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What Are You Really Putting On Your Face?

Keep Your Face Chemical Free: Choosing Safe Makeup

Written By EcoWomen Guest Blogger Brenna Mannion

It’s that time of year again: spending the frigid month of December in heels, a party dress, and a face-full of makeup, making the holiday party rounds. It’s often hard enough putting together an outfit – who has time to stop to think about what odd chemicals may be lurking in our favorite cosmetics?

In an internet age where over 1,000 foundations are just one click away, and cosmetic ingredients lists read like a chemistry textbook, choosing environmentally friendly, chemical free beauty products can be overwhelming.

You’d need to be a chemist to figure this out. And it helps to have 20/10 vision.

Companies know that “green” and “organic” labeling can sell products, but that simply doesn’t mean they are actually better for you.  Scarily enough, cosmetics in the US are more under-regulated than in places like Japan and the European Union (EU) — either the law nor the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires tests to demonstrate the safety of individual cosmetics or specific ingredients. We assume the products behind the makeup counter are safe, but the reality is we don’t know the consequences of long-term exposure to many of their ingredients. Luckily, there are more and more brands out there that are committed to quality, safe ingredients and work just as well as traditional products. As hard as it can be to stray from our “old faithfuls”, next time you’re in the market for a new product try to choose one that will lessen your exposure to harmful chemicals and lower the overall chemical load on your body.


Liquid, cream, and mineral foundations, along with their cousins: tinted moisturizers and BB creams, cover the most real estate on our faces, and often contain some of the most harmful ingredients. Skin – our largest organ – absorbs over 50% of what we smear on it. The most prevalent harmful chemicals in foundations are PEG, Vitamin A, and parabens, and are usually identified as retinyl palminate or paraben. Retinyl palmitate compounds are linked to reproductive system toxicity, and parabens are especially toxic hormone disrupters.

Also, thanks to years of public education, many cosmetics multitask and contain SPF to protect us from harmful UV rays, yay! However, the chemical sunscreens in most products have negative effects, including hormone disruption and bioaccumulation (studies have found them in the milk of lactating mothers). The Active Ingredients list will call out the type of sunscreen.

What Should You Do?

Avoid liquid foundations and creams that contain retinyl palmitate/retinol or anything ending in “-paraben” (propylparaben and methylparaben are most common). Stay far away from oxybenzone, homosalate and octinoxate. Physical sunblocks such as titanium dioxide (that reflect the suns rays, instead of absorbing them the way chemical sunscreens do) are a better bet.

Tarte and bareMinerals make foundations with very few chemicals, and I swear by Juice Beauty’s CC Cream.


A bold lip is all the rage, especially for the holidays. Unfortunately, many of our favorite lipsticks and glosses are chock-full of nasty stuff. Avoid any parabens or chemical sunscreens. Most lipsticks also contain lead and a scary amount of heavy metals, many of which are known carcinogens. Mother Jones recently cited a study that found lead in 75% of lipsticks they tested. Unfortunately, good chemical free lipsticks are hard to find – and many drugstore lipsticks don’t even have the ingredients listed on the package.

What Should You Do?

Do your research ahead of time.

Bite Beauty and Au Naturale make fabulous colors. Of course, your favorite non-petroleum based lip balm is a good choice. Trade Chapstick for Alba’s Hawaiian Balm – you will not be sorry! Since what we put on our lips ends up getting licked off, kissed off (!), or smudged on our coffee cups, choose responsibly.

Mascara And Eyeliner

For something we put so close to our eyeballs, these products are often overlooked.

What Should You Do?

Follow the same paraben rules as before, avoid BHA (which is banned in the EU), and any eye-irritating chemicals like phenoxyethanol.

Physicians Formula has a nice organic mascara you can find in drug stores.

Where To Go From Here

This can seem like a lot of information to absorb (get it?) but after a while you will get used to how to read a product label and will notice how often the same ingredients show up in products. The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetics Database is a fabulous and exhaustive source of information on specific personal care products and ingredients. They even have an app for your mobile device, which allows you to scan product bar codes in the store to see the EWG’s score, on the go. There may be fewer choices at the store, but you can rest easier knowing your makeup looks as good, as it is for you.

Brenna works in domestic clean water policy in DC. When she’s not annoying her friends about safe body products, she can be found in the yoga studio or eating gummy bears.


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