When it comes to beauty, a common phrase is “no pain, no gain” – the huge amounts of money that the average woman pours into the $170 billion per year cosmetics industry (not to mention the insane amounts of time) is all supposed to be worth it in the end. But recent exposes on the dangerous chemicals lurking in cosmetics, whose ingredients are largely unregulated by the FDA, are drawing attention to the fact that the urge to look good may be costing women even more than they think.

A wide variety of toxic chemicals make their way into makeup and hair and nail products. Their effects on health are largely unknown. Even buying “natural” products doesn’t guarantee your safety – the “natural” label is an advertising slogan, rather than a certification. The FDA has its hands full with tracking down e.coli in beef products and lead in vitamins, with little time left over to keep women from coating their bodies in carcinogens.

Here are some of the most common chemical offenders:

Phthalates – a class of preservatives that are widely used in makeup and other cosmetics, phthalates contain endocrine disruptors that may cause reproductive and neurological damage.

Parabens – a common ingredient in aerosol products, there is concern that parabens may lead to higher rates of breast cancer.

Lead and heavy metals – present in small amounts in several brands of lipstick, the buildup of lead can cause neurological impairments. Children are especially vulnerable.

Dioxin – a by-product of paper bleaching, residues are present in most conventionally produced tampons and feminine sanitary products. Dioxin, one of the main ingredients in Agent Orange, has been linked to increased levels of cancer and birth defects. (It’s also a major environmental pollutant: industrial and agricultural pollution has led to dangerously high levels in places like the Mississippi River.)

Formaldehyde, acetone, toluene – found in nail polish, as well as the chemicals used in Japanese/Brazilian hair straightening treatments, these chemicals are organic solvents that can cause neurological damage. Ever wondered why nail salons smell so terrible? These chemicals are part of the reason.

It’s one thing to deal with the fact that your nail polish is overpriced and probably won’t work miracles, it’s another thing to confront the possibility that it’s causing nervous system damage and harming the environment. But what is to be done? You could always stop using all cosmetics and beauty products, but for most women, that’s not realistic. Fortunately, there are alternatives.

  1. Read the ingredients label. Refuse to buy products that contain hazardous chemicals. Be an educated consumer; not all chemicals are bad, not all “natural” products are natural. Some substances, however, should definitely be avoided. Safecosmetics.org has a handy list of chemicals that you might want to be wary of.
  2. Buy ethically produced cosmetics. (But always check the label to ensure that you’re getting what you think you’re getting!) Some good places to start: Burt’s Bees, The Body Shop, Kiehl’s, and Lush. Etsy is also a great place to find small cosmetics companies who prioritize sustainable production over profit.
  3. Make your own. Organic toiletries can be expensive, but DIY products often work just as well (and are super cheap to make!). Try making your own beeswax lip balm, coconut oil hair treatment or shea butter body moisturizer.
  4. Avoid particularly nasty chemicals and processes. Is having stick-straight hair really worth inhaling formaldehyde fumes for hours?

If you’re interested in learning more, these websites are a good place to start:

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

The Environmental Working Group

The Breast Cancer Fund