Gift Guide: How to avoid toxics in beauty products

Gifting beauty products to family and friends this holiday season? Here's a guide to purchasing safer beauty products.

Gift box with a red bow and string lights - Photo credit: CC via
CC via
Gina Werdel

Beauty products are common holiday gifts. But, unfortunately, beauty products can contain toxic chemicals and contaminants that are harmful for our health. When you’re doing holiday shopping this year, start by avoiding these 5 cosmetic ingredients to keep you and your family safe and healthy.

#1 Talc: Easily contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen 

What is talc? Talc is a mineral added to cosmetics to help absorb moisture and prevent caking. Talc is most often used in powdery cosmetics such as eyeshadow, and face powder, baby powder, and blush, but can also be found in other cosmetics. 

Why is it important to avoid talc? Talc is a risk because asbestos, which causes cancer, can easily contaminate talc. Asbestos is unsafe at any level and can cause significant damage to the respiratory system when inhaled. This damage can lead to diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. Talc is risky for everyone, but especially children. Children are most vulnerable to the health risks of asbestos, so make sure to check the ingredients of your child’s or teen’s makeup to ensure their products do not contain talc. (Click here for more information on asbestos and mesothelioma.) 

Talc and asbestos are both naturally occurring, and they form in similar conditions. When we mine for talc, asbestos can easily contaminate the raw talc. In addition, the risk is increased by the fact that there is almost no government regulation or premarket testing for cosmetics

As a result, we’ve seen evidence of asbestos contaminating talc products that have made it into stores. In 2018, our lab testing found asbestos in Claire’s makeup, a brand marketed to children, prompting the FDA to confirm our results. This year, our partners at the EWG found asbestos in more makeup. The evidence is clear: talc isn’t worth the risk of asbestos contamination.

How can I avoid talc? Check the ingredient list for “talc,” “talcum powder,” or “magnesium silicate.” Check out our tip guide for more info.

#2 Fragrance: We don’t know what’s inside

What is fragrance? Fragrance isn’t an ingredient, it’s an effect. What we read as “fragrance” on a label is actually a combination of any of thousands of chemicals used to create a fragrance effect.

Why is it important to avoid fragrance? Cosmetic companies are not required to disclose the ingredients used in their fragrance, and can instead just label the mix of ingredients as “fragrance.” Unfortunately, this means that companies can use potentially harmful chemicals or allergens without customers knowing it. Because of this lack of disclosure, the only way to avoid any of these ingredients is to simply avoid fragrance altogether. (That doesn’t mean your products won’t have a scent! Some products that contain no added fragrance may still have a naturally occurring, pleasant scent, it just won’t be derived from undisclosed, potentially harmful chemicals.)

Recent laws passed in California will change some of this, making it easier for customers to see what’s in the products they’re buying. Read more about these changes

Women are more likely to use products with fragrance, but men also use fragrance products. Everyone should avoid fragrances, but parents of young children and pregnant women should be especially wary. Some fragrance chemicals are linked to hormone disruption, which can be especially harmful to fetal and childhood development. 

How can I avoid fragrance? Check the ingredient list for “fragrance” or “parfum.” Fragrance can be included in almost any kind of cosmetic product, but it is especially likely to be included in hair products, deodorants, perfumes, cologne, body wash, and anything with a strong scent or flavor. 

#3 Parabens: Messing with our hormones and our health 

What are parabens? Parabens are preservatives used in a variety of cosmetics and beauty products.

Why is it important to avoid parabens? Parabens are potentially harmful because they may act as hormone disruptors. Hormone disruption may lead to diseases such as breast cancer, diabetes and obesity, and reproductive disorders. Parabens can be absorbed through our skin, so surface exposure in our beauty products could impact our health. Some parabens are worse than others, but as a general rule, it’s best to avoid all of them. 

Hormone disruption can have negative impacts on anyone, but pregnant women and parents of young children should be especially wary to avoid parabens. These groups are more susceptible to damage from hormone disruption. 

