Beauty is More Than Skin Deep: Choosing Safer Personal Care Products

A couple of years ago, I was still blindly slathering my body with products whose ingredients I could barely pronounce. When I learned the truth, that the FDA does not regulate the ingredients in beauty and personal care products, it rocked my world, and fueled the start of a personal revolution towards a more natural lifestyle.

Our skin, is after all the largest organ we have, so it’s a pretty good starting point for developing a healthier lifestyle. With a self-regulating industry, though, it can be difficult to know which products are actually safe. This is where the Skin Deep cosmetic safety database comes in.

About the Database

Built by the smart and caring Environmental Working Group, the Skin Deep cosmetic safety database is a place where you can search for any personal care product and see how it rates on the hazard scale, and learn about its ingredients.

It’s really simple. Zero is the safest and ten is the most hazardous score. Most products on the market are listed, and although it can be a bit tedious, you can actually list products that you don’t find, simply by copying information from the label onto a form on the website.

You can also search by category and see which products in that category have the safest ratings.

Ten Ways to Get Smart About Personal Care Products

1. Don’t trust the labels. I was most shocked when I started researching sunscreen, something that is supposed to protect our skin. Companies throw out words like “all natural,” or even “organic,” but don’t actually have to adhere to any standards for those claims. Instead of trusting trendy slogans and greenwashed labels, look for products that rate low on the database and have a low “data gap.”

2. Go straight to the ingredients. Since we can’t necessarily trust the labels or company claims, the best thing to do is educate ourselves on which ingredients are most toxic, such as parabens and pthalates. And at a glance, I look for products whose ingredients I can easily pronounce.

3. Research the products you have. This can be a very enlightening exercise. Take your favorite products to the database, and while you could be surprised what dangers are lurking within those bottle, maybe you’ve already been using something that’s actually quite safe.

4. Watch out for proprietary information. Possibly one of the more dangerous ingredients in these products, fragrance, is one that most labels only indicate very generally. Since it is considered “proprietary information,” the company doesn’t have to disclose exactly what that term refers to.

5. Be aware of hidden toxins. Some of the most dangerous compounds show up in laboratory tests but not on product labels. For example, 1,4 dioxane, a cancer-causing chemical, is formed when a common ingredient, sodium lauryl sulfate is converted to the supposedly more gentle sodium laureth sulfate. In addition, when we use multiple products, we are exposed to more and higher amounts of toxins like carcinogens.

6. Focus on those most susceptible. The younger a person is, the least they can fight against toxins, and the more concentrated these toxins will be in their little bodies.  My favorite line of non-toxic products is called California Baby (and it’s even sold at Target!).

7. Pay now or pay later. If you’re afraid of the cost of starting over with safer products, consider that it’s probably worth the cost of a few really good products to avoid ingredients that could lead to costly medical procedures down the road. Also keep in mind that when we buy safer, quality products we are also voting with our dollars for better products.

8. Simplify.
Instead of an entire bathroom full of products, I’ve realized that what I actually need and use regularly makes up a pretty simple arsenal. Love the feeling of thinning out your wardrobe and getting rid of unused items? Try the same techniques with your beauty products, clearing out products that are expired or rate high on Skin Deep. A simpler beauty routine takes less time and money to keep up as well.

9. Stick to companies who have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics. These companies commit to discontinue the use of dangerous toxins and adhere to the EU Cosmetic Directive. They might still be in transition to being fully compliant, but at least they’ll be more trustworthy than those who refuse to sign.

10. Skip buying products all together, and make your own. Some of the best ways to take care of our bodies require only a trip to the pantry or the health foods store. Here are a few resources and ideas:

Another great resource is the book Not Just a Pretty Face, which details the history of Skin Deep and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, along with information of various toxins and studies. And be sure to check out the Skin Deep Safer Shopping Tips as well.

Have you found Skin Deep to be useful? How else do you avoid toxins in the beauty and personal care products your family uses?

Author: Nicole

Nicole is a wife and mother, with a spunky toddler at home and an adoption in process. She loves sharing her passion for trying to live a natural, handmade lifestyle, and blogs about daily life, including crafts and other inspiration, at GidgetGoesHome.com.

