Many people understand the importance of avoiding dangerous toxins in their diets. These people take great steps to know exactly what they’re putting in their bodies, often striving to eat only fresh, clean foods.

By Emily Folk:

However, fewer people recognize the importance of avoiding toxins in their beauty products as well.

The ingredients used in beauty products have direct contact with your skin, which may allow some toxins to be absorbed into the body. Furthermore, products you spray or use in the shower have the potential to be inhaled. It makes sense, then, that you would want to give beauty products the same scrutiny you give to your food.

In the United States, the cosmetics industry is woefully unregulated. Though things are getting better slowly but surely, many companies still use dangerous synthetic chemicals in their products. Consumers may notice unsavory-sounding ingredients in anything from nail polish to sunscreen, but all too often, they don’t know which ingredients are safe and which are not.

What Ingredients Should You Avoid?

When shopping for beauty products, you should be aware that certain chemicals used in cosmetics may be harmful to your health. Companies derive many synthetic chemicals from things you probably wouldn’t want to put in your body, like crude oil. Two of the most common synthetic chemicals you should avoid are parabens and phthalates, both of which are contained in a variety of beauty products on shelves today.

Parabens such as methylparaben or propylparaben serve as preservatives in many foods and cosmetics products. Though they extend the shelf lives of products, these chemicals may have insidious health effects. In the body, parabens mimic the hormone estrogen in the human body, allowing them to bind to estrogen receptors. This quality makes parabens endocrine disruptors, chemicals that disrupt the normal functions of the endocrine system.

Though the disrupting effect of parabens on the endocrine system should be small, some research suggests that there may be a link between excessive paraben exposure and breast cancer. Scientists need to do more research before they can determine causality. However, many people choose to avoid parabens until scientists give a final verdict on the safety of these chemicals.

Health-savvy consumers should also avoid phthalates in their beauty products. Like parabens, phthalates are endocrine disruptors. Though these compounds don’t exactly mimic estrogen, they can interfere with other hormones that interact with estrogen, such as testosterone. Phthalates are linked to cancer and fertility issues, and in animal studies, they have been found to increase the incidence of male birth defects.

Phthalates exist in many common products like shampoo, nail polish and hairspray. Cosmetics manufacturers often use these chemicals to reduce brittleness or maintain bright color in their products.

How Can You Protect Yourself?

It should be easy to avoid these toxins in your beauty products. One would think that scanning labels and ingredient lists would easily reveal the presence of parabens and phthalates in store-bought products. Unfortunately, however, this isn’t always the case.

Some labels list vague ingredients like “fragrance” that seem innocent enough. However, fragrances often contain phthalates and act as allergens and skin and respiratory irritants. These dangers are masked by vague terminology.

Consumers can’t rely on labels like “natural” either since these aren’t legally regulated terms. In order to avoid toxins in your beauty products, you need to know all the ingredients companies use and even what those ingredients contain. This requires significant research and reading.

Luckily, many companies today do provide alternative beauty products free of parabens and phthalates. You can find these products online or sometimes in local health food stores. Sort through your beauty products and slowly replace questionable products with alternatives. When you find products you like, stick by them. You may even consider bringing your own alternative shampoo or nail polish to the salon when you go.

If you’re struggling to find alternatives free of toxins, you may also consider making some of your own beauty products. You can make many DIY face masks, scrubs and moisturizers with ingredients you already have in your kitchen. When you make your own products, you know exactly what you’re putting on your skin.

Until stricter regulations limit what cosmetics companies can include in their products, consumers need to find ways to protect themselves. Luckily, being informed is one of the biggest steps you can take to begin avoiding potential toxins. By doing your research and searching for healthy alternatives, you can ensure the safety of your beauty routine.

Emily Folk: Conservation and Sustainability Writer.