The Ultimate Guide To Toxic Cosmetics

​Introduction

There’s a wealth of information out there about which cosmetics you should be using to get healthy skin but sometimes it’s useful to know what not to put on your skin, so you avoid actively damaging it through a poor skincare routine. 

Fortunately for you, we’ve compiled a lot of the available information on toxic cosmetics into this article. It features everything from our history of using toxic cosmetics, the infamous toxic twelve to watch out for today, information about the healthier alternatives to the toxic twelve, and the best brands to shop for if you want a guaranteed non-toxic cosmetic supplier without having to read the labels of every product.

History of Toxic Cosmetics

Ancient Egypt

When thinking of cosmetics throughout history, probably the most striking and oldest example you’ll remember is the common portrayal of Egyptians in the media. Ancient Egyptians are widely portrayed as wearing fanciful, indulgent makeup over their face, and particularly their eyes, but there’s actually a lot of truth to this. 

Those who could at the time, regardless of gender, would powder their eyes with black and green powders since this protected their eyes from the sun. There is also evidence of some believing that it staved away eye illnesses, though the efficacy of powdering your eyes to protect them is untested.

At any rate, it was very unhealthy. Why? Because that powder was made from either lead or antimony, or a mix of the two. You know lead, everybody knows lead, so we’ll leave it to you to guess why peppering your face with lead on the daily will cause adverse health effects. As for antimony, all you need to know about it right now is that it’s as poisonous as lead when you’re dabbing it on your face.

They didn’t do this in spite of poor health, however, since ancient Egypt was full of other problems and the average Egyptian lifespan was approximately thirty years if you were a woman and thirty-four years if you were a man. This means that it’s likely that very few lived long enough to see the adverse effects of lead poisoning and, for the few that did, it was likely blamed on a whole host of possible causes that came with living in Egypt.

Lead poisoning for the sake of cosmetic beauty would turn out to be a consistent problem afflicting mankind through many historical eras, as you’ll see below.

England

Our old friend lead was used in England during the Roman Empire occupation, too, usually only on women and in finer forms to just whiten their faces instead of painting any marks on themselves like the Egyptians did. This situation is similar to the Egyptians where, with the lifespan of the average person being just twenty-five, it was rare for lead poisoning symptoms to develop before something else got them.

What’s more interesting, however, is that in the 16th Century English nobles started doing the same thing again, usually to hide plague scars. There was also likely a desire by those in power to emulate the old makeup standards of the ancient world, but they no longer had the excuse of dying too young. The average 16th Century person only had a lifespan of 39 years but, considering that nobles were the ones wearing the bad makeup, it wasn’t uncommon for nobles to live longer than others, despite obviously not trying to.

All over the world people recognize the image of Elizabeth I and, if you don’t recognize the name, search her up now. She was known for her white skin and puffed-up, regal hair but, if you learned about her in any classroom, you’d likely know that the lead and vinegar face treatments she got permanently discolored her skin, rotted her teeth out of her skull, and led to the loss of all her hair, causing her to pick up that flea-infested hairpiece.

United States

Bringing it back around to the States, it was only as recent as the 19th and 20th Centuries that certain harmful products weren’t only around but were being actively promoted by newspapers and other informational institutions, scrutinized by no health or advertising watchdogs whatsoever. Everyone knows the Wild West stereotype of the snake oil merchant hawking useless if not dangerous goods but, yet again, these kinds of caricatures exist because those kinds of deceitful antics did occur.

Once newspapers began pushing so-called “complexion wafers” whose principal ingredient was arsenic which, curiously enough, the Victorians had established as toxic sometime before. The wafers themselves, on their label, slapped a notice saying the product contained poison themselves, yet still they put them to market. We knew arsenic was dangerous yet so many people decided to take the risk to maintain a strong complexion, which probably says a lot about how far some people would go for beauty.

The Toxic Twelve

Forgive us for assuming but you didn’t come here to get permission to dab peppered lead or arsenic on your bare skin. You want to learn which cosmetics to avoid now, especially since they can be a lot more deceiving at first glance. Let us break down these ingredients, explain where they’re commonly found, and take a look at their symptoms.

