The Science Of Skincare: Toxin Absorption, Legal Loopholes, Hidden Ingredients, Safe Makeup, And My Honest Beautycounter Experience

Cleaning up our environment and lives is all the rage these days, for better or better! But while people often switch out conventional cleaning products for green alternatives, and forgo packaged processed goodies for organic whole foods, it's easy to miss one of the most potent and consistent sources of daily toxic exposure: skincare! While breathing or swallowing problematic toxins may be the "obvious" road for #teamproblem, our skin is actually a major source of welcoming toxins into our bodies. After all, the food we eat is technically still "outside" our bodies and must past through many scrutinizing security gates in the gut barrier for entrance into our precious inner homes - sort of like traveling in the international section at the airport. Our skin, on the other hand, provides a quicker and easier pass right into the bloodstream: pre-check style! This is why things like hormone creams or nicotine patches can work so well! This also means that what you put on your skin really matters... like, for reals.

Skin Function

There are two thin things which sort of blow my mind. The first is the light flexibility yet insane resilience of dollar bills. Think about all the places they've gone through the years - yet how often do you see a torn dollar bill? But even George Washington's green caricature pales in comparison to something even more incredible: our skin.

Our skin is our largest organ, and somehow manages to magically contain our entire body (with all of its bones, fluids and galore), while also serving as an illustrious waterproof gatekeeper intending to let the good (nutrients) in, and the bad (toxins) out. All while being a mere .5- 4 mm thick. Mind. Blown.

The skin itself is made of 3 basic layers: the outer barrier of the epidermis (what you likely think of when you think "skin"), which is layered on top of the connective tissues of the dermis (which also contains glands and follicles), and deeper hypodermis (which also contains fat). The big job of determining what gets in and out of our bodies via the skin falls to the outermost stratum corneum. Many factors affect what makes it through, including the skin's temperature, thickness and surface areas, as well as the concentration, duration and properties of the substance itself. Toxins themselves enter the skin through diffusion, going from high concentration to low concentration, and can squeeze through between the skin’s cells (called corneocytes) and/or through the cells, hair follicles and glands themselves.

Reactions to toxins on the skin can be "obvious," in cases like contact dermatitis (inflamed skin marked by redness, dry flakey skin, itching and swelling), and can be either non-immunologic (just plain ol' direct damage from a toxin), or immunological (involving an allergy). While contact dermatitis may seem bad on the outside, perhaps the more dire and sinister effects occur inside the body. And, in a way, we can thank contact dermatitis, because it alerts you to potential skincare toxins! So perhaps even worse is when you don't seemingly react on the surface, since there's no warning sign that the substance is potentially dangerous! Unfortunately, many very problematic toxins are rampant in our skincare products, which are sometimes even designed to easily penetrate the skin. Yikes!

Before we look at what these toxins actually are, let's see why you haven't heard more about their danger. Oh hey US government fail!

Labels And Legality


The government entity responsible for regulating the cosmetic and skincare industry is none other than the Food and Drug Administration. Yet despite its reputation for strict regulation, and #alltherules #allthetime, safety tests are not required for the cosmetic industry, and the FDA has imposed shockingly little regulation when it comes to the chemicals and compounds allowed in cosmetics. While the European Union has banned 1300+ compounds in skincare products due to potential toxicity, the FDA has banned... wait for it!... less than 10. Yes, my friends, that is a true statement. (In case you're wondering, the lucky blacklist includes bithionol, mercury compounds, vinyl chloride, halogenated salicylanilides, zirconium complexes in aerosol cosmetics, chloroform, methylene chloride, chlorofluorocarbon propellants and hexachlorophene.)

In fact, the FDA even explicitly states, "With the exception of color additives and a few prohibited ingredients, a cosmetic manufacturer may use almost any raw material as a cosmetic ingredient and market the product without an approval from FDA." Well that's super reassuring! And yes, that is not a translation of what the FDA says - that is what the FDA actually says.

