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We're sure most of you have seen this list of scary cosmetic ingredients somewhere on the internet, in newspapers, and even on TV. The reasons you are told they are scary is because they are supposed to cause serious health risks, including cancer. In brief, it's all a lie, but you need more information to get to the truth!
The ingredients or categories of ingredients listed below are those most often cited as being a health risk or safety concern, often with no regard to the ingredient’s actual safety profile or how it’s used in cosmetics:
And so on...but here’s what you need to know, based on published, scientific research rather than sensationalist headlines:
There are no reasons why those ingredients should be avoided any more than the thousands of ingredients that show up in skin care or makeup, at least not for the reasons you’re being told about. These allegedly evil ingredients don't cause cancer, they don't cause disease, and they don't cause health problems in general—and there is no research to the contrary. None, zero, nada, nil, nothing. When used in appropriate amounts and appropriate grades of quality (which the cosmetic industry is absolutely doing) these ingredients and are just fine.
You can make any ingredient sound scary; after all, you can drown in too much water and if you drink enough alcohol, you’ll die. But the media isn’t running headlines telling you to avoid water or not enjoy a martini lest you be stricken with some terrible malady. It’s far easier to get someone’s attention with a story that arouses fear versus one that assures.
In terms of the ingredients listed above, acetone removes nail polish beautifully, is in contact with skin for mere seconds, and has a great safety profile when used appropriately. It's drying, yes, but so are non-acetone nail polish removers. The latter uses a strong solvent because that's what it takes to remove polish. The ingredient is usually ethyl acetate but it has to stay in contact with skin longer, which means it can be just as, if not more, drying.
Silicones are even sillier when it comes to fears about their safety. Not only are silicones one of the most elegant skin care and hair care ingredients around they are used in burn units around the world in their pure form to heal wounds. They feel like silk, form a flexible, permeable barrier on skin, and keep moisture in skin. They have no substitute. Ironically, companies boasting that their products don't contain silicones often do contain those ingredients because the name of the ingredient in the product they sell doesn't state ‘silicone’ (for example cyclopentasiloxane and phenyl trimethicone are silicones)!
Mineral oil has been a favorite scapegoat of this topic of scary cosmetic ingredients yet the extensive research about mineral oil shows it to not only be 100% safe it is considered to be an excellent ingredient in skin care products for dry skin. But the cosmetic industry avoids this ingredient because the fear mongers have lied and convinced people to be afraid of it.
Another example is parabens which are brilliant preservative ingredients with no research (and we mean NO research) showing they cause any health problems. In fact they are among the gentlest and most effective preservatives around. They are originally derived from raspberries and their replacements are no more safe or natural. You can read more about the issues with parabens and their safety here.
Because of the scare tactics flying around the internet about these ingredients, lots of cosmetics companies boast (or at least imply) that the ingredients they use are the safe ones. So what are they using instead? We already told you about acetone but there are other ingredients that can be just as "scary" sounding. For example, instead of talc in powders, some cosmetic companies use bismuth oxychloride. But guess what? Bismuth oxychloride turns out to be similar in molecular structure to arsenic. Scary, right? But bismuth oxychloride is not a problem for skin any more than talc is when used appropriately.
We can show you a lot of research about lavender (it is an endocrine disrupter), bergamot (can cause a phototoxic reaction on skin), and alcohol (causes free radical damage and destroys skin cells), and fragrant plant extracts in general (cause irritation damaging skin's barrier) along with many other natural ingredients that demonstrate how problematic those are for skin and why they should be avoided. But because these ingredients are natural and the common thinking is natural equals good, synthetic equals bad, you rarely see anything negative about them. If the research was there, we would jump on the bandwagon of safety issues and let you know what to avoid, just as we do now for ingredients proven to be a problem for skin. Rather than give in to the scare-tactic stories (and, sadly, entire websites devoted to convincing you that your lotion is slowly poisoning you), we think facts are more beautiful and will keep providing that information so you can make the most informed decisions on how to take the best possible care of your skin.
The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! Learn more at Shop Paula's Choice.
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Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:
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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and helping you solve your skincare frustrations with research-supported expert advice—so you'll have the facts you need to take the best possible care of your skin.
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