So, what are the Toxic Twelve? They’re a group of chemicals mentioned in the California Assembly Bill 2782, or the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act if you prefer using your words. They’re already banned in most of Europe as per European Union legislation, and some of the largest chains here in the States like Target and Walgreens have said they’ll move towards eliminating products with these ingredients in them. These twelve chemicals are as follows:

Formaldehyde – A well-known gas and carcinogen that’s found in nail hardeners and polishes, as well as some hair smoothing product too if the product gets heated up.

Paraformaldehyde – A type of formaldehyde, hence the familiar name.

Methylene glycol – Another type of formaldehyde, despite the unfamiliar name.

Quaternium-15, - Triggers the release of formaldehyde under certain conditions.

Mercury – Renowned for causing kidney failure and nervous system damage.

Dibutyl and diethylhexyl phthalates – Endocrine disruptor that also harms your fertility. It’s abundant in fragrances in the cosmetic industry and many swear by washing it off before bed to limit negative effects if you have to wear fragrances containing phthalates.

Isobutyl and isopropyl parabens – These disrupt hormonal balance and reproductive ability, too.

Long-chain per- and polyfluoroalkyl – Contain cancer-linked substances called PFAS.

M- and O-phenylenediamine – A skin irritant that damages DNA and increases cancer risk. Phenylenediamines are part of a group called the coal tar dyes in the cosmetic industry, for their deep, dark colors that are great for tinting. That may be true, but you don’t want to be slathering something with tar in the name on your face. It’s the Egyptian eye powder all over again.

If you’re serious about your skin health and see any names from this rogue’s gallery appear on the label, we’d advise you to steer clear. There’s always an alternative that won’t cause you any undue harm in the pursuit of beauty.

If you’re curious as to why these aren’t fully legislated against, let me paint you a picture. The average American woman uses about twelve personal care products during their daily life, totaling in one hundred and sixty-eight chemicals that enter her skin and bloodstream. For men, those numbers fall to six personal care products containing eighty-five distinct chemicals. Many are harmless, or only harmful in unreasonably large doses, and so rooting out the ones harmful even in smaller doses can be a difficult and time-consuming task.

There’s also the added complication of overseas manufacturing, where cosmetic imports from countries with less strict regulations like, say, China, have increased by eighty percent between the fiscal years of 2011 and 2016. How can we police what goes into certain cosmetics if it isn’t us in charge of making them?

That’s more than enough geopolitics for a skincare article, though, so let’s talk about the current regulations in the States. Cosmetics legislation hasn’t been updated since 1938, leaving a large gap in the regulation of chemicals and chemical compounds that have entered the industry in that period. When cosmetics are accessible to us during their manufacture, the FDA doesn’t have anywhere near as much authority over cosmetics as they have with other industries. Personal care companies don’t need to register with the FDA, submit ingredients statements, or even report adverse events related to the products they manufacture.

Approximately ten thousand chemicals have been used across the entire cosmetics industry and only eleven have ever been prohibited or banned by the FDA, which are as follows:

Bithionol – Can induce photo-contact sensitization in individuals using it. Would make bad sunscreen.

Chlorofluorocarbon propellants – Or CFCs, which are widely known for their harmful effects on both health and the environment.

Chloroform – Chloroform is like formaldehyde in that it’s a known carcinogen and smells really bad.

Halogenated salicylanilides – Di, tri, metabromsalan, and tetrachlorosalicylanilide can cause serious skin disorders. They’re also hard to say.

Hexachlorophene – It’s both toxic and very penetrative to human skin, which is a disastrous combination for products that you rub, you know, on your skin.

Mercury compounds – This is a fun one. Whilst mercury itself isn’t prohibited as per FDA regulations, compounds including mercury are. Mercury compounds are extremely limited because they’re easily absorbed into the skin, causing allergic reactions, irritation, and/or neurotoxic complications.

Methylene chloride – Has been proven to cause cancer to animals and is likely to cause cancer in humans too.

Prohibited cattle materials – This one was part of the sweeping FDA regulations that came about during the mad cow disease outbreak, prohibiting the use of certain animal materials, or any animal material from non-ambulatory or uninspected cattle.