The FDA is so detailed when it comes to their cosmetic regulation, that on their Cosmetics Safety FAQ page, for the question of "What ingredients are prohibited from use in cosmetics?" the FDA provides 5 paragraphs (I counted) to discuss this, one of which features outdated real estate providing details about banning methyl methacrylate monomer in fingernail extenders in the 1970s.

Let us ponder this decision for a second.

So when the FDA decides to publish official go-to information regarding toxic skincare compounds on their official website, the thing they find most relevant to highlight, rather than discuss any of the potential toxicity issues of the thousands of compounds found in commercial skincare and makeup, is rather a paragraph about an issue with one banned compound found in fake fingernails from half a century ago. I digress.

If you think I am making this up, check out the official site for yourself. (Assuming of course this blog post doesn't go viral and cause the FDA to rewrite such with more sensibility. #agirlcandream #doubit)

And yes, the FDA is very aware that their skincare prospective is quite an anomaly in our world, which they eloquently address with the question of, "Why are different ingredients prohibited in some other countries?"

Their response?

"Under U.S. law, FDA does not have the authority to require cosmetic manufacturers to submit their safety data to FDA, and the burden is on FDA to prove that a particular product or ingredient is harmful when used as intended. We make these decisions based on reliable scientific information available to us. FDA can take other countries’ decisions into consideration, but we can only take action within the legal and regulatory framework for cosmetics in the United States."

So basically (my interpretation): It's the FDA's responsibility to look into the whole toxic skincare thing, but it's too much of a burden to look into it. Although I would like to question them about their sources for the "reliable scientific information available to us," since I was able to track down this information, and clearly Europe was able to as well. Maybe it's time for the FDA to hire an intern?

The Fragrance Loophole

But wait! It gets even better!

In addition to all the potential toxic compounds allowed in skincare products, companies can also throw in whatever they want. I am not kidding. And they don't have to tell you. And it is completely legal. I am not making this up friends! Let's give a warm welcome to the loophole fragrance law of the 1960s, involving the Fair Packaging and Labeling ActExternal Link Disclaimer, which states the government cannot make companies reveal their "trade secrets.” By this law, as long as the company decides an ingredient is part of the "fragrance" (whether it is or not), such potion wizardry is covered as proprietary and trade secret, and no one can question it! This includes 3,000+ possible ingredients, which may include hormone disruptors, carcinogens, allergens and so much more. And of course, perhaps it's no shocker that third party testing often finds many undisclosed compounds which are banned in Europe for toxicity, happily hiding away in the "fragrances" of US skincare.

What's The Big Deal?

Naysayers and the powers that be often try to assure the safety of the many potential toxins found in skincare products, due to their seemingly small amounts. After all, a tiny bit can't be that bad right? This arguably narrow view fails to take into account the big picture implications, in a whole “missing the forest for the trees” way. (Confession: I think this is the first time I actually understand that phrase.) Studies evaluating safety often test compounds in minute amounts for immediate effects, without considering the longer-term potential for toxicity.

Duration Of Exposure

While quiet toxic, exposure to environmental chemicals found in things like cleaning products tends to happen on an episodic basis, and often includes a concentrated effort to minimize exposure during and afterwards: think gloves and hand washing! Skincare products, on the other hand, are often intentionally applied to, and left to sit directly on the skin for an extended period of time (think makeup, lotions etc.), which substantially extends the absorption potential. Better yet, go out in the sun with sunscreen, and you're also baking those chemicals in: double whammy!

Compounding Effects

Perhaps if we only got exposed to a tiny amount of these toxic compounds in a scenario similar to the actual testing methods used in the safety studies, arguments could be more easily made for the #nobigdeal approach. But in actuality, we're typically exposing ourselves to all these compounds not just once, but repeatedly and consistently. Furthermore, we may be exposed to a single ingredient in higher concentrations than tested for safety, since multiple products use these compounds. Studies also often do not take into account the buildup of the products over time, which is quite common due to the overwhelming pervasive exposure to these compounds, be it in one product or multiple.

