Clean Beauty: Paying Attention to Skincare Ingredients

I have always been obsessed with cosmetics. In elementary school, one of my favorite activities was browsing the pharmacy aisles for the latest shampoo, lip gloss and glitter nail polish. I loved the feeling of experimenting with the latest products I was seeing in magazines like Seventeen and YM. Side note, embarrassing prom and first date stories were my guilty pleasure. Paying attention to skincare ingredients, however, didn’t begin until much later in life.

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When I was pregnant with my daughter four years ago, I really started paying attention to skincare ingredients. In fact, I stopped using everything. My skincare routine consisted of Purpose face wash. That’s it. I wore minimal makeup and was extremely selective about anything that went in or on my body. There were so many ingredients I was simply unfamiliar with or others that were suspected of being carcinogenic. For peace of mind and my own sanity, I cut everything out.

It’s unfortunate that it took becoming a mother for me to start paying attention to ingredients but I was naive and didn’t think really about it. I trusted brand names and marketing tactics rather than doing my own research. From the beginning of my interest in beauty to now as a thirty-two year old, it took me twenty years to become an informed consumer. When the news about Claire’s makeup containing asbestos came out, I was really upset.1 This is a company that markets to children and teenagers. Their target audience is most likely not paying close attention to ingredients.

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I decided to write about my own personal experience with skincare and the research I have been doing to educate myself. This post isn’t meant to scare you. It is something I wanted to share with readers so we can all be aware and keep each other informed.

Why is this important?

As the FDA noted in a recent press release, “each day, cosmetic products are sold to consumers across the U.S. – some to children under the age of 18, still in the formative years of development. These products are used as part of daily beauty and cleansing routines, often times on the skin’s most sensitive areas, like the face, eyelids and lips. That’s why it’s so important that cosmetic products are safe, properly labeled and free of contamination.”2

We live in a country that literally regulates everything yet we’re using products on ourselves and our children that contain toxic ingredients. As a mother and human being, this is deeply disturbing to me. One, that there could be toxic ingredients in the beauty products we use, two that there is limited regulation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and three that companies can make claims on their products that are not substantiated by efficacy and safety data.


I previously worked for a pharmaceutical company and one of my responsibilities was reviewing drug commercials and advertisements to ensure that every claim made could be backed up by clinical data. The FDA rigorously monitors drugs that a pharmaceutical company develops and then markets, rightfully so. Hence, why it’s shocking to me that there is little regulation on personal care products. It’s so incredibly difficult for a drug to get approved, an endeavor that takes about ten years and billions of dollars. So how are makeup and skincare products launching into the marketplace with little oversight?

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Why is this only now becoming an issue?

Some of you may be thinking, why now? Well, I started reading more and more alarming examples of harmful chemicals found in the products we use on a daily basis. Although there has been a lot of focus on beauty transparency in the media recently, issues have been arising for years and companies are starting to take action.

♥ On March 5, 2019, the FDA confirmed the presence of asbestos in makeup from Claire’s.2 Here is a direct link to the statement released by the FDA and the exact batch/lot numbers of the products in case you have any at home. The craziest part is that Claire’s refused to voluntarily recall the products.

♥ In December 2018, the New York Times reported that Johnson & Johnson lost their bid to overturn a verdict that awarded $4.69 billion to women who linked their ovarian cancer on asbestos found in the company’s baby power and other talc products.5 Documents in the case revealed that Johnson & Johnson has known about the risk of asbestos contamination in its talc FOR DECADES but fought to keep the information away from the public.

• It’s very difficult to establish definitive links in cancer studies and nothing is ever certain. Johnson & Johnson maintains that its talc is safe but reports like these reiterate what a grey area this is. As a parent, I would not wait for it all to be sorted out.

♥ In August 2018, Johnson & Johnson announced that they are working on 100% ingredient transparency for their baby products.6

♥ In February 2018, Unilever (brands include Dove, Pond’s, Noxzema, Seventh Generation, St. Ive’s, Suave) announced that it would voluntarily disclose the fragrance ingredients online in beauty and personal care products down to 0.01% of the product formulation, in Europe.7

♥ In April 2017, CVS announced the removal of “parabens, phthalates and the most prevalent formaldehyde donors” in nearly 600 beauty and personal care products from its in-house brands by the end of 2019.8

What do “clean” and “natural” claims actually mean?

It’s not always clear when brands use claims like “clean” and “natural” what that actually means due to a lack of regulatory authority by an outside agency. There are no guidelines or definitions that actually back up what these terms mean. When a pharmaceutical company makes a claim about a drug, that claim needs to be evidence-based and supported by clinical trials, often ones that are large and randomized depending on the therapeutic area. That’s simply not the cause for beauty and skincare.


I’ve heard people say that they don’t want to use anything with “chemicals” in it, which I find to be strange because everything is made up of chemicals, some more harmful than others. There’s also an implication that if a label contains the word “natural” then it’s automatically safe, which is misleading because that is not necessarily the case and there are plenty of natural products that are not safe. The only way to know if a product is safe and effective is to test it clinically. For the consumer, it’s all very confusing and misleading.

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What can the FDA actually regulate when it pertains to cosmetics?

Cosmetics are not FDA-approved but they are FDA-regulated.9 FDA does inspect cosmetic manufacturing facilities to ensure product safety. They also collect samples for analysis as part of the inspection. The FDA has authority over the safety and labeling of cosmetics in the sense that they prohibit the marketing of adulterated or misbranded cosmetics. However, cosmetic products and ingredients other than color additives do not require FDA approval before they go to market. They also do not have authority to recall cosmetic products so in the case of Claire’s, the FDA published a statement that warned consumers to not use certain make-up products from the store.2

Manufacturers have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety of their products.9 Yet, there is no legal requirement for specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients. Companies are also not required to share their safety information with the FDA or even register their products.

