The world is changing and so is the beauty industry. Dirty beauty products containing hormone-disrupting chemicals are so last century. Women are starting to demand safe and effective beauty products as they are learning more about the dangers of chemicals to our health and the environment. So how safe are the cleansers and moisturizers you use on your face every day? And would you upgrade if you found safer products? That’s likely why you are here. Mamavation is here with our latest investigation on the safest facial cleansers and moisturizers. You’ve trusted Mamavation on topics like safest shampoos, safest sunscreen, & best organic mattresses, now join us as we bring you our investigation on the facial moisturizers and cleansers and link up our favorite brands on Amazon.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and was fact-checked by Rebecca Elizabeth Sherrick Harks, Registered Nurse.
The $183 BILLION Beauty Industry Thrives By Convincing Women They are Less Than Perfect and That Is Bad
Face wash and moisturizers are part of a bigger picture. Beauty is big business with a lot of money to be made convincing women they need to look younger and more vibrant than they do right now. By 2025, it’s estimated that the skincare market will be worth USD 183 BILLION dollars, expanding at a rate of 4.4% per year due to rising concerns about skin problems, like wrinkles needing anti-aging creams and skin needing toxic UV protection.
Marketing personal care products have become an exercise in telling women how they should be thinking about their bodies, their faces and each other. Some major brands have been changing their formulations to address the needs of a more safety conscience audience, while others have focused instead of making political statements, and some are doing both. But regardless of how each company decides to change, change is happening quickly.
Most of the time, you’ll find skincare products containing hormone-disrupting chemicals of some kind, but a growing population of people is fueling the emergence of safer beauty. But which products are safe and which ones are just greenwashing for more profit share? Mamavation has answered those questions for you in our investigation at the end of this post.
The Emerging “Natural” Beauty Products Industry is Grappling With Lax Regulations, Greenwashing & No Legal Definitions
There is less certainty in the beauty industry when it comes to safety than the food industry. When it’s food, you can grab something organic. But it’s not that easy when it comes to beauty. What about looking for the word “natural” or “organic” on a product? Well, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is those words don’t have a real meaning in the world of personal care products, but the good news is there is a resurgence of better brands that will excite you. There are lots of good brands to choose from. Especially by the time you get to the end of this post.
Unfortunately, there is little regulation in the skincare industry, and the use of the words “clean,” “natural,” “safe,” “green,” and “non-toxic” interchangeably has led to increasing confusion among consumers. What does it mean to be “natural?” The terminology isn’t actually regulated by the FDA or the Federal Trade Commission, so these words are essentially meaningless when you read them on the bottle. The only thing that matters is what ingredients they use.
What About Organic Skincare Products?
Using the term “organic” in relation to skincare products is even more fraught with peril. The USDA, which regulates food in the US, has all kinds of rules of what makes a product organic. However, the USDA doesn’t oversee personal care products, so only brands using 95% of food grade organic ingredients can use the organic certification on their product. Technically there isn’t an official certification for organic in personal care.
It’s also important to understand that in the skincare world, organic doesn’t mean that the product is somehow better or safer. This part is confusing because the natural world contains things that can make us have an allergic reaction, collect mold, or have a higher presence of heavy metals. So it’s important to understand that organic isn’t the only solution. There are plenty of brands that don’t include organic ingredients that are completely fine.
Avoid These Skincare Ingredients in Face Washes & Moisturizers
The very best way for a consumer to try to find the most effective face wash and moisturizer is simple: read the ingredients. Unfortunately, this can be confusing, so we have put together a list of things you should avoid when buying facial wash and facial moisturizer:
- 1,4-dioxane & other ethoxylated ingredients
- Skin Lighteners
- Perfluorinated chemicals
- Chemical sunscreens like oxybenzone & octinoxate
- Fragrance (Parfum)
- Parabens and other harsh preservatives
- Synthetic Biology
- Benzyl Benzoate
- Styrene Acrylates Copolymer
1,4-dioxane & Ethoxylated Ingredients
Also Known As: Sodium laureth sulfate, PEG compounds (usually listed as “PEG” followed by a number), chemicals that end in “eth” (denotes ethoxylation) like oleth and ceteareth, polysorbate.
