• Molly Bergseid


In this week’s post, I'm talking about the importance of non-toxic skincare. I think everyone has the best intentions to buy products that are safe. But unfortunately, most of the personal care industry is filled with toxic chemicals simply because there is a huge lack of regulation. So for many people, finding non-toxic skincare and makeup products can be really difficult.

In this post, I’m going to talk about current regulations over the personal care industry in the United States, how these chemicals can impact our health, and some of the brands that are doing it right (while we get some updated laws passed in congress!).

Federal Regulation of Cosmetics in the United States

As a consumer, you would think that the products for sale at Target, Nordstrom, or at the grocery store are regulated by the FDA to unsure they are safe for us to use. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. Currently, there are only two federal laws that govern cosmetics, and they are super out-of-date. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act dates back to 1938 and prohibits the use of only 30 harmful ingredients. For comparison, the European Union has banned the use of over 1400 ingredients, and Canada has banned the use of over 600 ingredients. So yeah.. we are dangerously behind.

The second law that governs cosmetics is the Fair Packaging & Labeling Act. On the surface, this law sounds good, but there is a ‘fragrance’ loophole that many companies use to disguise over 3000 chemicals. The FDA treats the word ‘fragrance’ as a trade secret, and therefore allows companies to use that word instead of disclosing the actual ingredient. For example, a company might create a product and say ‘No phthalates’ on the label, but in fact, there may be phthalates hidden in the last ingredient ‘Fragrance’. Oh, this makes you mad? Me too.

Health Concerns of Exposure to Toxic Chemicals

Let's talk about why this matters. The FDA acknowledges there is good reason to ban the ingredients that it does. There is clear evidence that these ingredients can cause serious health concerns, such as cancer. The problem is, there are thousands of other ingredients that are being used legally in the United States that are either (a) known to negatively impact our health, or (b) has no information because it hasn’t been tested for safety. In my personal research, looking up ingredients on the conventional products I used before switching to clean, almost all of the ingredients had no data available, meaning no testing has been done. In general, the United States takes the stance ‘prove it’s harmful and we will ban it’, as opposed to ‘its banned until proven safe’. I perfect the latter. And considering the average American uses 12 cosmetic products every day (disproportionately women), this is really scary.

Below are just a few ingredients that are known to be harmful to human health. These ingredients are banned or restricted in over 40 other nations, but are legal and widely used in the United States.

  1. Formaldehyde: A known carcinogen. Carcinogens promote the formation of cancer. Formaldehyde is listed on the American Cancer Society’s list of known human carcinogens.

  2. Parabens: Studies have found parabens to cause hormone disruption, are toxic to reproductive organs, can cause birth defects, can increase the risk of cancer, and can irritate the skin.

  3. Phthalates: Studies have found phthalates to be endocrine disrupters, which can harm to the reproductive system and may cause birth defects in babies.

  4. Toluene: Concerns around permanent damage to the nervous system.

Just to make sure we are all on the same page, let’s talk about exactly what it means when we are exposed to toxic chemicals. We all know that cancer is no bueno, but what is hormone (or endocrine) disruption, reproductive toxicity, developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, and immunotoxicity?

Hormone / Endocrine Disruption: The endocrine system refers to the body’s glands that produce hormones, which control a multitude of bodily functions, including reproduction, sexual development, metabolism, respiration, growth, movement, and sensory perception. There are some chemicals that can mimic or interfere with the body’s hormones, causing developmental, reproductive, neurological, immune issues. The tricky thing here is it really doesn’t take much exposure to one of these chemicals to trigger a disruption in the body’s hormones. Phthalates are a common hormone disruptor, for example. Here is a great resource on how to avoid 12 of the major hormone disrupting chemicals, by the Environmental Working Group.

Reproductive Toxicity: Reproductive toxicity refers to the effect of a given chemical on the body’s ability to reproduce, which can affect both men and women. This includes effects on sexual function as well as fertility.

Developmental Toxicity: Developmental toxicity refers to the effect of a given chemical on the body’s (usually an embryo or fetus) ability to develop normally. Some side effects include: failure to conceive, spontaneous abortion, stillbirth, growth issues of specific organs, and permanent birth defects.

