Cosmetic Ingredients 101

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No matter where you shop for your cosmetics—drugstores, department stores, online—the variety is endless. There’s no shortage of choices but with claims and ingredients inscribed all over the packaging, it can be hard to determine which products are best or more importantly, which are safest. Sometimes the list of ingredients on a product label can look more like a foreign language. Not sure what some of these large words mean? Here are five commonly used terms in cosmetic advertisements and packages:

Parabens
Parabens are the most common preservatives in cosmetics. Parabens are usually easy to identify by name, such as methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, or benzylparaben. They can act similarly to estrogen in the body and could possibly cause breast cancer. At this time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t consider cosmetics containing parabens to be of high risk but they are still evaluating.  

Sulfates
Sulfates, or sodium laureth sulfate and ammonium laureth sulfate, are the components that make our products lather. Sulfates in hair or skin-care products can irritate or dry out the skin, but unless you have an allergy to them, they are not severely harmful. 

Phthalates
According to the FDA, the main phthalates used in cosmetic products are dibutylphthalate (DBP), dimethylphthalate (DMP), and diethylphthalate (DEP). They are used primarily at concentrations of less than 10 percent as plasticizers in products like nail polishes (to reduce cracking by making them less brittle) and hairsprays (to help avoid stiffness by allowing them to form a flexible film on the hair) and as solvents and perfume fixatives in various other products. It's not clear what effect, if any, phthalates have on health. "Phthalates can be worse than the others because it is easily absorbed through the skin and can damage many organs (liver, lungs) as well as affect the endocrine system, so pregnant women should avoid,” says Washington, DC, dermatologist Tina Alster, MD.

Triclosan
Triclosan is an ingredient added to many products to reduce or prevent bacterial contamination. Triclosan is not currently known to be hazardous to humans, according to the FDA. The FDA notes that several scientific studies have come out since the last time the ingredient was reviewed that merit further review.

Synthetic Fragrance
“Fragrances are probably the most common source of allergic reactions in the skin. Thus, use of fragrance-free products may result in healthier skin for many people who historically react to make-up,” says Fort Lauderdale, FL, dermatologist Dr. Shino Bay Aguilera.

So, is it necessary to avoid these potentially harmful ingredients at all costs? Dr. Alster says if possible, it’s good to avoid them but adds it’s okay to use cosmetics that contain these ingredients in small amounts, unless you are breast feeding, pregnant, or considering becoming pregnant. “Safety evaluations are still pending for some of these ingredients,” adds Dr. Aguilera, who recommends reading cosmetic labels in the same way you read food labels. “They usually list the ingredients from the most abundant to the least present. Choose those cosmetics that tend to have the least amount of parabens and other preservative listed,” he suggests.

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