Chemicals to avoid
Over the last fifty years there has been an explosion in the use of synthetic ingredients in cosmetics.
They sneak into use and most of us are unaware of them. For example the use of microbead plastics as exfoliants which was only banned after the campaign gained wide public awareness (they are still legal in some cosmetics). Synthetic ingredients are usually used because they are vastly cheaper than the natural alternatives and have a very long shelf life.
In small amounts for a short time there may be little harm from synthetic ingredients and on that basis they pass toxicity tests and come into use. However when you use something everyday for decades, or in combination with other products, the effects can prove harmful. When millions of people use them, the affects on the environment accumulate. Many ingredients which were thought safe in the past have since been found to be harmful and are now banned under the EU Cosmetics Directive (for example lead, certain phthalate solvents and some synthetic nitro musks) but could still be in products made outside the EU.
Chemicals to look out for
Parabens - (e.g. ethyl-, or propylparaben) used as preservatives but disrupt hormones, (particularly oestrogen) and may have possible links with breast cancer. Widely used in cosmetics including makeup and moisturisers.
Aluminium - Aluminium chloride and aluminium cholorohydrate are used in antiperspirants and work by blocking sweat glands. Aluminium may be linked to Alzheimers, and there is some evidence it may increase breast cancer risk and possibly its spread in the body.
Bisphenol A (BPA) - used in plastic packaging and in tin linings. There are recommended limits of exposure to BPA as it is linked to an increased breast cancer risk, as well as heart and fertility problems.
Triclosan - a hormone disrupting chemical used as a preservative found in toothpaste, soaps and sometimes in antiperspirants.
Synthetic musks and artificial fragrances - such as galaxolide (HHBC), tonalide (AHTN), musk ketone, and diethyl phthalate.
Using natural ingredients
There are many other synthetic chemicals in cosmetics which hold potential risks and it's impossible to know them all. One way to reduce your risk is to switch to more natural products. Natural ingredients are biodegradable and our bodies are better able to process them. They are also less likely to produce toxic chemicals when they are made and, when they are washed off into the environment, can be more easily broken down.
Companies may use toxic chemicals to grow plants containing those ingredients however or exploit people to get them cheaply. So by choosing organic and fairtrade you help support better protection for yourself, the communities who grow them and the planet.
What can you do?
Cut back on the number of synthetic cosmetics you buy, and use them less often
Swap to natural alternatives
Avoid plastic packaging.