73 thoughts on “Beauty is More Than Skin Deep: Choosing Safer Personal Care Products”

  1. Nicole! I can’t stop smiling at this post. I recently joined a company whose mission is to spread this very message. You have everything here! PEOPLE – THIS IS IMPORTANT!!! Thank you so much for educating, especially about “fragrance” and the database!
    I wanted to encourage you to check out the story and the products by Ava Anderson. She’s taking on the personal care product industry by creating all “0” products. You can learn more at http://www.avaandersonnontoxic.com/suzannerippel. But most importantly, everyone – check your products on the Skin Deep Website and use that resource to find safer ones!!
    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Nicole!!!

  2. Thank you for posting this – I’ve already been on a mission to rid my cabinets of these nasties. It was actually my mother’s doctor who first alerted us to the issue of parabens after she was having constant problems with breast cysts. Since then I have also found out about the dangers of sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate – and since switching to a sls free shampoo, I found that the burning I’d feel in my scalp after washing my hair WASN’T normal!

  3. Thank you so much for this post!! Seriously. As someone who began this journey within the past year and completely “believes” it’s so shocking to me how far marketing dollars really influence what we “know”.

    As I’m trying to inform some of my friends and share the truths behind these chemicals, a friend recently declared to me, “If it can’t give me cancer, it can’t clean my bathtub.” Wow. What lies we’ve believed!

    The personal products are my next big hurdle. This really helps me get there!

  4. Love this post. I have been wanting to transition the personal care products that we have currently to safer products, but I have a question. What should I do with the stuff that we have? Some stuff is unopened so I think I could donate that to homeless shelters, etc. but then I feel a bit unethical pawning that stuff off (if it’s dangerous for me I don’t want to endanger others). But do I just throw out what we have? Is that wasteful? Or if I do throw it out, what’s the best way to dispose of a half bottle of shampoo? Just throw it down the sink or into the trash? Not to overcomplicate things (I know I sound a bit crazy) but we have A LOT of stuff that we could do away with so it’s kinda a bigger issue. Any advice, Nicole, or others in the community? Thanks so much for your feedback!

    1. For frugal reasons and because, like you, I didn’t want to be wasteful or to donate things that might hurt someone, so I was unsure how to dispose of things, too. I emptied a lot of things down the toilet, to be honest, but that might not be the best way. I’d love to hear what others think.

      As we made the transition, I started with the things that I checked on the Skin Deep website that were the most toxic and got rid of those right away. Then, working down the line of toxicity, I made choices based upon what the product was and how often it was used (like baby lotion or shampoo) and made a decision from there to either use up what product was left or just throw it out and immediately replace it. The products in our home that were low on the list I just used up and then replaced them with better choices when it was time to buy new. Some things, like hair mousse, I just decided to stop using all together.

      I know an “all or nothing” approach works for a lot of people, but with our budget it wasn’t entirely practical to replace many items at once.

      Hope this helps!

      1. the best place to take your comsetics/lotions etc. is straight to your Hazardous materials recycling… or what is called here in Portland, OR as the Metro Transfer Station. A simple web search will be able to help you in your area. your are right- down the rain is not the answer….. since these are toxic to us, imagine what it does to the corals and the other things in the ocean ( where it ends up!)

        1. Thank you, Tif! I feel badly about pouring our stuff down the drain … but know better, do better right? And, thanks to you, now I know what to tell others to do to get rid of harmful materials. Thank you for letting me know that many local places have a Hazardous Materials place.

  5. Thank you for such a great article. Last January, I made these exact discoveries leaving behind a well developed Mary Kay team and joined ONEgroup, the founders of the miessence brand. Keep up the great work and educating people. Struggling with secondary infertility, I now realize how these chemicals being used from a very early age may have affected my current struggle. Blessings to you at Simple Organic!

  6. I am afraid to see what the products I have been using have in them! Thank you so much for providing me with this information. I have wanted to switch to more organic/simple products, but it all seems so overwhelming. You have broken this down into manageable steps. I love the idea of making my own products. I’m going to give it a try! Thanks!

  7. I love the Skin Deep database! I’ve been able to simplify my personal care routine through research at Skin Deep and other websites. I’m happy to hear that more and more people are discovering this great resource.

  8. The Skin Deep website was a big wake up call for me, too! I was shocked to find that so many products I was paying extra money for because they were “natural” and “gentle” and therefore I assumed “safe” to use on my children were in fact not only not really natural, but their safety was suspect. I felt so sick in side – here are these companies playing on our fears and promising to be the “safe” choice, when really it is just another fancy use of words and creative use of the words “organic” and “natural”

    We love Earth Mama Angel Baby products for our kids. My husband and I have experimented with going “no poo” but found that we both prefer a natural shampoo bar instead.