How can I avoid parabens? The best way to avoid them is to check the ingredients and avoid “isobutylparaben,” “isopropylparaben,” “propylparaben” and “butylparaben.” You can also look for products that say “paraben-free” on the label.

#4 Formaldehyde preservatives: A hidden allergen and carcinogen

What are formaldehyde preservatives? Formaldehyde preservatives are used in many cosmetic and personal care products

Why is it important to avoid formaldehyde preservatives? Formaldehyde is a carcinogen and a contact allergen for some people. Many of these preservatives are not labeled as “formaldehyde” because they instead are chemicals that release formaldehyde in small amounts as they break down in order to preserve products. This labeling makes it extremely difficult for people to determine if a product contains formaldehyde, even if they are trying to avoid it. 

Everyone should avoid formaldehyde preservatives. If you have young children, be sure to check the ingredient list of the products they use. In particular, if you or your child has a formaldehyde allergy, make sure you check the names of formaldehyde preservatives so you know which ingredients to avoid. 

How can I avoid formaldehyde preservatives? Unfortunately, these preservatives are hard to recognize and avoid because there are so many different names for them. As long as companies continue to use them, they should be clearly labeled as “formaldehyde releasers,” but until then, you can protect yourself by avoiding the ingredient names below. Since remembering them all is almost impossible, consider writing these names down or snapping a photo, and carrying it with you when you purchase your personal care products:

  1. Dmdm hydantoin
  2. Imidazolidinyl urea 
  3. Diazolidinyl urea
  4. Polyoxymethylene urea
  5. Quaternium 15
  6. Glyoxal 
  7. Paraformaldehyde
  8. Methylene glycol (the resulting compound of formaldehyde and water)

#5 Teflon or PFAS: The forever chemicals 

What are PFAS? PFAS are synthetic chemicals used to create a smooth texture in a variety of products, including food packaging, frying pans, clothing, and cosmetics

Why is it important to avoid PFAS or teflon in cosmetics? Unfortunately, PFAS and related chemicals are extremely pervasive in the modern world, so you can’t entirely eliminate PFAS from your environment. However, you can reduce your exposure from cosmetics by avoiding them when they are labeled in products. PFAS exposure may cause health impacts including reproductive disorders, cancer, and immune system disruption. Given how pervasive they are in today’s environment, we may not yet know all the long-term health effects. 

In addition to human health effects, the impact on the environment is significant. PFAS chemicals do not break down, but instead accumulate in our water and soil.

How can I avoid PFAS or teflon in cosmetics? Check the ingredients of your beauty products and avoid PTFE (teflon) or ptfe, which are the most common way PFAS will appear on labels. But you may also see PFAS listed as ingredients that start with “perfluoro,” so check carefully. 

Remember, as a consumer or parent, it’s hard to be perfect. 

It shouldn’t be consumers’ responsibility to avoid toxic chemicals; that task is nearly impossible, and consumers should be able to trust that the products they choose are safe. 

Fortunately, small changes you make now can make a big difference in reducing the risk of health problems linked to personal care products that you or your loved ones have used. Research has shown that just days after participants stopped using certain beauty products that contained toxic chemicals such as phthalates and parabens, the level of toxic chemicals in their bodies significantly decreased. Other chemicals, such as PFAS, stick around in our bodies long term, but we can keep our levels of PFAS exposure down by eliminating sources that are within our control, such as makeup.  

It’s unfair that the everyday shopper has to carefully navigate the maze of toxic chemicals in consumer products, especially around the holidays. Ultimately, we need better regulations regarding cosmetics and chemical policy. Policy-makers should enact better chemical policies and ensure that all chemicals are safe before companies are allowed to put them in the products we purchase as gifts for our children, spouses, and friends. 

If you’re interested in learning more about what’s in your products, there are various apps that you can download to help. Check out the Think Dirty app, or the EWG Healthy Living app. To learn more about what U.S. PIRG is doing to advocate for a safer, healthier world, check out our work to Zero Out Toxics and our campaign to Make It Toxic-Free!


Gina Werdel