by Emma Peters October 03, 2017

In an era where advertising is everywhere and new beauty products seem to be released daily, it’s hard to work out what’s worth your time and money. Things become even trickier when you find out the truth about conventional makeup.

As cheap and readily available as they may be, so many commercially available beauty products contain toxins and carcinogens that are bad for your health. We’re quick to clean up our food and our environment, but it’s virtually impossible to be the picture of perfect health without fully embracing natural, conscious beauty and toxin-free cosmetics.

We've already been through how to glow on the outside by focussing on health and wellness, so now it's time to think skin-deep. This article is all about detoxing your makeup and skincare bag to stay healthy, happy and absolutely gorgeous.

Do cosmetics affect how healthy I am?

natural beauty makeup

In a word - yes. Synthetic makeup and skincare are often a contributing factor to a whole host of long-term health issues. These aren’t simply cracked lips or the odd pimple either, but things like full-blown endocrine disruption, nervous system havoc and possibly even cancer.

In fact, around 20% of conventional makeup products contain cancer-causing carcinogens like parabens. A pivotal 2004 study around parabens found them in 18 out of 20 samples of human breast tissue. The study lists these as one possible cause of rising breast cancer rates throughout the developed world. Unfortunately parabens aren't the only chemical cosmetic ingredients doing you harm - there are scores of others with equal potential for bodily damage.

While brands seldom use lethal amounts of chemicals in makeup or cosmetic products, small amounts do add up. In New Zealand, most products legally sold have been through some degree of testing. Unfortunately though, that doesn't mean they're always safe. The average woman uses around 12 beauty products with 168 unique ingredients every single day. That means the “safe” amount of chemicals in isolated products are multiplied twelvefold on average, and so are the associated health risks.

It’s a real, escalating problem for so many people. The only solution is adequate research and informed choices about what we put on our skin. A toxin 'detox' shouldn't end with what you eat and drink, it extends to your makeup bag and skincare too. If you're keen to rid your life of toxic chemicals, you'll need to tackle them from every single angle by working natural beauty products into your daily routine.

What are the most harmful cosmetic chemicals?

natural beauty chemicals

As a general rule of thumb, any cosmetic ingredient you can't pronounce is worth a little bit of extra research. Databases like EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics are fantastic tools to use for this kind of thing. If you're unsure of an ingredient, pop it in to the EWG search and odds are it'll be listed. EWG describes the chemical itself, gives it a toxicity rating from 1 - 10 and provides lists of references. Research and reading are the best ways to familiarise yourself with toxins so you know exactly what ingredients to avoid.

Our list isn't exhaustive, but it will give you a pretty clear picture of which baddies rule a product out. We make a conscious choice at Belle & Sage not to stock products containing any of these nasties. Here's why.

1, 4 Dioxane

Cosmetic labels rarely mention Dioxane, but because it's a chemical byproduct it manages to sneak in anyway. It forms when Ethylene Oxide is mixed in with other ingredients to make them less harsh. For example, Sodium Laurel Sulfate is a harsh chemical, but mellows out into Sodium Laureth Sulfate when you mix in Ethylene Oxide. You normally find it in products containing suds like soaps, shampoos, bubble baths and shower gel.

Dioxane is a potential carcinogen, also causing organ toxicity and general irritation. Look for PEG usually followed by a number, Polyethylene glycol, Polyoxyethelene, and ingredients ending in “eth” and “xynol".

Aluminium Salts

That's right, even metals make their way into conventional cosmetics. Aluminium Salts are a neurotoxin and there's conflicting information linking them to Alzheimers and breast cancer. Because they show up in conventional anti-perspirants, a lot of people unknowingly use them every day. They clog pores and prompt the body to perspire more, thus creating more need for deodorant and creating a vicious cycle.

