How to Choose Safer Skin Care Products

By Lauren Fischer

By Lauren Fischer

We have been warned about the dangers of pesticides and hormones in our food and pollutants in our environment, but are there toxins lurking in other areas of our daily life? Perhaps in our medicine cabinets? Americans use an average of nine personal-care products a day. As long as we look younger and smell like vanilla frosting we have nothing to worry about, right?


According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), personal care products are made with 10,500 unique chemical ingredients that the American government does not require to be tested prior to landing on the shelves of your local drugstore. Some of these chemicals are “known or suspected carcinogens, toxic to the reproductive system or known to disrupt the endocrine system.”

These chemicals are problematic because they do not just sit on top of the skin. They are absorbed through the skin where they can then enter the blood stream or accumulate in the tissue. The skin absorbs chemicals so efficiently that pain medications and nicotine can be administered through topical patches. Potentially toxic chemicals added to personal care products are absorbed just as efficiently as medications. Parabens have been found in breast tissue, phthalates have been found in amniotic fluid and “fragrance” components have been found in fat. In addition to absorption through the skin, chemicals find their way into the body through other routes, such as swallowing toothpaste or lip products and inhaling hairspray or perfume.

In order to protect yourself, you must choose personal care products with the same vigilance you choose foods. When choosing foods the terms “organic” and “natural” are helpful because they are regulated by the USDA. Unfortunately, these terms are not regulated in the personal care world and therefore do not guarantee safer products. According to the EWG, products labeled natural or organic can contain synthetic chemicals including petrochemicals. This means you must look beyond the pretty label and investigate the ingredient list. Below are a few ingredients you always want to avoid.


Parabens may be listed in the following forms: propyl, isopropyl, butyl and isobutyl. They are preservatives that mimic estrogen and act as potential hormone disruptors.


You may see the word phthalates or the abbreviations DEHP, DINP, DBP or DEP on an ingredient list. They are plasticizers that are considered a probable carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency.


The ingredient “fragrance” refers to a combination of any of the 3,100 fragrance chemicals. These chemicals have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.

Triclosan & Triclocarban

These guys are antibacterial agents found in antibacterial soaps. They kill “good” and “bad” skin bacteria and may act as endocrine disruptors.

Considering there are 10,500 unique chemical ingredients in personal care products these five ingredients are just the tip of the toxic iceberg. Fortunately, you do not have to memorize all 10,500 chemicals to make informed cosmetic choices. The EWG has two great resources to help you out.

EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database

The EWG’s Skin Deep Database provides product and ingredient safety ratings and health information about cosmetics. The database is searchable by product, ingredient or category, such as toothpaste. The database provides a hazard score for each product and ingredient. The hazard score is a 1–10 scale with 1–2 being low hazard, 3–6 being moderate hazard and 7–10 being high hazard.

EWG’s Healthy Living App

The EWG’s Healthy Living app provides product health and safety ratings for over 200,000 foods and cosmetics. It allows you to easily search and scan products as you shop.