Sunscreen in cosmetics – This one is more to define the claims that cosmetic manufacturers are making when they use the word sunscreen. If a cosmetic contains sunscreen to protect against the sun then it is reclassified as a drug and subject to those FDA regulations, so cosmetics that include sunscreen must explain on the label what that sunscreen adds to the cosmetic product aside from its UV-reflecting capabilities like, for example, protecting the color of the product.

Vinyl chloride – Vinyl chloride is prohibited since it’s a shared ingredient found in many aerosol products, which are suspected to cause cancer and a myriad of other health problems.

Zirconium-containing complexes – Once again, zirconium-containing complexes are prevalent in aerosol cosmetics but, because they’re toxic to the lungs of animals, they’re suspected to cause granulomas on human skin.

Looking at this FDA list, you can see why some eyebrows are being raised over the fact the Toxic Twelve have yet to be regulated against. Chloroform and mercury compounds are functionally similar to formaldehyde and, well, mercury by itself, yet one pair is prohibited and the other isn’t. There are also a few items on the list that are prohibited just out of the suspicion they would cause harm because of negative results during animal testing when there’s even more evidence of some of the Toxic Twelve being harmful to humans yet they’re still allowed.

There’s also no doubt that one activist group’s Toxic Twelve may be slightly different, seeing as there are so many untested and unregulated chemicals finding their way into the cosmetic industry. The twelve we highlighted seem to actually have something being done about them, though, so we chose to include them and use them to educate about these problems facing the industry at large.

Whatever you do, don’t despair, since there are still steps you can take to eliminate these problematic chemicals from your skincare routines. See below for our recommended alternatives that you can use to purge yourself of toxic products.

The Alternatives:

How to switch to Non-Toxic Makeup

Since we used their list of the Toxic Twelve as a reference, it’s only right that we shout out the EWG to those who are seeking healthier skincare products. They have a scoring system on their site, EWG’s Skin Deep ratings, which allows you to search for your desired product and find out both the hazard level and the availability of studies that have indicated whether it’s a low, moderate, or high hazard. This can be an invaluable tool for those who are building a small arsenal of non-toxic products.

Emphasis on it being a small arsenal, too, since it only stands to reason that the more cosmetic products you use, the more you’ll expose yourself to these potentially harmful chemicals. Less is more when trying to avoid negative ingredients, both in terms of the products themselves as well as how many multisyllabic words are on the label.

You can even make simple face masks and body scrubs at home with any food ingredients you have lying around, because if it’s good enough to go inside you then it should be just fine to be used on your skin. You should find many recipes for these online, only a search away.

Avoid buzzwords! Well, maybe not avoid them all, that’s impossible, but definitely treat the words “pure,” “organic,” and “natural” as being very suspicious. These are completely vacuous terms that can get thrown around without legally meaning anything. What that does mean is that if some cosmetic gives you cancer, you’ll have no legal recourse to sue them for deceptive advertising since they said their products were “organic.”

Good activists and pro-healthy cosmetic groups often award certifications out to those who have been proven to supply healthier products, so keeping an eye out for those on websites will be a great way to identify if the retailer is on board with them or not. Fortunately, this is becoming more and more common as the pro-health groups are getting more attention.

The Best Non-Toxic Makeup Brands

There are plenty of makeup brands that offer cosmetic products that are natural and organic, so let’s talk about some of them.

Honest Beauty

One of the more high-profile non-toxic brands you’ll see when looking for healthy skin care products will be Honest Beauty, the cosmetic branch of The Honest Company. This is, in part, due to who co-founded and acts as the face for The Honest Company, none other than Jessica Alba. That’s good for press attention, of course, but Honest Beauty products have proven themselves to be a great entry point into so-called “green” cosmetics.

Jessica Alba herself probably explained it best when talking to Elle.com about starting the company shortly after the birth of her child: “I’m not a hippie. I can’t just be living off the land! … What’s the alternative? [Consumers] want something that’s cool, youthful, and current.” 

