Scan the beauty department of your favorite department store or go-to beauty boutique. Chances are, more than half of labels on the shelves read “natural,” “pure” and even “organic.” But because the personal care industry is completely unregulated, unless the label reads “certified organic” (a food term regulated by the FDA), these beauty products still can be chock-full of chemicals dangerous to your health.

We EcoStilettoistas love Stacy Malkan’s amazing book “Not Just A Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,” are up to date on research from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and call out the baddies on our Big List of Things That Suck, but it’s just not that easy to get wi-fi in your local drugstore. So print out and pocket this cheat sheet of what to look for on labels. Then seek out some amazing brands that are leading the pack in eschewing chemicals for truly natural alternatives.

Petroleum—and its derivatives petrolatum, mineral oil and paraffin—is the old-school go-to for an ingredient that softens skin. Unfortunately, it’s also derived from fossil fuels. Why worry about the fuel consumption of your car only to turn around and slap the stuff on your skin? And in addition to beauty products, softeners ethylene glycol and propylene glycol are also found in brake fluid and antifreeze, respectively—the latter being linked to kidney damage and liver abnormalities. We prefer softeners derived from fruits and vegetables, like the sustainably sourced shea butter in One with Nature’s amazing Dead Sea Mud line. We don’t know if it’s the vegetable and shea butter base or the heavy mineral content of the Dead Sea mud, which has been used in skin care regimens since Cleopatra’s time, but these soaps, body washes and lotions hydrate like nothing we’ve ever seen—without a drop of petroleum in sight.

And on that note, the petrochemically derived butylene glycol is used to keep products from drying out. Unfortunately, it’s also linked to respiratory failure, kidney failure, coma and death and is not in the FDA’s GRAS (“generally recognized as safe”) list. The naturopathic line WAI HOPE Organic Skincare has found alternatives in plant-based humectants like Brazilian mandacaru cactus extract, and saguaro and agave cactus extracts from California and Arizona—natural moisture binders that can retain as much as 4,000 times their weight in water.

Although it’s classified by the EPA as a human and animal carcinogen, 1,4-dioxane, a nasty byproduct of processing harsh chemicals with ethylene oxide to make them less harsh, is prevalent on beauty shelves. Got sodium lauryl sulfate? Ethyoxylate it and you get sodium laureth—the “eth” indicates the process. Unfortunately you also get 1,4-dioxane, most commonly found in things that bubble. A better (and biodegradable) bubble can be found in products made with coconut- or sugar-derived decyl glucoside, sodium coco-sulfate or cocamidopropyl betaine, or castille-based safe sudsors that can be found in body lathers from Blooming Lotus.

Look for nail polishes that are free of dibutyl phthalate or DBP, a reproductive toxin that’s banned in Europe because of links to birth defects, toluene (or butylated hydroxyl toluene, as it’s labeled in skincare products), which affects the central nervous system and can cause headaches, and formaldehyde, a known carcinogen that’s also responsible for turning your nails yellow when you take off the polish. Even big box brands are now “big three free,” but if your favorite nail salon is still using toxic polish, just remember to BYOB! And speaking of formaldehyde, many common chemical preservatives release the stuff over time, so also avoid the words quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, urea and (imidazolidinyl and diazolidinyl) on your labels. Many organic essential oils like thyme, eucalyptus and rosemary are natural preservatives and antiseptics. We’ve recently taken to toting Desert Essence’s Tea Tree Relief Spray, created with essential oils harvested from the foremost ecologically sensitive plantation in Australia, and spritzing it on post mani/pedi to fight off fungi that might be lurking in the bowl. Ick.

In 2006, the FDA proposed a ban on hydroquinone, a chemical used to reduce skin pigmentation, because of links to cancer and a serious skin discoloration condition known as ochronosis. Fortunately, many companies are turning to natural fruit acids from pineapple and papaya to exfoliate and lighten the skin. RAW Skincare found Brassicaceae extract decreased unwanted pigmentation by 41% within four week, and packaged it in their Ambiaty Concentrated Serum, which is also free of synthetic fragrances and preservatives, free of artificial colorants and free of parabens and petrochemicals.

Finally, a red flag on any beauty label are ingredients ending in the word “paraben,” like methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and hexylparaben, among others. These are preservatives used to give products a longer shelf life—in the decades—and are a basic ingredient of chemical beauty product composition. Where you see parabens, more chemicals are sure to follow. Unfortunately, these ubiquitous chemicals can mimic estrogen, leading to hormonal disruption, and are linked to cell mutations and cancer: A 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology found high levels of parabens in 100% of the breast cancer tumors sampled. Not the best statistic. Luckily, sustainable beauty product manufacturers like those featured on have found natural alternatives like propolis (made by bees), lichen and ascorbic acid, which inhibit bacterial growth and keep products safe on shelves for a reasonable amount of time.

And honestly, if you haven’t used your favorite product up in a year, isn’t it time to think about finding a new one?

Through the end of June, first-time customers get 20% off on orders of $100 or more with “ECO1” at checkout at

Get 20% off on all orders over $25 of products with “ecostiletto” at checkout for —you guessed it—the rest of June!

Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff is the founder and editor of EcoStiletto. You can find more info about Rachel on our About Us page.

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