The definition of safe makeup goes beyond “natural.” Products that tout themselves as natural, organic, or eco don’t actually have to follow any legal or industry rules about their ingredients. Plus, not all natural ingredients are safe, anyway. Poison ivy is natural, but would you rub it all over your face?
What Is Safe Makeup?
To be considered safe makeup, a product must not include any ingredients that could potentially negatively impact our body’s normal function and cause issues like allergies, cancer, or reproductive harm. To help me determine whether or not a product meets that standard, I turn to the Environmental Work Group (EWG), a nonprofit that works to educate consumers about the products we use. EWG rates personal care products based on the known hazards associated with ingredients listed on labels. Using their Skin Deep database of thousands of products and ingredients, or their build your own report tool, I can better assess the safety of each product. I only use or recommend products that get a 1 or 2 ranking, which indicates a “low hazard” risk, or products that are specifically EWG Verified, meaning they meet rigorous criteria.
To be considered safe makeup, a product must not include any ingredients that could potentially negatively impact our body’s normal function.
“Natural really doesn’t mean anything specific when it comes to products,” Lisa Eberly Mastela told me. Mastela, who has a masters in public health and runs her own online wellness community, said that “natural” might mean that a product has one or two natural ingredients in it. But that doesn’t rule out the presence of other potentially dangerous ingredients.
Since the FDA does not have the legal authority to approve any cosmetics before they go on the market, we can’t simply trust claims made by brands. Instead, Mastela has this suggestion: “Look for products that specifically call out which ingredients they don’t have.” In other words, you want to rule out the dangerous stuff, natural or not.
“Look for products that specifically call out which ingredients they don’t have.”
So, what ingredients should we avoid? Anything that may disrupt the way our hormones function, interfere with reproductive health, cause allergies, skin irritations, or even cancer. Based on my personal research, I’ve broken these down to a list of 10 ingredients I watch out for. Below, you’ll find out where they commonly pop up and why they’re potentially harmful. I’ve also listed a few products I enjoy. These products don’t include the common bad ingredients and meet the overall safe makeup test.
Where you’ll find it: body lotion, shampoo, conditioners, face cleanser, body wash, foundation, and pomade.
Why you should avoid it: Parabens mimic estrogen, which may disrupt normal hormone functioning and cause developmental and sexual reproductive harm. Research suggests they could be linked to breast cancer and interfere with male reproductive functions.
Many personal care products contain parabens, increasing the risk of overexposure. One study found parabens in the urine of 96 percent of participants. On the ingredient list, you’ll often see a phrase ahead of paraben, like methylparaben, propylparaben, ehylparaben, or butylparaben. Avoid any products that have ingredients ending with -paraben.
Safe products that don’t include parabens:
Osea Ocean Cleansing Milk gets a 2 on EWG and is available on Amazon
Attitude Shampoo and Conditioner is EWG Verified and available on Amazon
BHA and BHT
Where you’ll find it: lipsticks, eyeshadow, blush, face powder, moisturizers, diaper creams, deodorant, and hair products.
Why you should avoid it: Butylated compounds, often listed as BHA or BHT, act as a preservative in cosmetics, but can also disrupt our hormones and cause developmental and reproductive issues. The US National Toxicology Program found that it could also be a human carcinogen.
Safe products that don’t include BHA and BHT:
RMS Lip2Cheek gets a 2 on EWG and is available on Amazon
Mineral Fusion Eye Shadow Trio is EWG Verified (which means the brand provides full transparency to EWG) and available on Amazon
First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream Intense Hydration gets a 2 on EWG and is available on Amazon
Mustela Diaper Rash Cream 123 gets a 1 on EWG and is available on Amazon
Where you’ll find it: synthetic fragrance, nail polish, eyelash glue, and hairspray.
Why you should avoid it: Phthalates can interfere with our bodies’ normal hormone functions. They’ve been linked to reproductive issues like female infertility, lower sperm counts, birth defects, as well as obesity and thyroid problems. Other research has linked them to cancer.
Anything with undisclosed fragrance can mask a combination of hundreds of different ingredients, including phthalates.
Often phthalates hide under the innocent-sounding “fragrance/parfum” written on your ingredient list. Anything with undisclosed fragrance can mask a combination of hundreds of different ingredients, including phthalates. So avoid anything with the generic “fragrance” ingredient. Gravitating toward “fragrance free” products is a great place to start.
Safe products that don’t include phthalates:
Qet Botanicals Lavender Botanical Nectar is EWG Verified and available on Amazon
Acquarella Nail Polish gets a 1 on EWG and is available on Amazon
Yarok Feed Your Shine Serum gets a 1 on EWG and is available on Amazon
Octinoxate and Oxybenzone
Where you’ll find it: sunscreen, moisturizers, aftershave, lipstick, nail polish, skin creams, foundations, fragrance, hair products.
