The 5 Toxic Products I Tossed From My Makeup Bag and What I Replaced Them With


(Image credit: @revolvebeauty)

Over the last couple of years, an increased interest in natural and organic skincare has inspired a total overhaul of the skin category. It's rare to see a new product line come to market that's not marketed as clean, and when one does eke through, consumers aren't afraid to raise their concerns. Slower to change has been the makeup sector, which is certainly seeing growth in terms of natural formulations but not at the same rate as skincare. As a makeup lover, I can't help but wonder why that is.

With so much chatter about all the potentially harmful ingredients out there, why are so many of us so slow to make the transition to natural makeup? Well as a Black person, I'll just go ahead and say that the shade offerings in the early days of natural makeup were anything but inclusive. And that has not been the only hurdle. "The number one excuse I’ve heard for continuing to use makeup products that have harmful chemicals is that it's impossible to get the high performance in clean cosmetics," says Roen co-founder and CEO Tiffany Thurston Scott. "This was probably truer in the past, but I believe this notion has been debunked."


(Image credit: @court_higgs)

According to Connie Au, cosmetic chemist and Vesca Beauty product development specialist, it's time to wake up. "While most testing has been completed in studies on other species or cell cultures, some ingredients have been known, in some cases, to cause cancer as a result of impurities found in them," she explains. "Other risks that have been indicated for certain ingredients include, but are not limited to, endocrine disruption that can manifest as disease, organ toxicity in the body, lead or heavy-metal poisoning, bioaccumulation in other species, and allergic and irritant reactions on the skin." Uh…yikes.

The more I learn about the world of clean beauty, the more I'm inspired to up the number of healthier, more natural products in my routine. To help us all wade through the murky waters of ingredient labels, I asked Thurston and Au to lend their expertise about the most toxic ingredients found in makeup formulas. Ahead, get their intel on which makeup products are the dirtiest, and explore all the picks from the best natural makeup brands to replace them with.

Toxic Product #5: Pressed and Loose Powder

The offending ingredients: talc contaminated with asbestos, parabens

"In the news of late, some talc sources have been brought to the forefront for containing asbestos, a known carcinogen," says Au. While talc is regularly used in many products, she explains that the key is sourcing it from highly vetted manufacturers that vigorously check their talc supply for asbestos. There are also talc-free options that eliminate the possibility of contamination altogether.

Even if you aren't sure what parabens are, you've surely heard by now that they're bad news. These days, it's common to hear brands across all beauty categories condemning them, but according to Thurston Scott, keeping these potentially toxic preservatives out of makeup should be the norm. "The main issue with parabens is that they are endocrine disruptors," she explains. "They can stay suspended around the skin pores in your eyes and can affect your hormone system. They're considered carcinogenic even in small amounts." No thanks!

Shop the Clean Replacements

Toxic Product #4: Lipstick and Lip Gloss

The offending ingredients: heavy metals, irritating fragrances, petrolatum

Au says that heavy metals are something to be wary of with lipsticks but also notes that companies do tend to be diligent in their testing nowadays. "Most companies regularly test their products and raw materials before going to market to make sure they fall within FDA and other government regulatory bodies' approved limits," she assures. When it comes to gloss, Thurston Scott advises staying clear of the petrolatum derivative petroleum jelly. Aside from the toxicity that can take place during the refining process, "another concern with petrolatum is that it creates an airtight barrier on the skin, which can act as a penetration enhancer. This means absorption of any of the toxic ingredients will be increased," she warns.

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Toxic Product #3: Foundation

The offending ingredient: methylparaben, propylparaben

"Foundation can contain a lot of harmful chemicals, including parabens such as methylparaben and propylparaben, all of which can disrupt the endocrine system and are considered potential threats to fertility and potentially cancer causing," says Thurston Scott. "And since we put this all over our face, I think it's a good idea to go clean." I have to agree.

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Toxic Product #2: Eyeliner

The offending ingredients: coumarin, Lilial, Lyral

I'm an eyeliner freak, so you better believe I paid close attention to Thurston Scott's concerns with traditional ingredient lists. "Eyeliners can contain a fragrance called coumarin that has been linked to liver damage, even in small quantities," she says. "It's also been reported that some eyeliners have high levels of Lilial and Lyral, which are chemical powders that are often found in laundry detergents, soaps, and deodorants. Many people are allergic to these ingredients and can experience dry, irritated skin."

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Toxic Product #1: Mascara

The offending ingredient: carbon black, parabens, phthalates

Again, this is a category that hits really close to home since I truly can't live without mascara. But according to Au, "some mascaras contain carbon black, which can be nano form and can pose an inhalant irritant." Thurston Scott also raises the issue of phthalates. "Phthalates have been linked to liver, kidney, and lung damage as well as harmful effects on the reproductive system," she explains. 

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Associate Beauty Editor

Courtney Higgs is a Cancer sun, Libra rising beauty enthusiast with about six years of experience in the editorial space. She was previously Who What Wear's associate beauty editor after spending many years working on the West Coast edit team at InStyle Magazine. She graduated from California State University, Northridge, with a BA in communication studies and pivoted to editorial after spending her college years working in the legal field. Her beauty philosophy is simple: She believes there are no wrong answers and that discovering our favorite beauty products and rituals is a journey, not a sprint. When she's not geeking out over products, she can be found adventuring around L.A. with her fiancé; watching reality TV with their French bulldog, Bernie Mac; or relating way too hard to astrology memes.