Sulfates, Phthalates and Parabens: A Look at the Most Common Buzzwords in Beauty

"Cautious and well-educated would be the approach I would recommend," a D.C. dermatologist said

Do you know what's in your favorite beauty products and why?

Ingredients like parabens and phthalates are designed to make our personal care products last. But experts say the same chemicals that help your lotion smell good and give your shampoo that nice lather may affect your health.

Read the labels, D.C. dermatologist Shlomit Halachmi said.

"Cautious and well-educated would be the approach I would recommend," she said.

News4 is breaking down the most common buzzwords in beauty so you can decide what's best for you and your family.

Common Ingredients in Cosmetics

Common buzzwords in beauty, and what they're used for.

Source: US Food & Drug Administration,
Credit: Anisa Holmes/NBC Washington

Parabens: These are preservatives that keep bacteria and fungus from growing in shampoos, toothpaste, moisturizers and mascara.

"If we didn't have parabens, we'd have trouble with more things becoming spoiled, infected," Dr. Halachmi said.

Laboratory studies have suggested that parabens can disrupt hormones in the body and potentially raise your risk of cancer.

But Maryland toxicologist Hans Plugge said the chemicals are used in small amounts and that makes them safe.

"The dose makes the poison," he said. "Most of these doses are really small."

Formaldehyde: This is something we think about in corpses and Frankenstein. It's a preservative and known carcinogen that extends the shelf life of shampoos, nail polish and body washes.

But health experts say you would have to inhale large amounts over long periods of time for it to do any harm.

Sulfates: If you color your hair, you've heard of sulfates. They're used to create foam," Dr. Halachmi, the dermatologist said.

The biggest concern is skin irritation. The longer you leave it on, the more irritating it can be," she said. If it bothers you, look for products labeled sulfate-free.

Phthalates: These are chemicals found in perfume, hair spray and nail polish. They're also in our food, water, plastic packaging, medications and toys.

Like parabens, some phthalates are endocrine disruptors, according to lab studies, and can affect your hormones.

You might assume that the FDA ensures that the ingredients in beauty products are safe. But that’s actually the responsibility of the companies that sell them. News4’s Susan Hogan tells what you need to know. 

"Phthalates have made a lot of headline news, in part because of their concern for infants. Because infants are so small, a small amount on their body is a large concentration," Dr. Halachmi said.

The FDA says it's not clear what effect, if any, phthalates have on human health.

If you're worried, the American Academy of Pediatrics says you can limit your family's exposure by using alternatives to plastic like glass or stainless steel and avoiding microwaving foods or drinks in plastic.

Fragrances: These are in almost everything. And don’t be fooled by products labeled fragrance-free or unscented. They still can contain chemicals to mask the smell of the natural product.

"Switching to organic products doesn't get rid of fragrances. In fact, you probably have more fragrances because they are derived from nature," Dr. Halachmi said.

"People who have asthma, people who suffer from migraines, it may be triggered from fragrances," she added. "As a dermatologist, it's the most common allergy we see."

Companies aren't required to list every fragrance ingredient they use; they're considered trade secrets.

"There's a whole mixture of products and chemicals that go into that one word," Virginia epidemiologist Dr. Anna Pollack said. "We're not really at a point where we fully understand the health implications of those exposures.

Although the long-term effects of some ingredients are not clear, the personal care product industry insists that trace amounts of these chemicals in our beauty products are safe.

Consumers have the power to decide what's best for them.

"I feel confident in saying the products on the market are safe," said Jay Ansell, a vice president of the Personal Care Products Council. "But that doesn't mean you have to use them. So if it's an ingredient you don't want, you turn the bottle and see if it's in there."

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