Many compounds also often have cocktail effects, in which smaller amounts of compounds can syngestically become more toxic. And this can even happen with benign compounds turning toxic, such as when sodium benzoate mixed with citric vitamin C yields the cancerous benzene.

So, when the FDA says that, "it’s against the law for a cosmetic to contain any ingredient that makes the product harmful when consumers use it according to directions on the label, or in the customary or expected way," .... they're not taking into account any of the above.


Many people are aware and understandably hesitant to touch or even be in the same room of even tiny amounts of anything obviously "toxic," yet skincare and cosmetic products are often filled with numerous ingredients which are often capable of wielding equally toxic effects throughout our body. These can include seemingly minor sensitivities, to more deleterious effects on cells, genes and neurological health. Many skincare products are potent endocrine disrupters, with even cancer causing potential. These toxic effects may even extend to future generations! Studies conducted by the EWG in 2005 revealed 287 toxic compounds in newborn umbilical cords. Yikes!

So just what are these sinister, de-beautifying compounds hiding in your beauty products, and why are they even there in the first place? They basically serve as cheap sources of preservatives, texturizers and fragrances, helping manufacturers assure longer shelf lives and seemingly better quality. Unfortunately, while this may expand the product's lifespan, it quite possibly will do the opposite for you. Sound a little similar to something else? {cough} processed foods and trans fats {cough})

Let's look at a few of these!


Parabens are sort of like the gluten of the skincare industry, as it's becoming increasingly in vogue to be "free of parabens," whether or not the consumer actually knows why. These parabens - which show up on labels like methylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben - are synthetic compounds used as preservatives. They actually work by messing up the membranes and mictochondria of bacteria and other microorganisms. (And if they can do that, perhaps that should give us pause?) Parabens are now widely accepted to serve as endocrine disrupting chemicals, meaning they mess with estrogen in the body. This can lead to a cascade of hormonal problems (especially in women), as well as other health issues. Parabens have also been found in breast cancer samples, may play a role in other forms of cancer, and many countries have banned their use, especially for products for children.

While it's been historically posited that parabens may serve as endrocine disruptors due to their effect on estrogen receptors, more recent research indicates they may yield more potent damage by affecting the enzymes which control endrocine function in the first place. Basically, parabens may mess with your whole hormone system on a systemic level. Not good! While parabens are rapidly metabolized by the intestines and liver when ingested orally, topical exposure - which is very common due to their prevalence in skin care products - may be the primary cause of concern for systemic buildup.


Fragrances are the total love/hate of personal care products. On the one hand, you have the fragrance lovers who want to smell all the candles all the time and have a smell for every season, thought, and moment. On the other hand, you've got those who loathe all whispers of fragrances, and turn anxious at the mere thought of Bath and Body Works.

Whether you find them able to induce romance or headaches, many fragrances can serve as allergens, while the rampant overlapping exposure of mixed fragrances can intensify their potency. And none of that even takes into account the aforementioned "fragrance" loophole, meaning a "fragrance" may just be a face for thousands of other toxic chemicals.


Phthalates are a primary component of plastic and are extremely common in conventional skincare - particularly nail polish, perfumes, lotions and hair spray - since they create a stickiness and can also boost stability. They're so common that studies have found phthalates in 97% of individuals tested - yikes! And while Barbie may look just fine with plastic, phthalates are unfortunately quite toxic to the endocrine system, affecting hormones and instigating potential reproductive, developmental, and even neurological issues. Studies have even shown phthalates may negatively affect women's ovaries, and they've also been correlated to DNA damage. In their book Rebuild Your Bones, Mira and Jayson Calton also link phthalates to bone demineralization and osteoporosis. In their book Rebuild Your Bones, Mira and Jayson Calton also link phthalates to bone demineralization and osteoporosis. 