    Great post, loaded with information – thank you!

  9. Thanks for a great post Nicole. I feel really strongly about this topic. People are unknowingly putting toxins on their families!

    Here’s what our family has done:
    1. I’ve switched over completely to mineral makeup. I’ve never been a huge makeup wearer anyway but I feel better about it when I do.
    2. I’ve finally found the perfect haircut (angled bob) that compliments my straight hair and makes the use of hair products unneccesary.
    3. Our family uses bars of shampoo/conditioner made by Soap Works that I have found in our natural products store. It works well, is non-toxic and elimiates plastic bottles. Plus, a bar costs $1.69 and will last about 2 months!

    1. Hello! I’ve been a constant mineral makeup user for years now and love it!

      However, a fellow “hippie” came into work the other day after watching Dr. Oz and there was apparently a health segment on our loving product. I’m a bit sad but now I simply need to find something new…

      Thought I would share: http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/price-beauty

        1. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news :-(

          I think I’m just going to research organic cosmetics. I’ll drop you a line at your blog if I find anything interesting.

  10. Thank you for posting the link to Skin Deep! Do you know how many websites advise researching the chemicals in beauty products, but never actually tell you where to go? IMHO, it makes finding better products more difficult. I’ve been slowly switching over to more natural body care for a while, following the use-it-up approach, but after looking up my products on Skin Deep…well, I’ll be making progress a little faster. Thanks for starting this awesome blog!

  11. I’m so excited about finding this database and have forwarded the information to many friends and family. I really need one for cleaning products. Anyone know of one? Thanks!

    1. I haven’t heard of a database but I would start with googling product ingredients- the problem there is that since they aren’t required to, many companies don’t disclose all their ingredients. I’d opt for either making your own cleaners or using a responsible/reputable brand like 7th Generation- they disclose all their ingredients. I’m sure you’ll find some homemade cleaning recipes here at SO soon! :)
      .-= Nicole aka Gidget’s last blog: Introducing Simple Organic =-.

  12. Wonderful! i’ve been searching for something like this for a while.

    Most of the products I use are Clinique, because honestly they’re pretty much the only thing that seems to work on my bad bad skin. I’m concerned to see the products I use score between 3 and 5… but I suppose it could be worse. I will try and wean myself off them, use what I already have and then try some of the safer products or make my own.

    I don’t know why I don’t make my own beauty products anyway, I make my own cleaning products but never thought to do it for beauty products.

  13. Thanks for the info about the database–I didn’t know it existed! I think I’m doing pretty well generally with choosing non-hazardous products. Here’s the thing: I’m 26 and still struggling with moderate acne. I decided to try out the oil-cleanse method after Tsh wrote an article on it last year, but after six months I gave up. It certainly felt good on my skin but didn’t help my acne at all. (I did try a couple different proportions too; also tea tree oil seems to make it worse.) I just don’t know what to do. I can’t afford the high end skin care products you find at Whole Foods. Do you have any suggestions for people like me?

    1. Meghan, the one thing that came to mind when I read your comment was diet. I know dermatologists now say diet doesn’t affect skin but I just don’t think it’s true. Maybe there’s something you are eating affecting it? Have you tried taking cod liver oil? That often helps acne a lot. Stick around SO and there will probably be some great suggestions.

        1. I’ve found that as I wash my skin LESS it actually gets MORE balanced and clear. It’s easy to get into a vicious cycle of stripping your skin with cleansers, then applying lotion, then acne creams to battle resultant oiliness, then something to dry it out etc. etc. Our bodies are usually best able to figure out just what they need and regulate it on their own with a little help from a good diet and plenty of water and sunshine:) It takes a bit of a leap of faith to wash it less and use less product (and a bit of a transition period while your skin adjusts), but it might be worth a try.
          .-= Amy of Progessive Pioneer’s last blog: Book Review: Conscious Kids =-.

      1. There’s a really good book about diet and skin called the Clear Skin diet. I had some pretty serious, persistent acne that wouldn’t clear up until I went gluten free for health reasons. Now we are also completely artificial color and flavor free, 100% organic and my skin is still clear.

  14. Such important info! I recently discovered Skin Deep, and have learned a lot about lotions and sunscreen. I haven’t delved into better options for makeup yet – I hope that’s something you’ll explore here!

  15. Thank you for such an incredible article, Nicole! Discovering the Skin Deep database marked the beginning of HUGE changes for my family and home. It is such a helpful resource.