The good news

Now, for the good news. Companies like Beautycounter are passionate about changing this. Beautycounter is supporting a bipartisan bill entitled, Personal Care Products Safety Act (PCPSA), that would encourage transparency and allow the FDA greater authority over cosmetic safety regulations.10 In fact, on March 5th, 100 of the top Beautycounter sellers were lobbying in Washington DC in an effort to support the bill.

The FDA has announced new steps they are taking to better ensure the safety of cosmetic products that men, women and children use every day.2 According to a recent statement, “to improve consumer safety and secure our mission for years to come, a more modern approach could include tools that are tailored for cosmetics, including appropriate frameworks for registration and listing of products and their ingredients, good manufacturing practice regulations, company reporting of adverse events, access to records (including consumer complaints) during routine or for-cause inspections, mandatory recalls, disclosure of known cosmetic allergens on a product’s label, and ingredient review.”

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Are we supposed to fear everything?

We have all read about the potentially harmful effects of endocrine disrupters like parabens in beauty products and aluminum in deodorant. Yet, the research is limited and inconclusive. The American Cancer Society has published statements indicating that there are no clear links between chemicals like parabens and aluminum to cancer.11 

“One study that looked at the absorption of aluminum from antiperspirants containing aluminum chlorohydrate applied to the underarms found that only a tiny fraction (0.012%) was absorbed. The actual amount of aluminum absorbed would be much less than what would be expected to be absorbed from the foods a person eats during the same time. It also doesn’t seem that breast cancer tissue contains more aluminum than normal breast tissue. A study that looked at women with breast cancer found no real difference in the concentration of aluminum between the cancer and the surrounding normal tissue.”

If a chemical is harmful, at what concentration does it start producing harmful effects?

The long-term effects of many of these compounds are unknown and there “is no conclusive data that they hurt us.” However, companies are reacting to consumer demands by removing these questionable chemicals and consumers are looking for “cleaner” alternatives.

As consumers, the most important things we can do is remain educated on what we are putting in and on our bodies and the potential long-term health consequences. We need to be advocates for ourselves. We can see that companies are reacting to consumer demands and becoming more transparent. Keep asking questions.

Actionable next steps:

♥ If you experience an adverse event from a cosmetic product, report it to the FDA here.12  Reporting this critical information will help determine if there is a public health concern that needs to be addressed. Also, your information will remain confidential.

♥ Check ingredients of beauty products before you buy them, just as you would with food labels. Beauty Counter has a Never List of more than 1500 questionable or harmful chemicals.13 This includes 1400 chemicals that are banned or restricted in personal care products in Europe.

♥ A friend recommended the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s skin deep database that rates over 70,000 personal care products.14

♥ Don’t feel like you need to throw out everything that’s in your makeup bag. When you do need to purchase a new product, research the brand to get an understanding of how they operate.

♥ Remain educated on the products you are buying and make your own decision.

♥ Advocate for yourself and keep the conversation going. If companies see that we care, they’ll start to care more too.

I’m certainly not perfect and I’m making progress in educating myself on the products my family and I use, whether it’s my beauty products or household cleaning supplies. It’s a work in progress. I’m still working on phasing out products I’ve been using since high school simply for the brand recognition.

The beauty industry is rapidly evolving and consumers have more choices than ever. With that comes a greater level of complexity and safety risks.

What are your thoughts on clean beauty and clean skincare? Have you started making changes in your household? 

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Outfit details: Slip dress: Vince // Blazer: H&M // Booties: Vince Camuto (similar here) // Bag: Tiffany (similar here)


1. Stalder E. The FDA just confirmed the presence of asbestos in makeup from Claire’s. Refinery29. Published March 6, 2019. Accessed March 12, 2019.

2. FDA. Statement from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., and Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, on tests confirming a 2017 finding of asbestos contamination in certain cosmetic products and new steps that FDA is pursuing to improve cosmetics safety. Accessed March 12, 2019.

3. FDA. Part II: 1938, Food, Drug, Cosmetic Act. Accessed March 12, 2019.

4. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. International laws. Accessed March 12, 2019.

5. Hsu T. Johnson & Johnson Loses Bid to Overturn a $4.7 Billion Baby Powder Verdict. Published December 19, 2018. Accessed March 12, 2019.

6. Johnson & Johnson. Johnson’s® Baby Unveils a Groundbreaking 100% Ingredient Transparency Disclosure For Its Products. Accessed March 12, 2019.

7. Unilever. Unilever discloses fragrance ingredients online for its home care and beauty & personal care brands. Accessed March 12, 2019.

8. CVS Health. CVS Health Takes Major Step to Address Chemicals of Consumer Concern. Accessed March 12, 2019.

9. FDA. FDA Authority Over Cosmetics: How Cosmetics Are Not FDA-Approved, but Are FDA-Regulated. Accessed March 12, 2019.

10. United States Senator for California-Dianne Feinstein. Accessed March 12, 2019.

11. American Cancer Society. Antiperspirants and Breast Cancer Risk. Accessed March 12, 2019.

12. FDA. How to Report a Cosmetic Related Complaint. Accessed March 12, 2019.

13. Beautycounter. The Never List. Accessed March 12, 2019.

14. Environmental Working Group. EWG’s skin deep cosmetic database. Accessed March 12, 2019.

One thought on “Clean Beauty: Paying Attention to Skincare Ingredients

  1. Tanya as an advocate and sole user of clean beauty I greatly appreciate this post. It was well thought and informative. I hope your readers who aren’t familiar with the clean beauty movement will take a closer look at the products they use and make the switch for the better! Knowledge is power!

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