1,4-dioxane is not an ingredient, but a known contaminant when common ingredients are mixed together in a process called ethoxylation. Ethoxylation is when ethylene oxide is added to other ingredients to make them less harsh. 1,4-dioxane is registered as a carcinogen by several federal agencies, meaning it’s linked to cancer. This is concerning because they can easily penetrate the skin and reach the organ systems below.
Also Known As: Hydroquinone, resorcinol, resorcin, ingredients with “benzenediol”, 1,3-dihydroxybenzene, CI Developer 4, M-dihydroxybenzene, M-phenylenediol, Oxidation base 31, 1,4-Benzenediol, 1,4-Dihydroxybenzene, 4-Hydroxypenol, P-dioxybenze, P-Hydroxypenol.
Possible contamination in tocopheryl acetate, tocopherol, tocopheryl linoleate, tocopheryl nicotinate, potassium ascorbyl tocopheryl phosphate, tocophersolan.
Most commonly used in skincare products intended to lighten the skin, these products are aggressively marketed to women of color. Hydroquinone is thought to be a by-product of tocopheryl acetate and is linked to the following medical issues:
- Cancer: By decreasing the production and increasing the degradation of melanin pigments in the skin, the skin is increasingly exposed to UVA and UVB rays, which increases the risk for the development of skin cancer.
- Organ-system toxicity: Hydroquinone has been linked to a skin condition called ochronosis in which the skin thickens and turns bluish-grey.
- Respiratory Tract Irritation: Hydroquinone may be harmful if inhaled, causing irritation of the nose, throat, and upper respiratory tract as well as chronic cough and decreased lung capacity.
Also Known As: Polytetrafluoroethylene, polyperfluoromethylisopropyl ether, DEA-C8-18, perfluoroalkylethyl phosphate
Perfluorinated chemicals are also known as “PFAS” or “PFCs” are scary chemicals that you’ll find in anti-aging creams. These chemicals are harsh hormone disrupters.
- They are linked to the following health issues: and are linked to the following: low sperm count, smaller penis size, reduction in immunity, metabolic diseases like obesity & diabetes, reduced vaccination response, ulcerative colitis, affect the growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children, lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, interfere with the body’s natural hormones, increase cholesterol levels, increase the risk of cancer like testicular, prostate and breast cancers
- They are also persistent in the environment and inside our bodies. You know all about PFAS already if you have heard of products like Teflon pans, Scotchgard, Stainmaster carpet & Gortex. These are the water-proof, grease-proof, & stain-proof chemicals we rely on.
Also Known As: Oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate & octocrylene
Oxybenzone, in particular, has been linked to reproductive hormone disruption like degraded sperm quality in men, & endometriosis in women. Most recently researchers have tied Hirschsprung’s Disease with exposure to oxybenzone during pregnancy. Finally, chemicals sunscreens like oxybenzone, have also been linked to killing off the coral reefs.
Fragrance, Perfume OR Parfum
Also Known As: Fragrance, perfume, parfum, essential oil blend, aroma.
Many skincare products, such as facial wash and facial moisturizer, list “fragrance” on a label, but unfortunately, that doesn’t mean very much. Most companies tend to hold onto the proprietary “secret” formulation of their fragrance.
The problem is that many of the undisclosed products have been linked to very serious problems including reproductive and developmental toxicity, cancers, as well as other organ system damage, and allergies.
The need for full disclosure is extremely important for all of us.
Also Known As: Petrolatum, Petroleum Jelly, Paraffin Oil, Mineral Oil
When properly refined, petrolatum has no known health concerns. However, with an incomplete refining history, petrolatum may be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs. PAHs are byproducts of organic material combustion and are considered to be carcinogenic. There is no way to confirm proper refinement unless a complete refining history is provided.
Also Known As: Ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, other ingredients ending in –paraben
Parabens are used in water-based skin care products (among others) as they work to keep products microbe-free. As parabens, also used in pharmaceuticals and in food preservation, are used heavily in a number of different products leading to increased accumulation of parabens in the body, causing greater health concerns. In fact, parabens have been found in most adult urine samples of people across the United States, regardless of socioeconomic, ethnic, or geographic backgrounds.