Why you should avoid it: These UV filters can interfere with our bodies’ normal hormone functions. Research shows that octinoxate can have a harmful effect on a fetus’s reproductive organ development. And oxybenzone has been shown to alter the function of the reproductive system and thyroid in animal studies. Both are easily absorbed and have been found in mothers’ breast milk.
These UV filters can interfere with our bodies’ normal hormone functions.
Safe products that don’t include octinoxate and oxybenzone:
Ilia’s lipstick gets a 2 on EWG and is available on Amazon
RMS Beauty “Un”Cover-up gets a 1 on EWG and is available on Amazon
Mineral Fusion Liquid Foundation is EWG verified and available on Amazon
Derma E Natural Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 Oil-Free Face Lotion gets a 1 on EWG and is available on Amazon
Where you’ll find it: antibacterial liquid soap, deodorant, shaving cream, soap bars, and toothpaste.
Why you should avoid it: Triclosan can mess with our hormones, and one study linked it to the proliferation of breast cancer cells. Triclosan can accumulate in the body’s fatty tissues, and has been found in breast milk and infant umbilical cords. It has also been tied to the creation of “superbugs” that resist antibiotics.
Safe products that don’t include triclosan:
Dr. Brite Whitening Mineral Toothpaste is EWG verified and available on Amazon
Dr. Bronner’s All-One Hemp Pure-Castile Soap gets a 1 on EWG and is available on Amazon
Where you’ll find it: mascara, hair dyes, foundation, fragrances, sunscreens, pharmaceuticals, shampoo, and lotion.
Why you should avoid it: Studies link these compounds to cancer in animals and human male reproductive health problems. In the European Union, DEA is specifically forbidden from cosmetics.
Safe products that don’t include ethanolamine:
W3LL PEOPLE Expressionist Mascara is EWG verified and available on Amazon
Juice Beauty Stem Cellular CC Cream SPF 30 gets a 1 on EWG and is available on Amazon
Viva Naturals Sweet Almond Oil gets a 1 on EWG and is available on Amazon
Retinyl Palmitate and Retinol (Vitamin A)
Where you’ll find it: moisturizers and antiaging skin care.
Why you should avoid it: Retinol is the chemical compound of vitamin A. It can be harmful in high doses, and derivatives retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate should be avoided in any quantity. Risks include skin cancer exposure and developmental and reproductive issues. Consuming high doses of vitamin A during pregnancy also has been linked to birth defects.
Safe products that don’t include retinol:
Juice Beauty Antioxidant Serum gets a 2 on EWG and is available on Amazon
OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream gets a 2 on EWG and is available on Amazon
Hydroquinone or Tocopheryl Acetate
Where you’ll find it: skin-lightening creams, face cleansers, moisturizers. and hair conditioner.
Why you should avoid it: The EU has banned hydroquinone, which is linked to increased exposure to UVA and UVB rays, as well as skin and respiratory problems. Hydroquinone is also a potential impurity of tocopheryl acetate, so if you want to reduce your risk of exposure you should avoid tocopheryl acetate as well.
Safe products that don’t include hydroquinone or tocopheryl acetate:
Bioderma Intensive Baume gets a 2 on EWG and is available on Amazon
Diazolidinyl Urea (Formaldehyde)
Where you’ll find it: sunscreen, lotion, conditioner, shampoo, liquid baby soap, nail polish.
Why you should avoid it: Various preservatives used in cosmetics can release formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. These may also cause skin irritation issues. Look for ingredients including: formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) and glyoxal.
Safe products that don’t include diazolidinyl urea:
Avalon Organics Biotin B-Complex Thickening Shampoo is EWG verified and available on Amazon
Avalon Organics Biotin B-Complex Thickening Conditioner is EWG verified and available on Amazon
1,4-Dioxane (PEG or Sodium Laureth Sulfate)
Where you’ll find it: bubble bath, shampoo, liquid soap, and hair relaxers.
Why you should avoid it: 1,4 Dixoane, a known carcinogen and irritant, often ends up in our cosmetics, but not on the ingredient list. That’s because it’s an unwanted byproduct of ingredient processing. While manufacturers can remove it, testing of personal care products suggests that 1,4 Dixoane remains in many products. If you see ingredients like PEG or Sodium Laureth Sulfate, that’s a red flag. So if you want to be safe, avoid those ingredients as well.
Products that don’t include 1,4-Dioxane:
Carina Organics Sweet Pea Bubble Bath gets a 1 from EWG and is available on Amazon