Updated: Apr 6, 2021
Many of us that purchase skincare products assume they're "safe", they may even be labeled as "natural". What if they're not? What if the producers of these products aren't completely confident that all of the ingredients are safe?
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is the regulatory body in the US for pretty much everything that goes into our bodies, however, the cosmetic industry "have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety of their products". This means that the FDA does not actively audit or enforce guidelines for the cosmetics industry, like they do with food or pharmaceuticals. This is mostly likely due to lowered absorption through the skin, so there may be an assumption of lower risk. Regardless, this leaves the consumer in the dark, unless most consumers know what all of the ingredients in most skincare products are... Dimethicone? Suspected environmental toxin and a common ingredient in US skincare products, used to enhance texture of a formulation. Methylparaben? Strong evidence to be an endocrine disruptor and can cause skin allergies, used as a preservative.
You get the picture.
I would like to believe that no skincare manufacturer wants to pose harm on buyers, but maybe things have been "done a certain way" for too long, and now we know better. Consider that the EU has banned over 1000 ingredients in cosmetics, while the US has banned 11.
The Sunscreen Issue
Firstly, let's distinguish the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreen ingredients.
Mineral sunscreens reflect UV rays, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays, such as oxybenzone or octisalate.
In February of 2019, the FDA announced that further investigation into (12) active ingredients commonly found in sunscreen be conducted to validate their GRASE (Generally Recognized as Safe and Effective) status. Note: the FDA is being very cautious about statements around this issue.
Those (12) ingredients? Two of them have been identified as "safe" by the FDA: both of the mineral sunscreen ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. The rest (chemical sunscreen ingredients) have been found to be present in the bloodstream at higher concentrations and much longer than assumed, so the FDA is asking for research to form a conclusion. There is some emerging information on their toxicity.
Coming from a pharmaceutical background, I know that years of research are necessary to quantify the effects of chemicals on the human body (whether the conclusion is "good" or "bad").
A study on oxybenzone, a common ingredient in chemical sunscreen (not mineral!), compiled results with findings such as:
- up to 97% of Americans have this chemical present in their urine
- it accumulates in waterways and fish, results in fish mortality
- is a potential endocrine disruptor
- results in coral reef bleaching
In response to these findings, beginning January 1, 2021, Hawaii will ban the sale, offer of sale or distribution of any sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate without a prescription from a licensed health care provider.
The bottom line is, although these ingredients have been "approved" by the FDA and deemed "safe", the objective truth is that the studies to prove it, have not been done. That means we actually don't know, we just thought they were fine.
Enter: clean skincare. Clean skincare generally refers to skincare products that are formulated following some guidelines:
- nontoxic (this includes those maybe toxic ingredients)
- naturally derived (where possible)
- free of synthetic fragrance
It seems easy enough, just make products without questionable ingredients. But this is not the status quo for most (widely known) producers.
What about product effectiveness? Maybe those questionable ingredients are what make the product work! Nope. Effective ingredients in skincare products are most commonly advertised, front and center - check out the ingredient list and see where that highlighted ingredient falls into the paragraph of scientific nomenclature.
My synopsis is that most of the questionable stuff has shown up to enhance texture, extend shelf-life, and drive down manufacturing costs by adding useless fillers.
So what now? Well, aside from getting even more Google-savvy and learning what each ingredient in your products do for you (or don't)... you can gear your product searches towards "clean" skincare products, especially those that are certified. Certification is basically a stamp from a third party that says they've reviewed your products and their ingredients, and they are free from known and potentially harmful ingredients.
We all deserve better, without having to be chemists. Leave that to me. :)