Health concerns associated with parabens include:
- Cancer, notably skin cancer: putting facial moisturizer and facial wash that contains parabens can cause UV-induced damage of skin cells. while disrupting new cell growth.
- Endocrine System Disruption: Parabens have been designated as endocrine disruptors, as they have an ability to mimic estrogen.
- Reproductive and Developmental Concerns: Scientists are currently working to determine exactly the role that parabens play in the reproductive system – some inhibit sperm production while others do not. Lab tests have found that an increased amount of parabens in the system during pregnancy may lead to anxiety and impaired reproductive organs in the fetus.
Retinol & Vitamin A
Also Known As: Retinol, vitamin A, retinyl acetate, retinyl palmitate, all-trans retinoic acid, tretinoin.
Retinol another name for vitamin A, which is found in certain skincare products, especially facial moisturizers, and is dangerous in high doses. There are two additional forms of retinol, called retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate, that can be bad for your health and should be avoided.
- Cancer: Retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate, derivatives of retinol, used and combined the sun may increase the risk for developing skin cancer.
- Developmental Toxicity: The California EPA’s Proposition 65 list identifies all-trans retinoic acid as a developmental toxicant and is banned from personal care products in the European Union.
Also Known As: Fullerenes, micronized zinc oxide, nano zinc oxide, micronized titanium dioxide, micronized quartz silica.
Nanoparticles or nanomaterials are used in beauty products, such as facial cleanser and facial moisturizer as UV-filters or preservatives, that also change the properties of the skincare product such as adding color, transparency, solubility and chemical reactivity. Unfortunately, we do not yet know the extent of which nanoparticles are used in beauty products. It’s important to remember that there is no single type of nanoparticles, as they vary in composition, primary particle size, shape, surface coatings, and strength of particle bonds.
In beauty products, some nanomaterials can pass through the skin or are inhaled, as the skin allows these tiny particles to permeate the skin. Even with short-term usage, exposure may be retained in the lung and other organs for longer than six months.
There is mounting evidence that after nasal inhalation of these nanoparticles, some may reach the brain, crossing the blood-brain barrier, pass into the circulatory system – which goes everywhere that blood goes (everywhere in your body.
Synthetic biology could be best explained as “GMO 2.0” where new genetically altered ingredients are created through synthetic biology processes. Lots of “natural” companies are hiding synbio ingredients inside their products without divulging their origin. The only way to find out if the ingredients are, in fact, synthetic biology is to ask the brand “was this product processed using synthetic biology?” This ingredient is cautionary because we don’t know very much about it or it’s health or environmental impacts yet. Mamavation is still working on developing a list of personal products using synthetic biology but this list does not represent that yet.
Also Known As: Benylate, benzoic acid, benzyl ester, phebylmethyl ester, ascabin, ascabiol, benzyl alcohol
Often used as a preservative, benzyl benzoate is a skin and eye irritant and may severely irritate, burn and sting the genitalia and scalp. Currently, scientists are working to discover whether benzyl benzoate causes negative health issues to the endocrine system.
Styrene Acrylates Copolymer
Also Known As: Styrene/acrylates copolymer, styrene butadiene copolymer, polystyrene, styrene copolymer, styrene resin, ethylbenzene, and vinylbenzene.
This ingredient is often added to facial wash and facial cleanser to provide color and is generally considered to be safe on its own; however contamination with the chemical styrene is thought to be linked to cancer.
- Cancer: Styrene has been linked to increased risk for cancers including leukemia and lymphoma, as well as genetic damage to the white blood cells (infection-fighting cells) of the body.Endocrine Disruption: Styrene is an endocrine disruption has been documented in humans and wildlife.
- Central Nervous System: Long-term exposure to styrene results in effects on the central nervous system (CNS), including headache, fatigue, weakness, depression, CSN dysfunction, hearing loss, and potential nerve damage.
Mamavation’s Investigation of Face Wash & Moisturizers
The Brands with the Worst Ingredients
These brands contain some of many of these prohibited ingredients: Ethoxylated ingredients like PEGs, skin lighteners, undisclosed fragrance, parabens and other harsh preservatives, oxybenzone and other chemical sunscreens, skin lighteners, or styrene.
