA and Design for the Environment or DfE. Standards include bans on triclosan, phthalates, formaldehyde, and formaldehyde releasers.
  • Non-GMO Project Verified. The product contains no genetically engineered ingredients. 

Beauty product shopping apps

When shopping for beauty products, ShopSmart recommends using these free apps to evaluate ingredients and help narrow the choices:

  • Think Dirty. A product gets a score of 0 to 10, with 10 the worst, on the “Dirty Meter” based on the potential toxicity of its ingredients. Works on iOS.
  • Skin Deep Cosmetics. It allows searches by ingredient and product name and has information on known hazards for the ingredients listed. Users can also search the website at Works on Android and iOS.
  • GoodGuide. GoodGuide scores products based on health risks, impact on the environment, and the manufacturer’s social policies. A score of 10 is best and 0 is worst. Works on Android and iOS.

For more information, see the report “Health Risks in Your Makeup” that includes more ingredients to avoid, specific product recommendations, and other meaningful labels and seals. It’s featured in the September 2014 issue of ShopSmart, which is available on newsstands.

ShopSmart also is available by subscription at

Copyright 2014, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist


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