Chemical Sunscreens (Octinoxate, Oxybenzone , PABA, Octyl-Methoxycinnamate)

One common misconception is that it takes strong chemicals to properly protect our skin from the sun. This isn't true, and many people are unaware of the dangers of chemical sunscreens. Octinoxate, Oxybenzone, PABA and Octyl-Methoxycinnamate are active UV filters and are in sunscreen, lipsticks, nail polish, hair dyes and even skin cream.

EWG gives it a toxicity rating of 6, leading to possible biochemical or cellular level changes and endocrine disruption. 

Coal Tar

Sounds gross, right? If you think so too, then your instincts are absolutely spot on. This is a byproduct of Bituminous Coal and is a known human carcinogen. It's in anti-dandruff shampoos, most hair dyes, makeup and sometimes mouthwash.

EWG gives it a toxicity rating of 10, so if you see this on any label, steer clear. A lot of cosmetics won't directly list it though, so be on the lookout for 'P-phenylenediamine' too - Coal Tar makes up a big part of it.


These four cosmetic chemical baddies are the 'Ethanol Amines'. They're found in a tonne of household products and cosmetics used as pH balancing agents or emulsifiers. All four are carcinogens, and all four have been linked to accumulation in the organs and kidneys as well as organ system toxicity (possibly affecting male reproductive health).

They may be on ingredients lists as acronyms, but are more likely to see them as Diethanolamine (DEA), Triethalomine (TEA),  Monoethalomine (MEA) and Ethanolomine (ETA).


Formaldehyde is another grade 10 chemical not often directly listed on product labels as a byproduct of several preservatives. It's in conventional nail polish, body and hair care products, hair growth products and antiperspirant. Formaldehyde's also a professional embalming ingredient, which tells you all you need to know about this toxic baddie. 

It's a carcinogen, allergen and irritant that can cause immune system toxicity. Look for ingredients like Ormalin, Formic Aldehyde, Merthaldehyde, Methanal, Methyl Aldehyde, Oxomethane and Oxymethylene. It's also made by ingredients like DMDM Hydantion, Quaternium-15 and Diaxolidinyl Urea.

Lead + Mercury

Mercury is an active ingredient of Thimerosal, which used to be commonly found in mascara as a preservative. Lead on the other hand is a key contaminant in lots of conventional lipsticks and hair dye. Both are highly toxic with links to various health issues like depression, brain damage, miscarriage and nervous system issues. 


Phthalates are prevalent in many cosmetics and household items because they're so versatile. They're a way to disperse and prolong the scent of fragrances and aid chip resistance in nail polish. Phthalates are a possible carcinogen and endocrine disruptor - meaning they interfere with hormone production. There are also studies suggesting Phthalates cause birth defects as well as a lower sperm count in men and fertility issues.

Products occasionally list Phthalates as a key ingredient, but also look out for ones saying DBP, DEHP, 1,2 Benzenedicarboxylate and Dibutyl/Diethyl Esther.


These are cheap and nasty preservatives that prolong a product's shelf life. They're in just about everything from makeup to cleaning products and can do some serious damage. These mimic estrogen effects and are an endocrine disruptor and carcinogen too. While just about everyone should avoid these, it's particularly important for women of childbearing age to steer clear.

Keep a special lookout for ingredients like Methyl/ Propyl/ Butyl/ Isobutyl/ Isopropyl Paraben, Hydrobenzoic Acid, Hydroxybenzoate or Ester.

Synthetic fragrance

Often listed as simply 'fragrance' or 'parfum', Synthetic Fragrance is one of the more eerie ingredients to read on a list purely because it's so vague. In New Zealand, manufacturers don't have to name every single ingredient that goes into their signature fragrance, meaning it could be made up of just about anything.

We've written about the dangers of Synthetic Fragrance before, as it can contain numerous harmful allergens and irritants. It's in perfumes and almost any conventional product with a distinct scent. To eliminate any confusion or potential damage, boycott synthetic fragrances entirely.