Neurotoxicity: Neurotoxicity refers to the effect of a given chemical on the brain or peripheral nervous system. Our body relies on our nerves to deliver and process information in the brain and across our entire body. So, exposure to toxic chemicals can cause serious damage to nerve function, or even kill the nerve. Some side effects include: loss of memory or cognitive function, behavioral issues, depression, chronic fatigue, headaches, loss of vision, loss of circulation, and paralysis or weakness of the limbs.

Immunotoxicity: Immunotoxicity refers to the effects of a given chemical on the body’s immune system. Exposure to toxic chemicals can lead to immunosuppression or immunostimulation. Immunosuppression can lead to the increased severity of infectious diseases or cancer, since the body’s immune system is unable to respond properly to foreign invaders. On the other hand, immunostiumlation can result in the development of an autoimmune disease, since the body's immunie system in in overdrive. Some of the most common autoimmune diseases are, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and alopecia.

Non-Toxic Beauty Brands

Just over 5 years ago, my health hit a serious low. My autoimmune disease (rheumatoid arthritis) was flaring and I was in chronic pain, head to toe. When you are in pain, it quickly becomes common sense to clean up the food you eat and the products you put on your body. I started looking up all of the ingredients in my skincare and makeup products, and quickly became terrified. I was finding that many of the products I was using had really toxic chemicals, or were using ingredients that had no data (aka no testing to ensure they were safe to use). On the bright side, there are some companies that go well beyond what is required by US law, creating high performing, clean products. Here are some of my favorite brands!

  1. Beautycounter: This is one of the first clean beauty brands I found and quickly became obsessed. IMO, this is about as good as it gets. A little b-corp out of Santa Monica that makes incredible, clean product, while actively urging congress to pass stricter cosmetic laws (and so much more!). I knew I had to be a part of it so I finally joined the company to help spread the word. So if you see me posting here about Beautycounter a lot, its because I truly love their products and believe in their mission: to get safer products into the hands of everyone.

  2. Weleda: These products are formulated using plant-based ingredients - flower, fruit, and root extracts, minerals, and essential oils. They make beautiful skincare, body, and baby products.

  3. Mineral Fusion: This company is committed to making safer skincare, makeup, nail, and hair products. They avoid parabens, talc, artificial colors, synthetic fragrances, SLS, and phthalates.

  4. MyCHELLE: Vegetarian, cruelty-free facial skincare that are free of phthalates, parabens, sulfates, ureas, artificial fragrances and colors, petroleum, GMOs, and gluten. The only thing I don’t like about this company is that they use Retinal in a few of their products. Retinal is often used in skincare due to its anti-aging claims, but has been found to be toxic. I would avoid those specific products.

A few tips!

  • Beautycounter’s Never List is a compilation of over 1800+ ingredients that the company promises to never use because it is known to be harmful or is questionably harmful. I often use this list to lookup ingredients in other (non-beautycounter) products to make sure they are safe. If you cant find the ingredient there, look it up using the EWG’s Skin Deep Database to find out how toxic the ingredient is. Keep in mind, there are often large data gaps in ingredients. My general rule of thumb: if there is no data OR concerning data on the ingredient, don’t use it.

  • When switching to non-toxic skincare, first think about surface area. Our skin is the largest organ and absorbs what you put on it. Prioritize body lotion, face lotion, foundation, eye shadow/bronzer/blush, sunscreen. Next, think about the skin-barrier function. Any time you shave, you are breaking the skin and opening the pores. Prioritize deodorant, shaving cream, etc. And last, thing about frequency. Prioritize the products you use most often.

  • Skincare and makeup products do go bad! Toss those old products and invest in some new clean products that wont compromise your health.

  • Read those labels and research the company to ensure they are not greenwashing.

  • Heavy metal exposure in color cosmetics can be toxic to our health. Find a company (like Beautycounter) that tests every single batch of their color cosmetics to ensure the level of heavy metals is acceptable.

Data Sources:

Prohibited & Restricted Ingredients in Cosmetics, U.S. Food & Drug Administration,

Fair Packaging & Labeling Act, U.S. Food & Drug Administration Archive,

Known and Probable Human Carcinogens, American Cancer Society,

What are Parabens, and why don't they belong in cosmetics?, EWG,

Cheatsheet: Phthalates, EWG,

Toluene, PubChem,

The Endocrine System, Hormone Health Network,

Endocrine Disruptors, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences,

Reproductive and Developmental Toxicity, ChemSafetyPro,

What is Neurotoxicity, News Medical Life Sciences,

Immunotoxicity, ScienceDirect,