In the European Union, more than 1,300 chemicals are banned or restricted for cosmetic use, but here in the states, only 11 fall into that category. However, clean beauty brands aren’t buying it. Instead, they are drafting their own rules, formulating without the laundry list of ingredients they believe to be potentially harmful to humans, animals and/or the planet. Further muddying the water is the fact that “The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 does not require the FDA to review cosmetics and their ingredients, with the exception of color additives because many of them are also used in foods and drinks,” says Sarah Biggers-Stewart, founder and CEO of Clove + Hallow. So, what actually makes a product clean?
Most brands count safety, sustainability, sourcing and ethics as key pillars, in addition to total ingredient transparency. Generally topping the list of “nasties” are chemicals that have been scientifically linked to health issues: potential carcinogens (they have the ability to cause cancer) reproductive toxins (they can cause adverse effects on sexual function and fertility) and endocrine disruptors (they can negatively interfere with our hormones). There’s also the environmental component: Clean brands prioritize ingredients that help the earth, rather than those that flood our landfills or hurt our wildlife.
5 Controversial Makeup Ingredients
Used as preservatives in makeup to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria as they sit on store shelves, parabens are perhaps the most notorious nasties, and have been since 2004 when a scientific article linked them to breast tumors. “Parabens—look for methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and ethylparaben on labels—are effective preservatives,” says cosmetic chemist Ginger King, “but there have been studies linking traces of parabens to breast cancer, thus people are avoiding them.”
To err on the side of caution, most beauty brands have removed parabens from their products—even reformulating entire lines without them to appease concerned users— and replaced them with natural preservatives like dehydroacetic acid and benzyl alcohol.
Our Clean Pick:
RMS Beauty Living Luminizer Glow Quad Mini ($25)
When it comes to eyeliner and mascara, many of us would say the darker the better. But what gives many of these jet-black formulas their deep, inky hue is a pigment enhancer called carbon black—it’s also listed as Black 2 on some products. Made from coal tar, carbon black is found in nearly all dark liquid eyeliners and many mascaras, and has been deemed “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Merrady Wickes, beauty director at The Detox Market, says the store doesn’t carry any products that contain the ingredient.
“It’s not only been linked to cancer, but also lung disease and reproductive toxicity,” says Marla Beck, founder of Lune+ Aster Cosmetics. “I wanted to add a black liquid eyeliner to our collection, but refused to make one with carbon black. To ensure the same intense color payoff without using it, we formulated with plant pigments. It was in the works for a long time, but we were able to achieve a bold look and long-lasting power, with no negative health effects.”
Our Clean Pick:
Lune+Aster Dawn to Dusk Liquid Eyeliner ($24)
Take a look at the ingredient list on a powder blush, bronzer or eye shadow, and you’ll probably see talc, a naturally occurring mineral that has been used in makeup for centuries for its smoothing properties. But, according to the FDA, although talc itself is not a carcinogen, it runs the risk of being contaminated with cancer-causing asbestos due to the proximity of asbestos to talc deposits in certain mines around the world. In 2019, the FDA surveyed 50 cosmetics containing talc and confirmed the presence of asbestos in several of them, which were voluntarily recalled by the companies.
Biggers-Stewart says, “While I think the formulation of beauty products with talc can be done safely with proper testing of raw materials for asbestos, we haven’t felt the need to use it because there are some really great alternatives out there, such as kaolin clay, arrowroot powder and silica.”
Our Clean Pick:
Clove + Hallow Pressed Mineral Foundation ($24)
Primarily used in makeup to create bright, bold shades—Wickes says they can add vibrancy that mineral colors can’t (but that’s quickly changing)—Food, Drug and Cosmetic (FD&C) pigments derived from coal tar are considered carcinogenic by many brands. Some experts and retailers, however, view the color additives as an inflated threat and do not explicitly ban them, but agree that working with reputable vendors and conducting thorough safety testing on products is key to avoiding any issues.
Kristine Keheley and Krysia Boinis, founders of Vapour Beauty, believe “coal tar–derived FD&C colorants have been linked to cancer for decades and do not belong on your skin, period.” As a result, Keheley has figured out a way to disperse mineral pigments and carmine in plant oils in the correct ratios, which allows them to achieve luxurious color payoff. “When switching to clean makeup, lip products are an obvious place to start because, like it or not, we do ingest lip gloss and lipstick every time we wear it,” says Boinis. Some experts even estimate that lipstick devotees could consume up to seven pounds of it over the course of their lifetimes.
Our Clean Pick:
Vapour Beauty High Voltage Lipstick ($35)
“There are hundreds of red-flag ingredients I avoid, but one of my top three is synthetic fragrance,” says Biggers-Stewart, noting that it is found in many lip glosses, setting sprays and foundations, and is usually a subtle fruity or cupcake-like scent. “My main gripe is that it’s treated as a trade secret, meaning the 15-plus compounds a scent comprises do not have to be disclosed, which blurs the line of informed consent in my opinion.”
Another common gripe is that synthetic fragrances often contain phthalates, which are known endocrine disruptors, and that makeup doesn’t need fragrance to function. Keheley adds, “If I see ‘fragrance’ in the ingredient list without any additional information or indication that it’s naturally derived, I avoid it.”
Our Clean Pick:
Kjaer Weis Lip Gloss ($38)