Sulfates - including the popular sodium lauryl sulfate ("SLS") - are a corrosive ingredient which make products foamy, accounting for their common appearance in things like shampoos, cleansers and toothpastes. They're a go-to "obvious" one for skin reactions, and actually often used in studies to create skin irritations in order to try out remedies. Yikes! Sulfates have been linked to skin and oral irritation, cytotoxic effects in the lungs, kidneys, and liver, as well as inhibited wound healing and other potential issues.


BHT, or butylated hydroxytoluene, is widely used in cosmetics as an "antioxidant," aka preservative.  BHT can cause skin issues like irritation, sensitivity, and even depigmenizaion. Acute testing in animals reveals BHT can damage the kidneys, liver, and lungs. It also may also negatively affect the immune system, and its synergystic effect may make other compounds more genotoxic. 

Heavy Metals

Having personally struggled with heavy metal toxicity, this one is near and dear to my heart (literally, and not in a good way!). Heavy metals can attack a myriad of the body's functions, interfering with mitochondrial function, generating oxidative stress, dampening the body's natural glutathione and detoxification systems, disrupting the endocrine system, as well as encouraging degenerative diseases, neurological issues, cancer, and so much more. (For more on all that, check out my blog post Mercury Madness: Exposure Sources, Safe Fish Consumption, Chelation, EDTA/DMPS/DMSA, Detox, Amalgams, The Cutler Protocol, Glutathione, And More! as well as my interview with Dr. Christopher Shade on The Melanie Avalon Biohacking Podcast.)

Studies indicate heavy metals - such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, mercury, and nickel - are a concerning factor in cosmetic products, with the highest concentrations found in eye shadows, blushes, and facial powders. While dermal absorption is often argued to be minimum, the extended use of skincare products may increase absorption, and oral ingestion via face products is definitely  a concern. A 2016 survey of heavy metals in commercial products, found no difference between cheap and more extensive brands, and concluded that, "It is obvious from the present study that the use of these cosmetic products exposes users to low concentrations of toxic heavy metals which could constitute potential health risk to users since they are known to accumulate in biological systems over time. Similarly, regular monitoring of other heavy metals and chemicals used in the manufacture of cosmetics products which may cause health risks to users should be emphasized."

Unfortunately, regular monitoring of heavy metals is not really a thing in the US. The FDA's official stance is that heavy metals are not a concern at present. And while they do place limits on the maximum amount of metals such as lead, there is no requirement for testing products. It's like having speed limits, but no police! Worse yet, some heavy metals like chromium have no legal limits in the first place. 

Heavy metals may particularly be a problem in mineral-based foundations, which often use natural clays and talc containing substantial amounts of heavy metals like lead and asbestosis, as well as nickel, cobalt and chromium. It is important to note that, in this scenario, it is not the talc or clay itself which is toxic, but rather the heavy metals along with it. If substances like talc and clay are regularly tested, they could be used as safe ingredients, but commercial companies (with the exception of one I can think of!) typically fail to do so. 

Also don't forget our dear friend aluminum, which is a common ingredient used in deodorant to block sweat glands.  Aluminum has been linked to many conditions, including neurological ones like Alzheimer's Disease, as well as cancer. Of course, this is insanely ironic, since our sweat glands are meant to let toxins out of our body, not to be blocked by toxins themselves! That's why I wholeheartedly adore Native deodorant, which is formulated to be free of aluminum, parabens, and talc! Use the code MELANIEAVALON for 20% off! 

My Recommended Skincare

I tend to be an extremist, go-big-or-go-home type girl. So, when it comes to cleaning things up, I like to tackle it all at once. That said, I really dragged feet on the skincare side of things. While it was easy for me to toss all the toxic cleaning supplies, and replace all my cookware with glass and ceramic, addressing makeup was hard, both from a confusion and emotional perspective. Granted, I had weaned myself off of conventional facial cleansers, moisturizers, etc., especially when I realized my skin seemed to do substantially better without any of them. (Go figure.) Plus, I realized witch hazel did the exact same thing as Urban Decay's All Nighter makeup setting spray, except even better, without toxins, and at 1/30th the cost.  