- Acure -Brightening Cleansing Gel – undisclosed fragrance
- Ahava – All-In-One Toning Cleanser – ethoxylated ingredients, undisclosed fragrance
- Arbonne – RE9 Advanced Smoothing Facial Cleanser #811- ethoxylated ingredients
- Avenno® – Ultra-Calming Hydrating Gel Cleanser – harsh preservatives, ethoxylated ingredients
- Biore® – Deep Pore Charcoal Cleanser – parabens, undisclosed fragrance, ethoxylated ingredients
- Brandless – Grapefruit Cleansing Gel – undisclosed fragrance
- CeraVe – Hydrating Facial Cleanser – parabens, ethoxylated ingredients, harsh preservatives
- Cetaphil – Gentle Face Cleanser – ethoxylated ingredients, parabens
- Dr Hauschka – Cleansing Cream – undisclosed fragrance
- Ever – Rebalance Gentle Purifying Cleanser – undisclosed fragrance
- Isagenix – Rejuvity Purifying Cleanser – ethoxylated ingredients
- Mary Kay – TimeWise® Age Minimize 3D® 4-in-1 Cleanser – petroleum, ethoxylated ingredients, parabens, undisclosed fragrance, harsh preservatives
- Neora -Age IQ Double Cleansing Face Wash – ethoxylated ingredients
- Neutrogena® – Hydro Boost Hydrating Cleansing Gel – undisclosed fragrance, ethoxylated ingredients, harsh preservatives
- Nu Skin – 180 Face Wash – undisclosed fragrance, limonene
- Olay – Total Effects Cleansing Whip Facial Cleanser – harsh preservatives, tocopheryl acetate, undisclosed fragrance
- Paula’s Choice – Perfectly Balanced Foaming Cleanser (Resist) – harsh preservatives, ethoxylated ingredients
- Rodan & Fields – Reverse Deep Exfoliating Wash – ethoxylated ingredients, undisclosed fragrance,
- Trader Joe’s Skin Care – Nourish All-in-One Facial Cleanser – ethoxylated ingredients, tocopheryl acetate, retinyl palmitate
- Ahava – Essential Moisturizing Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 15 – ethoxylated ingredients, undisclosed fragrance
- Aveeno – Protect & Hydrate Lotion Sunscreen with 50 SPF – oxybenzone, ethoxylated ingredients, undisclosed fragrance
- Brandless – Facial Moisturizer – ethoxylated ingredients
- CeraVe – Daily Moisturizing Lotion – parabens, ethoxylated ingredients, harsh preservatives
- Cetaphil -Moisturizing Cream – petroleum, ethoxylated ingredients, harsh preservatives
- Derma-E -Hydrating Day Cream – tocopheryl acetate, retinyl palmitate, ethoxylated ingredients
- Ever – Hydralift Moisturizer Moisture Injection Cream with LSR10® – undisclosed perfume
- Mary Kay -Intense Moisturizing Cream (Dry) – petroleum, ethoxylated ingredients, parabens
- Neora -Age IQ Day Cream – ethoxylated ingredients, harsh preservatives
- Neutrogena® – Hydro Boost Water Gel with Hyaluronic Acid for Dry Skin- undisclosed fragrance, ethoxylated ingredients
- Nu Skin – 180 UV Block Hydrator SPF 18 – ethoxylated ingredients, harsh preservatives
- Olay – Total Effects Whip Face Moisturizer – undisclosed fragrance, ethoxylated ingredients, harsh preservatives
- Paula’s Choice – Resist Intensive Repair Cream – ethoxylated ingredients, retinol
- Rodan & Fields – Soothe Moisture Replenishing Cream – ethoxylated ingredients, harsh preservatives
- Trader Joe’s – Ultra Hydrating Gel Moisturizer – ethoxylated ingredients
The Brands with Better Ingredients
These brands are light years better than the bad brands mentioned above, but they still have some slight issues. These brands contain some or many of these ingredients: retinol or vitamin a, undisclosed natural fragrance, nanomaterials, synthetic biology, benzyl benzoate or tocopherol acetate. I would like to stress that these brands are not so bad, but issues like 100% transparency of ingredients. We also put brands here with skin lightener tocopherol acetate, which can hide contaminant hydroquinone.