    I really want to read Not Just a Pretty Face – I’m putting it on my wish list right now!

  16. LOVE the website, we’ve been checking it awhile now. I’ve found that wearing my hair longer created curls instead of frizz, so less product in my hair.

  17. Wow. That’s what enlightenment…and guilt feels like. I feel like I’m poisoning my family. That’s it. Everything goes, and we stick with only safe things. I’ve gotten rid of all bad cleaning products and make my own. I haven’t gotten to our hygiene/beauty products yet…

    1. I actually use California Baby myself, too! I use their Shampoo with a homemade lemon juice/water condition, but also CA Baby’s spray-in detangler and sunscreen. I’m still searching for the ideal body lotion but I have used their lotion before (it’s pretty light).
      .-= Nicole aka Gidget’s last blog: Introducing Simple Organic =-.

  18. I feel like when I buy something thats “green” its harder and harder to know what is truly better, and what is simply a marketing ploy, as so much in our society has shifted to marketing green.

  19. I really feel like the majority of the companys with safe products are taking advantage of us being concerned about our family’s wellbeing. I would love to see an article that actually explains why the cost of the items are so high! Thank you for posting the links to make things for yourself, but sometimes I want some -reasonable- convenience

    1. Off the top of my head, one reason is demand. The more people are buying something (ie, cheaper, unhealthy prodcuts) the lower they can cost while still profiting the company. That’s why I point out how we can “vote with our dollars.” The “recipes” I linked to are super easy to make, too, maybe even easier than driving to the store, once you stock up on ingredients.
      .-= Nicole aka Gidget’s last blog: Introducing Simple Organic =-.

  20. Nicole, I am loving this post! I have to admit, I have never checked out the SD database before. I make a lot of products at home, but of course not all… I will definitely be referring to this post a lot in the future! Thanks!

  21. I have been making our own deodorants, salves, etc. for two years… and you know what, I love going to the pantry for all my cleaning, personal and health needs…. you know exactly what is going onto/into your body.

  22. I love California Baby, and it’s the only thing I can put on my son’s skin. I am in the process of making my own lotions and such now, since the price of CA Baby products is pretty high. I also like the idea of choosing my own herbs and oils to really target healing his eczema.

  23. Just looked at my Tom’s of Maine toothpaste…it has SLS (lauryl).

    I’ve read mixed reviews about this. Are there any conclusive results?

  24. Wow! I swear this is the best synopsis I’ve ever read on this topic. I feel the need to send this link to everyone I have been trying to (and often times, I feel like on deaf ears) educate. Thank you!

  25. The biggest challenges are: money, my husband’s support, and choosing what’s most important to me. I usually want it ALL and with going green there are some many ways to change my habits that I really can choose. I get overwhelmed when I want it ALL NOW.

    1. I feel the same way, that’s why doing it gradually is better- for our wallets and our marriages. 😉 I’ve found my husband to be increasingly on-board though the more I educate him though. I think he appreciates that I want the best for our family, even though it does end up costing more sometimes. And often, even when playing along, he still refers to me as a hippie. :)
      .-= Nicole aka Gidget’s last blog: Introducing Simple Organic =-.

  26. This was such a great and timely post. I have been buying and cooking organic for several years now but have only recently started looking at our personal care products. I don’t wear makeup but I am concerned about shampoo, soap, moisturizer for me and the kids. Thank you for the information.

    I just checked the products I use on the database (I mainly use Kiehl’s products) and was HORRIFIED! They were all high on the bad end of the scale! I have such a hard time finding products that work for me and thought I had finally found ones that work and have been using them for 2-3 years now. I hate starting all over but I know it’s worth doing. Love all the recommendations in the comments….will have to check them all out.

    Anyone tried Himalaya Organic products?

  27. I find your tip about looking for ingredients that you can pronounce very misleading. I live in Canada and here Health CAnada regulates the labels and says you have to list the ingredients. In most cases, companies will list the ingredients in INCI format. That means that they list the full, chemical latin name of the product. So Water is Acqua and Baking Soda is Sodium Bicarbonate. So just because it’s a long word, doesn’t mean it’s a bad word.
    I’d also like to point out that you can’t take what the Skin Deep database as the be all and end all. Yes it has a lot of great information, however it’s compiled by a company who also has an agenda. For example if you look up Vitamin A, they list it as a 5 being moderately hazardous. That’s a little misleading in my mind.
    I would suggest that for personal care products consumers need to do their research. Make sure they’re buying from companies that list the chemical name of the ingredient so the consumer can look it up. If they list ‘Preservative’ that’s no good, yes we can pronounce it but it doesn’t specify which preservative it is! Also, research ingredients but look to many different sources, not just one.

