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We talked to top dermatologists about potentially problematic chemicals and ingredients that can be found in beauty or skin care products.
Beauty products can sometimes contain hundreds of chemicals and compounds that may or may not be toxic to the body. Some of these include skin irritants and even endocrine disruptors—which are thought to interfere with the body’s hormonal system and potentially have developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune adverse effects, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. In general, the Food and Drug Administration does not require beauty products to be approved before they can be sold, although they must be safe and companies have a legal responsibility to make sure their products are indeed safe when used as recommended.
We asked top dermatologists about certain chemicals and ingredients that can be found in popular beauty products and whether it makes sense to try to avoid them.
In cosmetics, hydroquinone is used as an antioxidant or fragrance, and it’s even a skin bleaching agent. “This frequent skin irritant is associated with altered immune function and increased incidence of certain malignancies in animals,” says Craig Kraffert, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Medford Derm with locations in California and Oregon and president of Amarte. (Check out these home remedies for skin irritation.) However, quantitatively, the use of hydroquinone in cosmetics is unlikely to result in chronic illness, such as kidney cancer, according to a study in the International Journal of Toxicology
For those on the fence about the chemical, “Arbutin, on the other hand, is a naturally occurring cousin to hydroquinone with excellent brightening properties and an irritancy profile that’s not linked to malignancies,” says Dr. Kraffert. Derm-approved products that swap hydroquinone out for arbutin include Kate Somerville Complexion Correction Daily Discoloration Perfector and Amarte Aqua Lotion.
Also known as PPD, P-phenylenediamine has been used in permanent hair coloring since the late 1800s; however, it has been banned in France and Germany (though the European Union has since allowed its use). In the U.S., it’s FDA-approved for hair dying. However, the FDA suggests if you’re allergic to it, check the ingredient list on the hair dye label and don’t get “black henna” tattoos, which are more likely to contain PPD. “PPD is a frequent contact allergen,” says Dr. Kraffert, and black henna tattoos “rely on direct application of PPD to the skin.” Cases of severe contact allergy continue to occur frequently, sometimes with permanent negative consequences.
Those microbead scrubs and cosmetics you love to use are slowly being phased out and banned in the U.S. “Microbeads are used as physical exfoliants in cleansing products and do a fair job; however, the problem with microbeads is that they linger in the environment for many decades and have been linked to potential biosphere disruptions in aquatic environments,” warns Dr. Kraffert. (Are you making any other exfoliant mistakes?) “The good news is there are lots of natural exfoliants that actually work better—without the environmental baggage.”
Microbeads are used as physical exfoliants in cleansing products and do a fair job; however, the problem with microbeads is that they linger in the environment for many decades and have been linked to potential biosphere disruptions in aquatic environments,
— Dr. Craig Kraffert