Honest Beauty continued this train of thought to deliver accessible products that, for all intents and purposes, feel like they are the premium, chemical-filled makeup that so many women are used to, but now have none of that toxicity. They also try to keep pricing down, since Alba sees the cosmetic line as a social justice project designed to make green cosmetics freely available to people from most economic backgrounds.

All cosmetics are formed in-house by clinical scientists who hold themselves to very high ethical standards. The brand has a “no list” of ingredients that they outright refuse to put into their products. How many items are on that list? Oh, just about three thousand. That’s more than the European Union has banned via regulation at just one thousand three hundred and, as discussed at length earlier in this article, the US has only banned eleven.

They err on the side of not using untested chemicals, hence why this list is so exhaustive, but it always is better to be safe than sorry. If you can’t see yourself going green where cosmetics are used, maybe you’re institutionalized in the larger brands that use harmful ingredients to achieve the best results, then Honest Beauty could be the stepping stone you need to coax you over.

Rituel De Fille

Rituel De Fille is a clean makeup brand based out of Los Angeles and has quite the cult following on sites like Instagram. This is mainly due to the very high-quality finish that their highlighters leave. They specialize in these pigment-rich products so, if you go for bold colors and can’t find a satisfying match to your usual routine, you need to check these people out.

The name translates to Girl Ritual in English, alluding to the fact that it was founded by three sisters, Katherine, Caroline, and Michelle Ramos, who see their cosmetic manufacturing process more like potion-making because of all the natural ingredients they use. The natural ingredients they use are harmless when applied more or less everywhere on the body, making them great for those with sensitive skin.

Besides their original take on cosmetic design, with particular attention paid to striking pigments and the like, their Instagram shows that they can deliver green cosmetics made to a high-quality that glow just as much as industry-leading makeup.

RMS Beauty

Another of the heavy hitters that come to mind when many think about non-toxic cosmetic products, RMS Beauty is a massive hit with fans of natural makeup. Highly regarded makeup artist Rose-Marie Swift is not just the leading lady behind this impressive brand, but she’s also a staunch advocate for more regulation in the cosmetics industry, appearing in the documentary ‘Toxic Beauty.’

Her appearance is one of the more memorable ones, where she drops bombshells about how some of the leading industry chemists know their products harm women on a cellular level but can’t speak up about it as there’s too much money involved.

Rose-Marie got her start when certain makeups triggered health issues for her, hence the brand’s big focus on wellbeing. When we really became convicted in the green cosmetic game is when she caught a whiff of industry professionals admitting behind closed doors that their products could be harmful.

RMS Beauty as it exists today is a response to her disdain towards the current beauty scene, using her pre-established caliber in the industry for good as she set about expanding the green cosmetic market. Their products are made with food-grade, raw, and/or organic ingredients rich in antioxidants and natural vitamins, giving her catalog anti-aging properties, too.

& Other Stories

& Other Stories is an established Swedish brand that’s well-known for their minimalist chic style but they also have their own beauty range and, you guessed it, it's just as clean as the clothing designs they come up with. Their cosmetic products are paraben-free and are manufactured and tested with no cruelty in the entire process. Their products have as much as eighty-five percent of natural ingredients and those that do have active chemical ingredients are those with no health concerns.

Kjaer Weis

The brand built around makeup artist Kirsten Kjaer Weis, who is positively regarded for her color cosmetics, features sustainable packaging. It’s not just sustainable, but each is designed with a refillable, swivel case that makes it instantly recognizable to anyone who’s encountered this brand in the past.

Its ingredients are all certified organic, free of all synthetic fragrances, petrochemical emulsifiers, silicone, and those pesky parabens that can be found in a lot of standard makeup products. Like Honest Beauty, this is a perfect choice for those that are comfortable with luxury brands and are skittish about making the jump to green cosmetics since Kjaer Weis products are made at such a high quality and have a very strong, chic brand image.

Juice Beauty

Juice Beauty was launched back in 2005 by Karen Behnke, a wellness entrepreneur, so from the get-go, this company has had its customers’ wellbeing at heart. She is a veteran in the green cosmetic industry and takes advice from Gwyneth Paltrow as Juice Beauty’s new creative director. Between them, the pair manage an impressive line of sustainable, organic makeup that’s just as much about nourishing the skin as it is about looking beautified.