Believe it or not, Toluene is a potent solvent and paint thinner. It's in nail polishes and hardeners as well as some fragrances and is a harmful neurotoxin. Not only that, it can lead to immune system or bone marrow toxicity, and is possible link to leukemia and blood cancer.

Toluene sometimes appears as an ingredient on its own, but also as a component of Toluol, Methylbenzene and Phenylmethane.

How can I embrace natural beauty effectively?

natural beauty skin

Detoxing your makeup and skincare isn't easy, it takes perseverance, time, and a whole lot of fantastic natural alternatives. The change is well worth the effort though, leaving you feeling brilliant and looking flawless with a clear conscience. Looking at health and beauty from the outside in is just as important as taking care of what you eat and drink.

Here are a few little things to focus on when you start our own holistic outside in beauty detox. Happy swapping!

Figure out what needs replacing

As awesome as it would be to revamp all your makeup and cosmetics in one go, costs do add up. Instead of buying a tonne of new natural products that you think you might use, make a mental (or physical) list of what you have already that's about to run out. That way, you can research natural, nourishing alternatives one by one based on what replacement is the most pressing.

Eventually, you'll have a gorgeous collection of products that do no harm to you or the environment - clever, right?

Get yourself a great natural deodorant

natural beauty lavanila dodorant

Because many of us wear deodorant every single day, finding a brand that's aluminium-free and gentle on this skin is incredibly important. A high quality natural deodorant may actually even help you perspire less, as there are no toxic nasties blocking the pores and causing the body to over-produce sweat.

If you're after sports-safe protection, all natural Lavanila Sports Luxe Vanilla Breeze could be the way to go. Eco by Sonya Driver Coconut Deodorant is soothing and drying while Zoo Deodorant is also 100% natural and supports a fantastic cause too.

Know your ingredients lists

When it comes to staying healthy from the outside in, knowing what toxins to look out for is half the battle. Our list of nasties above is a great place to start, but also start taking note of any chemical ingredient that confuses you and look it up. That way you'll learn exactly what it is and what it does, making it easier to commit to memory and avoid when you're shopping.

It's also good to remember that most conventional lists order ingredients from greatest to smallest amount. It means the product is mainly made up of whatever appears first.

Forget what you think you know about chemicals

Tailor Skincare

Because they're in so many makeup and cosmetics products, sometimes it's all too easy to assume chemical ingredients are there for a good reason. In reality, they're unpleasant and potentially seriously damaging. So if natural alternatives are so easy to find and use, why not start to make the switch.

Chemical sunscreens can easily be swapped out for natural alternatives like Snowberry. You can replace moisture stripping skincare products too - try gentle, natural brands like Tailor Skincare or Weleda instead.

Don't succumb to synthetic fragrances

A great way to eliminate any possible irritants from your beauty routine is to boycott all forms of synthetic fragrance. Not all brands of perfume and products produce their scents in a lab. In fact, more and more brands are turning to essential oils or natural fragrance components than ever before.

By choosing products like these over synthetically produced, fake fragrances, you're voting with your wallet and staying away from potentially harmful chemicals.

If you need any extra advice on product detoxing, drop us a line on Facebook or email. Embracing holistic beauty is an incredible journey and at times it can be challenging, but it's great to know we're all in this together.

Here's to happier, healthier beauty habits!

natural beauty tabletop


Harvey, P. W., & Darbre, P. (2004). Endocrine disrupters and human health: could oestrogenic chemicals in body care cosmetics adversely affect breast cancer incidence in women?. Journal of Applied Toxicology24(3), 167-176.

SGS. (2017). When you need to be sure.

EWG. (2017). EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.


Emma Peters
Emma Peters

Emma Peters, organic makeup artist, creative director and founder of Belle & Sage, is committed to leading the conversation around beauty and wellness. With over twenty years of experience as a make-up artist, she knows you don’t have to sacrifice quality for clean.

She’ll help you find the what, learn the why, nail the how, and everything in between.

Letting you know more, wear better, and start making beautiful choices: from the inside, out.

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