But makeup... oh makeup! It can be so hard to find makeup which perfectly suits you, and I was so wedded to my Nars lipstick, Urban Decay night shadow, and YSL mascara. 

But it was time. 

Is Natural Better?

As the story so often goes, things got a little darker (or at least more confusing) before they got lighter (or at least less confusing). Ya see, when I first decided to clean up my skincare, I was pretty sure all natural was better, in an I-better-be-able-to-pronounce-and-tell-you-exactly-what-every-ingredient-is type way. Except things weren't really adding up. When I paraded into Ultra and Sephora, armed with the EWG's Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database and enthusiasm, I found that most of the "natural" brands proclaiming in bright alluring letters to be free of parabens!, natural!, vegan!, etc!, were ranking rather high on the EWG's toxic rankings. Such a farce. Plus, I was becoming more suspicious of the whole "natural" concept in general. After all, I found myself sensitive to many "natural" things (oils, citruses, etc.), whereas I seemed fine with some "unnatural" things. Plus, there are many natural things which are toxic (oh hey snake venom and heavy metals!), so the word seemed a bit misleading. 

Even more confusing, it seemed that some "natural" things could actually be even worse. People often think coconut oil, for example, is a great moisturizer, when in fact, coconut oil can be a bit caustic on the skin, especially in the long term. (After all, it does make a great makeup remover - which should indicate something of its stripping nature!) And as discussed in the heavy metal section, "natural" mineral-based products often utilize ingredients like clays and powders high in heavy metals. Yikes!

And even if I could find "natural" products which seemed to fit the bill (after extensive research), if they contained the word "fragrance," all bets were off the table, thanks to the aforementioned fragrance legal loophole of the 1960s. 


 So, what did I need? I needed a skincare and makeup line which would specifically:

  • check
     test each and every ingredient to make sure they're safe, regardless of it they are "natural" or not
  • check
    test regularly for heavy metals in each supply
  • check
    support the skin's health
  • check
    work just as well cosmetically as my previously adored brands (big goal there!)

I was pretty sure such a company didn't exist. 

Until it did. 

I kept hearing whispers of Beautycounter, but it seemed like a too-good-to-be-true-likely-a-hidden-agenda type thing. I also had a previous (less than awesome) experience with another "natural" makeup company, which I was not looking to repeat. But when I heard Beautycounter increasingly advocated by figures I particularly admired in the health and wellness sphere (like Noelle Tar of the Well Fed Women podcast), I decided I might as well try: what could it hurt? 

Clearly nothing. Because guys... I am obsessed! Beautycounter has official cleaned up my skincare and makeup, like Dry Farm Wines cleaned up my wine. (Go to to get a bottle for a penny!) They actually do #allthethings. They test their products religiously, so I don't have to. They make skincare which nourishes and supports the skin, and makeup which actually works and looks beautiful! I finally was able to swap out my YSL for their Volumizing Mascara, my Nars for their Color Intense Lipstick, my Lancome for their Precision Liquid Eyeliner, and - though I swore it would never happen - my Urban Decay for their Velvet Eyeshadow Palette – Romantic The only thing I haven't switched out is my foundation, since I've been using the same one for years, have researched its ingredients, and it works very well for me. (So, I guess one good thing came out of that prior hinted at #lessthanawesome experience.)  And while I don't currently use skincare products on my face (castile soap and diet seem to address it at present), when I bring on a more intense regimen in the future, I'll be all over that as well!

So yes, I am wholeheartedly thankful for Beautycounter for stepping up to the plate and having our backs/faces for a troublesome area of toxic exposure, and for creating products which go above and beyond fitting the bill. 

Want to try Beautycounter for yourself? Use the link, and something very magical will happen after your first purchase! If you'd like to know what that magical thing is, and also get more science, exclusive discounts, and special skincare related things from me, get on my Clean Beauty Email List, at!  And let me know what you think of everything!

My Makeup Favorites!


Volumizing Mascara

Leave a comment:

Latest posts