You’re probably pretty careful about the foods you put in your body, but what about the products you use on your skin? While cosmetics and skincare products sold in the U.S. do not require FDA approval to go on the market, they do have to comply with certain regulations. Still, you might be surprised to learn that some of your favorite cosmetics are full of not-so-great-for-you ingredients like lead or formaldehyde, both of which have been associated with cancer, but are perfectly legal to lurk in your face cream or your lip gloss.
While you don’t have to toss everything in your medicine cabinet and start over, there are some products that are worth being extra careful about, especially if you use them every day. We talked to Skye McKennon, a doctor of pharmacy and associate professor at the University of Utah College of Pharmacy, and Ashli Carnicelli, an aesthetician at Boston-based spa, Bella Sante, about when it’s worth double-checking the label. Here are five products they say you should always buy organic or all-natural:
1. Body lotion: Because body lotion is one of those things people tend to apply more than once per day, and because it’s used all over your skin, it’s the first product you should toss when making the switch, according to Dr. McKennon. “Our bodies absorb products applied to the skin and chemicals in the body lotion are no exception,” she says. Luckily, a healthy (and affordable!) alternative is probably already sitting in your pantry: Dr. McKennon recommends reaching for oils, such as olive, avocado, or coconut oil as a swap for conventional body lotions. Carnicelli also recommends Little Barn Apothecary’s grapefruit and honeysuckle body oil, which contains vitamin E and a combination of jojoba, almond, and sesame oil.
2. Lipstick: A 2013 study at the University of California, Berkeley, that examined eight lipsticks and 24 lip glosses found that in addition to lead, the lipsticks contained eight other heavy metals including cadmium, chromium, manganese, and aluminum. While some of these metals (such as manganese) play important health-related functions in small doses (for example, manganese helps your body regulate blood sugar and sex hormones and is essential for good bone health), all of them are toxic in large doses, with cadmium and lead being particularly dangerous. Though lead has been phased out of things like paint, cadmium is pretty widespread and found in food, soil, tobacco, and even some jewelry. A 2012 Harvard-led study found that children with high levels of cadmium in their system are more likely to experience learning disabilities than their counterparts with lower levels.
To be clear, this doesn’t definitively confirm that your lipsticks are slowly poisoning you or that you need to panic — and the FDA has noted that the trace levels found in lipstick fall within the recommended limits for lead and other metals by health authorities. However, the study does suggest that it could be worth being cautious about the potential for long-term effects based on repeat exposure if you wear lipstick regularly.
To that end, Dr. McKennon recommends swapping your normal lippies out for a natural alternative, such as Korres Lip Butter (an ultra-hydrating balm that leaves you with a rich, shiny color). If you can’t give up lipstick entirely, the FDA found in a 2012 investigation of 400 different popular lipsticks that Bobbi Brown, Wet ‘n Wild, and Shiseido brand lipsticks contain the lowest amounts of lead.
3. Antiperspirant: You’ve probably heard by now that antiperspirants may be linked to cancer. The culprit? Aluminum, which can cause “gene instability” in breast tissue, research has shown. For this reason, some experts worry that it can cause breast cancer, though the American Cancer Society has warned that the existing research is inconclusive. Most natural alternatives to antiperspirants are deodorants (try Lavanila The Healthy Deodorant in Vanilla Lavender or Tom’s of Maine Long Lasting Deodorant) and therefore don’t actually prevent sweating, Dr. McKennon says. If you’re someone who sweats a lot, Dr. McKennon suggests trying disposable adhesive sweat pads (try PURAX Pure Pads) in addition to deodorant.
4. Sunscreen: Two of the most common ingredients found in sunscreen are oxybenzone and octinoxate, Carnicelli says. While the jury is still out in the medical community on whether they’re truly harmful, a 2008 study did find that extremely high levels of oxybenzone diminished reproductive capabilities in zebrafish.
These findings can’t necessarily be generalized to human beings, but if you’d rather be safe than sorry (or just feel bad for the fish), switch to a sunscreen that has zinc oxide or titanium dioxide instead. “These [ingredients] create a physical shield on the skin, as opposed to affecting melanin production on a cellular level,” says Carnicelli. Try Blue Lizard Baby, which can be used all over, or Josie Maran’s Argan Daily Moisturizer SPF 47, which is specifically designed for your face.
5. Talcum powder: Regularly use talcum powder to stay dry? If you’re using it in your vaginal area, consider switching to cornstarch — talcum powder has been associated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer, and cornstarch is a safer (and cheaper) alternative, Dr. McKennon says.
This list shouldn’t scare you off from buying your favorite products, but rather serve as a reminder to read the labels and be aware of what you’re putting in your body. From there, you’ll be empowered to make the right beauty and skincare choices for you.