They make a habit of using botanical juice as the base for all their products instead of water or petroleum. It is their namesake, after all. Any and all pigmentation also comes from plants, which are dubbed phyto-pigments by the company and are very soft on the skin whilst still achieving the fantastic colors you want out of your makeup. They’re great for sensitive skin since they’re derived from nature and nature alone. 

Alima Pure

Coming out of Portland, Oregon, Alima Pure continues that area’s enthusiastic history of eco-friendliness by producing mineral-based makeup products that are free of all preservatives, irritants, and any other toxins that could damage or degrade the quality of your skin.

Where some green cosmetics struggle to achieve a full range of color using only natural ingredients, Alima Pure has an impressive satin matte foundation that’s the single most best-selling item in their catalog. It’s a formulation of the full shade range of foundations, so it’s no surprise that it appeals to so many.

Ilia

Ilia Beauty is the brand that was willed into existence by Sasha Plavsic, a branding executive who had the idea one day to produce non-toxic alternatives to her favorite lip balm. This is when Ilia was born, and it benefited from Plavsic’s strong sense of brand identity from day one.

They launched in 2011 with a catalog of mostly neutral, muted pigments that are as natural as they look, perfect for those who take a less is more approach to their makeup. Since then though, they have introduced some bolder pigments to their products for those of you who prefer deeper and more eye-catching colors, now having a full range of cosmetics that start at neutral and become more and more vibrant.

Whilst the products themselves are mostly organic and, when they use synthetics, they use only ones that are proven to be safe for the skin, even the packaging of Ilia products is made from recycled aluminum, glass, and recycled paper to be as sustainable as possible at every point of the manufacturing process.

Beauty Bakerie

As the name suggests, Beauty Bakerie’s thing is that their makeup is themed after food items. This may seem like a strange choice but, when you remember that it’s a green cosmetic indie brand that aspires to be vegan-friendly and free of damaging synthetics, then it starts to make some more sense.

Cashmere Nicole founded Beauty Bakerie in 2011, entering the scene with a makeup catalog themed after dessert items, an obvious but effective choice for a catalog that’s bursting with all-natural pigment colors. Cashmere Nicole was actually inspired to start the brand after battling breast cancer so, like many of the other individuals that have started their green cosmetic brands, it was started with wellness and anti-toxicity in mind.

100% Pure

With a name like this, the brand was either going to be absolutely true to its name or not at all, but we’re glad to report that it’s the former. The naming may be a bit on the nose but there are not many other names you can give to cosmetic products that only use fruit, vegetables, teas, and other all-natural plant pigments in their products.

This commitment to using absolutely no dye is both crazy and commendable, going further than many of the companies in the green cosmetic space in their crusade against toxic ingredients in the industry.

Every product is cold-pressed and features no synthetics or unrefined ingredients whatsoever. Whenever a new ingredient does get added to a potential cosmetic recipe, it needs to jump over a lot of hurdles before it ever sees the market. They’re put through a nine-step process that ensures it’s potent enough to benefit the skin, pure enough to do no harm, and stable enough to be compounded with other organic ingredients without downgrading the quality of the product.

W3ll People

W3ll People is one of those makeup brands that aspire to blend into the face to look natural, almost as if you’re not wearing makeup at all. W3ll People came about when makeup artist Shirley Pinkson, cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Renee Snyder, and entrepreneur James Walker combined their powers and knowledge to make a line of botanical-based cosmetic products.

They feel lightweight on your face, often provide extra hydration, and never cakes or creases on the skin since it naturally blends in. You won’t find any mention of petrochemicals or petroleum by-products on the labels for their products, so you don’t need to be shy with how much of these cosmetics you use.

Vapour Beauty

Vapour is what happens when an expert on healing botanicals and alchemical bonding collaborates with an artist to deliver non-toxic products in a variety of neutral to dreamy colors inspired by the landscape of New Mexico.