- Alba Botanicals -Acnedote Deep Pore Wash – benzoic acid
- Biossance – Squalane Antioxidant Cleansing Oil – possible synthetic biology processing with squalane
- Burt’s Bees – Facial Cleansing Towelettes with White Tea Extract – undisclosed natural fragrance, tocopherol, benzyl alcohol
- Burt’s Bees – Skin Nourishment Gentle Foaming Cleanser – undisclosed natural fragrance, benzyl salicylate
- California Pure Naturals -Revitalizing Cleansing Gel – undisclosed natural fragrance
- Mad Hippie – Cream Cleanser – tocopherol acetate
- Pacifica – Sea Foam Complete Face Wash – tocopherol acetate
- Neal’s Yard – Calendula Cleanser – tocopherol acetate
- Alba Botanicals – Even Advanced™ Sea Lipids Daily Clean – undisclosed natural fragrance, benzoic acid
- Arbonne – RE9 Advanced Brightening Night Cream #8062 – malic acid, aminomethyl propanol
- Biossance – Squalane Omega Repair Cream – possible synthetic biology processing with squalane
- Burt’s Bees – Sensitive Daily Moisturizing Cream – benzoic acid
- California Pure Naturals – Nourishing Cream – undisclosed natural fragrance
- instanatural – Retinol Moisturizer – retinol
- L’Bri – Gentle Moisture Lotion – retinyl palmitate
- Neal’s Yard – Frankincense Nourishing Cream – tocopherol acetate
- Taylor’s Natural – ELEVATED Hawaiian Facial Moisturizer – undisclosed herbal blend
- Young Living – Sandalwood Moisture Cream – retinyl palmitate
The Brands with the Best Ingredients
These brands represent the safest brands on the block. One thing to note is Mamavation allows some light preservatives to protect the formulation from molds like phenoxyethanol, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate or citric acid. It’s not fun to find mold in products that you forgot to use up, so if you decide to select a brand without preservatives make sure to use it within 4-6 months after you open.
- Annmarie – Aloe Herb Cleanser
- BeautyCounter – Rejuvenating Face Cleanser
- BeautyCounter – Countermatch Pure Calm Cleansing Milk
- Blissoma – Rejuvenating Herbal Blend Cleanser
- Carina Organics – Daily Face Wash
- Derma-E – Sensitive Skin Cleanser
- Drunk Elephant – Beste™ No. 9 Jelly Cleanser
- Everyone -Gentle Face Brightening Cleanser
- FatCo – Cleansing Oil For Normal/Combo Skin
- instanatural – Vitamin C Cleanser
- Juice Beauty – USDA Organic Facial Wash
- L’Bri – Gentle Cleanser
- Lemongrass Spa – Prebiotic Facial Wash
- MyChelle – Gentle Cleansing Wash
- Nourish Organic – Moisturizing Creme Face Cleanser
- Now Solutions – Clarify & Illuminate Cleanser
- Osmosis – Cleanse
- Pure Haven – Refresh Cleanser
- Root – Fresh Face Cleanser
- Taylor’s Natural – ELEVATED Hawaiian Facial Wash
- Young Living – Orange Blossom Cleanser
- Young Living – ART Gentle Cleanser
- 100 Percent Pure – Coconut Oil Moisturize Cleansing Milk
- Andalou – Probiotic + C Renewal Cream
- Annmarie – Anti-Aging Facial Oil
- Beauty Counter – Rejuvenating Day Cream
- Carina Organics – Daily Moisturizing Cream
- Dr Hauschka – Rose Day Cream Light
- Drunk Elephant – Lala Retro™ Whipped Cream
- Everyone – Nourishing Face Cream
- FatCo -MYRRHACULOUS Face Cream
- Juice Beauty – Nutrient Moisturizer
- Lemmongrass Spa – Overnight Rehab Creme
- Lemmongrass Spa – Organic Ani-Aging Oil Serum
- MyChelle – Gentle Day Cream
- Now Solutions – Clarify & Illuminate Moisturizer
- Osmosis – Quench Intense Moisturizer
- Pacifica -Dreamy Youth Day & Night Face Cream
- Pure Haven – Refresh Moisturizer
- Root – Fresh Face Moisturizer
- 100 Percent Pure – Hydra Drench Cream