Forty two percent of Americans seek out organic options when shopping for food, according to a recent Gallup poll. Yet only a small fraction of these individuals take the same care when choosing beauty products.

Know Your Chemicals

Each of these has a dozen nicknames, and is used by most popular U.S. brands

  • Butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene are used as a preservative in lipsticks and moisturizers. There is significant evidence that both are carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and long-term exposure can lead to liver and kidney damage.
  • P-phenylenediamine is a common compound in hair dyes, and has close relatives found in lipsticks. It is a known respiratory toxin and possible immune toxin.
  • DMDM hydantoin is used as a preservative in a variety of products. It slowly releases formaldehyde and is a known immune-toxin and suspected carcinogen.


Many popular cosmetics brands advertise “natural ingredients,” but this term is virtually meaningless since the FDA does not require these companies to do health testing on their products. Therefore, they are free to put almost anything into these formulas, including known or suspected carcinogens, neuro-toxins, liver-toxins, and hormone-disruptors.

“I worked for a lot of mainstream brands who claimed that they used natural ingredients, but I took it upon myself to see what those were, and was shocked by what I found,” said Sally Biondo, a New York-based makeup artist. “I looked through their general list of ingredients and realized I couldn’t even pronounce most of them.”

While companies are technically required to label untested products, this regulation is commonly ignored and rarely enforced by the FDA, according to

Biondo decided in 2007 that she would only use 100 percent natural and organic products on her clients as well as herself.

“The skin absorbs 60 percent of any substance we apply to it,” said Biondo. “It is important to think of cosmetics as an ingestion, not just an application.”

While research is still in the early stages for many ingredients, websites like allow you to plug in an ingredient and it will tell you the possible dangers as well as scientific information about the compound based on the most recent studies.

Safe Alternatives

Brandie Gilliam, creator of natural lifestyle blog Organic Beauty Talk, decided to switch to all-natural beauty products about 14 years ago. While it organic products were rare at that time, she now has no trouble finding suitable alternatives, and encourages others to make the switch as well.

“Most [all-natural] companies are small so it is harder to find them but they are out there,” said Gilliam. “Now even in grocery stores, it is standard to at least have a section where you can find these products.”

On her site, Gilliam provides both a list of trusted brands and a guide of what to look for in natural products. Since most carcinogens or otherwise harmful chemicals used by popular makeup brands are unpronounceable and unfamiliar to the average consumer, sites like Gilliam’s serve as roadmaps for consumers who are looking to reduce their chemical intake.

“It had never occurred to me to flip over a product and read the ingredients,” said Gilliam. “That day,

I read all the labels of products and threw them out and went on a journey to find non-toxic replacements.”

For all-natural or organic cosmetics to become the norm, the public needs to demand a change. While neither Biondo nor Gilliam are confident that this change will occur in the immediate future, they do believe it is on the horizon. Both have seen demand for natural products skyrocket over the last few years, and expect this trend to continue as consumers become more educated on the issue.

“I believe that we should take control of our health and it all comes down to that,” said Biondo. “Why should we put a harmful chemical on our skin when there are so many other choices?”

About The Author

Sarah Kai Schwarz is a Blast correspondent

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