That’s the result of the partnership of Krysia Boinis and Kristine Keheley, a catalog of green cosmetics that are all organic and soft on your skin. They’re also pretty easygoing, too, since the brand has a minimalist aesthetic. If you’re the no-nonsense type that doesn’t enjoy messing around with blenders and brushes, then grabbing some of Vapour Beauty’s sticks and using your fingers to apply them is a viable option that yields the same great results.

The Lip Bar

The Lip Bar is great for those who need to grab some green cosmetics that don’t break the bank. Everything in their catalog doesn’t exceed twenty dollars in price, keeping their catalog affordable for people of all different backgrounds so that non-toxic cosmetics don’t become exclusive to the wealthy.

Melissa Butler created The Lip Bar with a very clear message in mind, that natural makeup should be accessible and inclusive of all people no matter their racial or economic background. That’s why their fully vegan, cruelty-free ingredients support the full shade range of skin tones so that everyone can find the right cosmetic gear that represents them.

Lawless

Lawless isn’t what many expect when looking for green beauty brands. It prides itself on being edgy and delivering striking, colorful palettes that still remain, as they eloquently put in their marketing materials, “clean af.”

It was founded by entrepreneur Annie Lawless, who had also founded Suja Juice before deciding to tackle the beauty world. As we said, the launch was full of high-pigmented products like lipsticks before they gradually grew their catalog out to cover face and eye makeup too.

All of these products make sure to avoid any chemicals that may have a chance of causing cancer or disrupting the endocrine systems of anyone who wears them. Like Honest Beauty and Kjaer Weis, it’s one of those cosmetic lines that look as prestigious as the established but toxic legacy brands, so Lawless is certainly the choice for you if you want to go natural without your makeup kit looking too different after you’ve made the transition.

Plain Jane Beauty

Like The Lip Bar featured above, Plain Jane Beauty was established with diversity in mind. They want to bring more diversity to the green beauty movement and do this by ensuring their products accommodate all skin tones. 

Every product from them is also clean, of course, but what does that word mean to them? When Plain Jane Beauty says clean, they mean that it’s made with mineral pigments that are fully compliant with existing FDA guidelines and regulations. It also means that no animal testing has been carried out, the products are free of synthetic dye and are manufactured only with plant-based formulas. Every level of the business also adheres to sustainable business practices, so it isn’t just the products themselves that are green.

​Conclusion

There it is, a deep dive into the darker heart of the cosmetic industry starting at its less than healthy historical roots, the mire that is modern cosmetic regulation, and the methods and brands you can pursue to liberate your face from the toxic products that you’re told to buy for it.

We learned that across cultures and thousands of years, from ancient Egypt to the Victorian and colonial United Kingdom and America, certain problem materials have always found their way into the makeup people wore. The symptoms varied depending on the historical context but now that we’re all looked after in the 21st Century and living longer than ever, we’re having to live with some of the poor choices we’ve made when it comes to what we’re putting into our cosmetics.

We also provided some information on the minefield that is the state of cosmetic regulation nowadays, or lack thereof. It’s an extremely complicated subject but hopefully, we distilled it to its basest elements, and you now know to minimize the presence of the Toxic Twelve in your cosmetic diet. Remember certain precautions like limiting how much makeup product you own and use, learning your own organic cosmetic recipes that you can cook up at home, and having a healthy skepticism towards any brand that professes itself to be pure and natural.

Finally, we provided a whole bunch of green cosmetic brands, fifteen to be exact, of different types and styles that are all aiming for slightly different brand identities whilst being unified in the pushback against toxic content in your cosmetic goods. Some are cheaper and intended for everyone to use in what are basically social enterprises, whereas others give you the full premium experience of high-end makeup with none of the toxins found in those brands, justifying their price tags even more in our book.

Between all of the ones we’ve included, there has to be something in there for everyone. However, on the off chance that you didn’t find a brand that you fancy, then always know that you can search for your own alternatives with just a few clicks. That is how you found us, after all, and there’s likely a whole host of information out there to help you find the perfect match. Just remember to question brands on what they use, read labels, and seek out third-party confirmation that the brand does abide by non-toxic, green cosmetic standards.

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