    1. My knowledge/opinions are limited to the US… that said, I realize that pronunciability (I just made that up, I think) of a word can be misleading, that’s why I said to use that as a *starting point*. I think many of us are educated enough to realize that Acqua is water but that something like butylaedhydroxyanisol might be actually be bad.
      I included that step simply because we often are in the store trying to make an informed decision and don’t have the technology or time/patience to look up products online on the spot.
      I also was sure to point out that users of the database need to be sure to watch out for the Data Gap to make sure they aren’t blindly trusting the database alone. I’d love if you could point out any other trustworthy sources where we can research ingredients. To my knowledge Skin Deep is the best, albeit imperfect, resource we have.
      .-= Nicole aka Gidget’s last blog: Introducing Simple Organic =-.

      1. It is my understanding that Canda has more regulations in regards to the personal care industry than the United States does. Half the problem here is that they are NOT *required* to list everything that is an ingredient. Therefore, leaving people to make their own “educated” decision is impossible.
        The Skin Deep website is a marriage of numerous different resources (I apologize I don’t have the numbers in front of me) That’s the beauty of it.

  28. Great Post! One of the main ways that I have moved away from conventional toiletries is by finding natural homemade alternatives. It is one of my favorite changes that I have made in my lifestyle because it is simple and easy, works just as effectively as conventional products, simplifies my routines, and saves me so much money! I have a Change Challenge focusing on Personal Care Products going on over at my blog this month: liverenewed.blogspot.com. It goes along perfectly with this and I’d love for others to join me!

  29. I love the Skin Deep Database. I was just looking around my bathroom the other day thinking of all the changes I have made in the past year. I’m thrilled with each change made… and not just for the obvious reason that it’s simple and healthy, but the results are so much better. My skin has never looked so good!… and right when I was reaching that age when it starts to look so… well, drab. Olive oil/castor oil to cleanse and coconut oil to moisturize… so simple!

    Thanks for a great post… I will be passing this one on!
    .-= Jennifer @ Planted by Streams’s last blog: Buried =-.

  30. Love this, Nicole. I’ve been on the Skin Deep website often, but I admit that it’s intimidating to me, and kinda hard to understand and navigate. That said, I can see what a valuable resource this is.

    I’m not an alarmist by nature, but I am a fan of (surprise, surprise) simplifying. So to me, if you have two choices and they both work, the simpler one is the better (Occam’s Razor). So, a moisturizer with pure coconut oil as an ingredient yet costs $20, or straight up 100% coconut oil for $3… I’ll go with the coconut oil. I love that stuff. :)

    Thanks for sharing this, Nicole! I think this is so important… Letting us mainstream people know the facts without needlessly scaring us.

  31. Great website – A couple years ago I spent many hours obsessing over cosmetics and body care products as I compared them to the Skin Deep website – it’s so alarming. Then I just got rid of everything that was toxic and started from scratch. Expensive, but I pared down so it’s much less expensive and safer now. That’s definitely an expense that I can live with :)
    I use a mixture of products, love CA baby and Origins (they have gone no parabens, etc….) and I also sell/use/love Shaklee products – all skin care and makeup is 100% safe – no parabens, dioxanes, etc.
    Use what you love and love what you use – and be safe and informed about it!

  32. Thank you! This was so informative for me. I didn’t know about this database. I just learned how to make my own natural lotion and it’s so easy and works better than the ones I was paying lots of money for. I wrote about my experience making lotion and included a link to this article.

    This definitely gives me the motivation I need to start changing all of our products to either ones I can make or finding the least non-toxic, natural products I can buy.
    .-= Jennifer’s last blog: Making Our Own Natural Lotion =-.

  33. I started my natural body product journey memorizing the 7 WORST ingredients and staying away from those. All that reading gets exhausting, so simplifying, like Tsh mentioned, to just coconut oil, no ‘poo, homemade deodorant, etc. turned out to be the easiest way to go. I still need to find safe makeup and toothpaste, but I took the lazy road and just started wearing makeup a lot less often!
    :) Katie
    .-= Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship’s last blog: Recipe Connection: St. Peter’s Spicy Fish =-.

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