Beauty product 101: What you do & don’t want in makeup & grooming products

Person holding a product in a supermarket and reading label

Hyaluronic acid. Parabens. Niacinamide — looking at those ingredients, would you guess that two are actually healthy for your skin?

The ingredients used in makeup and grooming products can be confusing. But with use of these products growing all the time, it’s important to know what’s in your favorites, says Dr. Monica Peeler, medical director at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

“Makeup and grooming products have the power to affect our confidence, stimulate our creativity and help us express ourselves without ever saying a word,” says Dr. Peeler. “But we often forget that makeup also has the power to affect our health.”

How do makeup and grooming products affect your health?

Dr. Peeler: Makeup and grooming products can have positive and negative effects. Products with safe ingredients can help protect and nourish your skin. But, products with harsh ingredients can damage skin or shift its hormonal balance.

Damaging products can:

  • Cause irritation, inflammation and allergic reactions
  • Speed up the aging process
  • Disrupt how well your skin works as a protective barrier, making it easier for pathogens to enter

Some ingredients, such as formaldehyde and coal tar, have even been linked to cancer. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use cosmetics or grooming products. The key is to be mindful of which products you use and to develop a skin-care routine that’s safe and healthy for you.

What do people need to know about safety?

Dr. Peeler: Most people assume that cosmetic products are safety-tested before they’re sold. Yet, the FDA doesn’t pre-approve cosmetics or ingredients unless it’s a color additive. But they do step in to act on consumer complaints.

Recently, Congress passed the Cosmetics Safety Enhancement Act of 2019. The goal is to better protect consumers from toxic chemicals in personal products. But until it’s widely applied, it’s still a good idea to do research on your own.

Generally speaking, avoid the following ingredients:

  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) or hydroxytoluene (BHT), which are used as preservatives but may be linked to cancer and impaired hormone function
  • Coal tar dye, which can cause allergic reactions
  • Diethanolamine (DEA), which may be connected to cancer
  • Formaldehyde, which is used in hair smoothing products but may cause irritation, headaches, sore throat, nausea, rashes and cancer
  • Parabens, which are preservatives that may lead to decreased collagen production, increasing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • Polyethylene glycols (PEG compounds), which are used to make cosmetics but have been linked to cancer
  • Petrolatum or petroleum jelly, which can contain toxic chemicals
  • Siloxanes or silicones, which can be toxic and harm hormone function
  • Sulfates, which are compounds used to create lather that may clog pores, cause acne and  irritate your eyes, skin, mouth and lungs
  • Talc, which some studies have connected to cancer (Definitely avoid asbestos-contaminated talc.)
  • Triclosan, which helps reduce bacterial contamination but may also decrease hormone production

9 terms it’s safe to see in your makeup and grooming products


Dr. Peeler: SPF, or sun protection factor, helps protect the skin from 2 types of sun radiation:

  1. UVA rays, which contribute to aging (wrinkles, sagging, discoloration)
  2. UVB rays, which are often responsible for sunburns and can cause skin cancer

Sunscreen should be used regardless of skin color to prevent the negative effects of sun radiation. Use products with an SPF of 15 or higher, which provides about 15 times more protection than your skin without sunscreen.

What is SPF? Breaking down sun protection, UV light, sunscreen strength & more


Dr. Peeler: Gluten is a protein found in certain grains. Some people, such as those with celiac disease, are sensitive to gluten and find they feel better when makeup is gluten-free. But, gluten itself is safe for most people.

Hyaluronic acid

Dr. Peeler: Hyaluronic acid helps retain moisture in the skin and lubricates the joints. It plays a crucial role in reducing inflammation and the presence of dry, wrinkled skin.


Dr. Peeler: Hypoallergenic simply means that a product is less likely to cause an allergic reaction than other products. But, the FDA notes there are no federal standards a product has to meet for manufacturers to label it hypoallergenic. So, there are no guarantees.


Dr. Peeler: Organic refers to how the ingredients in a product are farmed or developed. Organic ingredients are grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers and genetically modified products (GMOs).

Natural oils

Dr. Peeler: Aloe and palm and coconut oils are safe, natural skin moisturizers. Research also suggests that many natural oils, such as coconut, have antibacterial, antiinflammatory and antioxidant properties.


Dr. Peeler: Niacinamide, also called nicotinamide, is a form of vitamin B3. This is an essential nutrient that acts as a building block for proteins and cells. It also helps the body produce keratin, which keeps skin firm. And it reduces inflammation, which may help soothe redness for inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and acne.


Dr. Peeler: Retinol is derived from vitamin A. This is a micronutrient that helps guard against free radicals, or unstable molecules that damage skin cells. Retinol boosts the production of elastin and collagen. This creates a plumping effect that reduces the appearance of fine lines, pores and wrinkles.

In general, retinol is safe, but be sure to use it as directed. If too much retinol builds up in your system, it can cause potential birth defects and an increased risk of cancer.


Dr. Peeler: Peptides are amino acids that help build certain proteins needed by the skin. And tetra simply means “four” peptides are bound together. Peptides are important in the production of collagen. This improves skin elasticity and reduces the appearance of wrinkles.

How long can you keep products before buying new ones?

Dr. Peeler: It varies from product to product, but there are a few key dates for makeup.

  • Mascara: 3-4 months

Mascara dries out quickly and is vulnerable to bacteria. This is why you should never share your eye makeup with anyone.

  • Lipstick/gloss: Up to 2 years
    Lipsticks and glosses have a certain water content. Once they start to dry out, they become difficult to apply.
  • Foundation, concealer: 1 year

After that, it will eventually start to dry up, even in the bottle.

  • Blush, eyeshadow, powder-based makeup: 2 years

The key to ensuring these products last is by keeping applicators (brushes, sponges, puffs) clean.

  • Perfume: 3-5 years

Since the fragrance is made from a combination of chemicals, it will eventually lose its strength or even start to smell sour.

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Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.

Filed under: Mind & Body


Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).