Throughout history, people have sought out innovative ways to apply new ingredients and techniques to achieve flawless, glowing skin and a more beautiful overall appearance. But in our rush to find the perfect beauty product, we’ve often made missteps.

For centuries, cosmetics were formulated with an incredible ingredient that was touted to do everything from brightening skin to creating the ideal base for cosmetic colors. That “miracle” ingredient–lead–is now shunned and regulated in almost every application because of the extensive harm we now know it causes.

Fortunately, we now benefit from the work of thousands of researchers across the globe who have taken it upon themselves to better understand the ingredients that go into our skincare routines. While some groups say there’s a lot of work yet to be done on that front, we’re learning something new nearly every day about what common cosmetic and personal care products are doing to our bodies and overall health.

Choosing a safer beauty regimen is the newest trend, and it’s one that everyone should jump on! Learning more about the products you use every day will help you make better choices and will allow you to enjoy the self-care even more.


Do a Little Research

The right place to start is by arming yourself with knowledge. Learn about common ingredients that cause concern, as well as how to best identify which products in your routine are safest.

When you’re ready, start going through your beauty stash. Take time to Google the ingredients, or use an online resource like the one available from skincare brand Paula’s Choice. The Environmental Working Group’s “Skin Deep” Cosmetics Database rates common consumer products as a whole and provides information about their potential effects.

Made Safe is an organization that aims to stick labels on products that were produced using “safe” ingredients. Their website has lots of tips on identifying problematic ingredients. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics offers guidance on selecting the right beauty products. A licensed skin care professional can offer guidance regarding the safety of ingredients, as well as how those products may be affecting your skin.


Nail It

In the past, nail polishes have been one of the biggest offenders of utilizing potentially unsafe ingredients. Fortunately, things are changing! Nail brands are among the leaders in the movement to make cosmetic ingredient safety more transparent for consumers and beauty professionals.

If you do your nails at home, choose a nail polish that proudly proclaims its status as a 3 (or more)-Free formulation. Remember to also check the ingredients in your top coat, base coat, nail treatments and nail polish remover.

Get your nails done by a professional? More and more salons are opting to use products with safer formulations. If you’re not sure what your nail salon uses, you can always ask. If you get artificial nails, it’s likely that you won’t be able to find a routine that’s completely free of questionable chemicals. Instead, focus on a salon with state of the art ventilation to keep you and your nail tech as safe as possible during the manicure.


Healthier Bath + Body

The products that you probably come into contact with most are your soaps, body washes, lotions and hair care goods. Because of that, these may be the most important products in your beauty routine to ensure are free of hazardous ingredients.

These products usually have lengthy ingredient lists that can seem impossible to sort through. Fortunately, lengthy chemical names aren’t necessarily an indication that a product is a danger. When you research the ingredients, you may find that the products you’re using are reasonably safe.

If your products are giving you some concerns, try to find alternatives that don’t use the ingredients you’re worried about. But be sure you’re doing your due diligence with the replacement you choose: companies sometimes trade one more recognizable “bad” ingredient for a lesser-known–but not necessarily safer–ingredient.

When it comes to swapping out products in your beauty routine, it’s always wise to do a check-in with your dermatologist or a trusted skin care professional. They can advise you about how the new product may interact with other items in your current skin care routine.


Beware Buzzwords & Gimmicks

A product that calls itself organic, all-natural, healthier, cleaner or safer isn’t necessarily what’s safest for you. It might be a good place to start when searching for a replacement for a problematic product, but you still need to take a good look at the ingredient list.

The truth about the beauty world is that there is very little regulation or oversight. Buzzwords like “natural” are often completely meaningless. Organic ingredients could still be irritants or allergens.

When it comes to beauty products, the old addage applies: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Products with a proven track record of success and safety beat snagging the latest and greatest innovations any day. Remember that if the application, packaging or ingredients are super cool and like nothing you’ve seen before... odds are, it’s just a gimmick. Stick to what works!


Is DIY Better?

If Pinterest is to be believed, the best way to avoid scary chemicals is to have a beauty routine that’s full of DIY creations. Like with “natural” products, DIY isn’t necessarily safer. While it’s still important to look up all of the ingredients you’ll be using, you will also have to do your research to better understand how combinations of ingredients will affect your skin.

For example, one common Pinterest recipe involves exfoliating your nose with sugar and lemon. While those ingredients are perfectly safe health-wise, they’re absolutely terrible for your skin: sugar is too abrasive, causing microtears, and lemon is too acidic, causing damage and irritation to your skin. Plus, lemon is phototoxic, meaning if you walk out into the sun after an exfoliation, you might end up with blisters! 


Know the Lingo


A formulation–typically, of nail polish–that is free of dibutyl phthalate (a plasticizer that has likely long and short-term toxicity affecting developmental and reproductive health), toluene (a highly-hazardous paint thinner that may cause neurological damage or impaired breathing) and formaldehyde (a preservative that can cause chronic health problems with frequent exposure).


On top of being 3-Free, this formula does not contain formaldehyde resin (which can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions) or camphor (which can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions, and prolonged exposure may cause organ damage).


This formula goes a step above 5-Free, also avoiding ethyl tosylamide (a plasticizer that was banned by the EU because it may exacerbate our antibiotic resistence problems) or xylene (a possible organ system toxin and neurotoxin, as well as lung and eye irritant). Some brands claim to be as much as 12-Free. That just means those products have elected to eliminate even more questionable ingredients.


A group of synthetic compounds frequently used as preservatives, preventing microbial growth. The FDA worries that cumulative exposure to these chemicals–even at “safe” levels–could cause hormone disruption, which is linked to increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive issues.


These salts are common in detergents and cleaning products, including shampoos. Their production and use is controversial because of its effects to the environment. While there is no evidence that sulfates are dangerous, many people prefer the results when using sulfate-free products because sulfates can build up on hair and skin, causing a dull, heavy appearance.


Yes, even in this day and age, you still have to make sure your beauty products don’t contain this heavy metal. Known for causing developmental delays, reproductive problems, decreased kidney function and cardiovascular effects, this ingredient is limited by the FDA. It can still be found in higher amounts in cosmetics produced outside the US, often in knock-offs.


It’s a trend to worry about “toxins” in our products, food and environments. But the word toxin has a very specific definition, and it’s often misused by people who are trying to capitalize on the trend, using a scary word to suggest that many substances are more harmful than they really are.

Toxins are poisonous substances produced within living cells and organisms. Toxicants may be man-made, biologically produced or naturally occurring. Toxicants aren’t necessarily poisonous, but do have some effect on living organisms over time.