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One of my passions is talking about natural beauty and skincare and often what is left out of these products is just as important as what is added in. Today I’m adding another reference post to our educational series all about common not-so-skin-loving ingredients.
We’ve already covered everything you need to know about synthetic fragrances, petroleum-based ingredients, propylene glycol, phthalates, and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, so this post is going to provide a deep dive on two common preservatives, BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene).
The purpose of these posts isn’t to scare you, but to provide you with the knowledge you need to feel educated and empowered to make the best decisions about the beauty products you use from head-to-toe. BHA and BHT are synthetic antioxidants that are frequently used as preservatives in personal care products and cosmetics.
When it comes to these kinds of ingredients, one point that’s worth repeating is that The American Journal of Public Health found that the skin can absorb between 64% and 100% of the chemicals in your beauty products. The exact amount that is absorbed depends on several factors including whether you have any broken skin, the size of the molecule, or if your skin barrier function is compromised due to conditions such as acne, eczema, and rosacea.
Below, I’ll outline everything you need to know about BHA and BHT including what they are, how they're used, possible negative health impacts, and all-natural swaps that are kind to the planet so you can clean your beauty routine!
What Are BHT And BHA?
BHA and BHA are synthetic antioxidants that are used as preservatives in many processed foods, personal care and cosmetic products. We’ll get into more details below, but studies show these chemicals are carcinogenic, endocrine disrupting, and allergenic. BHA and BHT can be found in personal care products, including lipstick, eyeshadow, concealer and moisturizers. To learn more about clean cosmetics, listen to thisJoyous Health Podcast episode with Melanie Cruikshank, founder of dalish Cosmetics.
In addition to their use in the cosmetics and beauty industry BHT & BHA are also commonly used as food preservatives.
In addition to their use in the cosmetics and beauty industry they are also commonly used as food preservatives. They are both soluble in oils and used to prevent oxidation and rancidity in processed foods. What’s a little bit sneaky about this process is that they are not always directly added to the food item, but added to the packaging where they evaporate into the food as it is stored. When they are added to a product in this manner, they don't legally need to be included on the ingredient list. That’s why I recommend limiting processed foods as much as possible and focusing on anti-inflammatory whole foods that support natural, healthy detoxification.
Some foods that most commonly contain BHT and BHA include:
In addition to these food items, BHT and BHA are often added to animal feed and drugs, which means that non-organic meat and dairy may be contaminated with them. This is yet another reason it’s so important to support farmers and producers who are raising their animals humanely. I buy all my meat from the amazing Sunday Farms, where they focus on ethically raising the highest quality, humane animal products. You can use code JOY20 for 20% off your order!
How Are BHT And BHA Used in Beauty Products?
Both BHA and BHT are used in beauty products that contain fats and oils primarily as preservatives. You can find them in:
One of the problems with these kinds of ingredients is that while they may not always be harmful in small, one-off applications, we simply don’t know the effect of the prolonged combination of chemicals people come into contact with every single day from their personal care products. The Environmental Working Group has found that on average women use 12 different products every single day which exposes them to 168 chemical ingredients, not all of which have been tested for safety. And they definitely haven’t tested the compounding effect and safety of using that many chemicals every single day for years of your life.
That’s why I’m passionate about education and understanding the limited data that we do have so that you can make the decisions that are best for your health. I also recommend supporting your body’s natural detoxification processes with healthy whole foods, dry skin brushing (learn how to do it here), and organic liver-supporting herbs.
Why Are BHT And BHA Harmful?
May Cause Allergic Reactions
Both BHT and BHA can cause allergic reactions, which is an issue if you have sensitive skin. This effect can be compounded if you’re using multiple products every day on your lips and skin that contain one or both of these ingredients. That’s why I suggest reading your labels and avoiding cosmetic or beauty products that use BHT or BHA as preservatives.
May Be Carcinogenic
Unfortunately, allergic skin reactions aren’t the only issue with these chemical additives. According to both the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, part of the World Health Organization) and the US National Toxicology Program (NTP), BHA is classified as reasonably anticipated to be carcinogenic in humans. BHT has also been shown to promote tumour growth in peer-reviewed studies shared by the EWG. Some animal studies found it caused liver tumours and lung cancer.
May Cause Endocrine Disruption
According to the David Suzuki Foundation, the European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has classified BHA as a Category 1 priority substance due to evidence that demonstrates its interference with hormone function. There is even some evidence that high doses of BHT can mimic estrogen and prevent the expression of sex hormones, such as testosterone, both of which can impact reproductive health.
May Impact Liver, Kidney, Thyroid, & Lung Health
The effects of BHT seem to be more concerning when it is used as a food additive, though limiting your exposure is always a good idea to prevent any possible harmful health effects or complications. The European Food Safety Authority has reported that BHT has negative effects on thyroid and kidney health, in addition to promoting liver and lung tumours.
Restriction of BHA and BHT
Despite these potential negative health effects, both BHT and BHA have zero restrictions on their use in Canada. With that said Health Canada has categorized BHA as a high human health priority based on its cancer-causing risks. BHT has received classification as a moderate human health priority and both of them have been flagged for review under Canada’s Chemical Management Plan. Other countries, such as those in the European Union, have banned BHA from use in fragrance in cosmetics and California requires all products that contain BHA to have a warning label about its possible carcinogenicity.
Non-Toxic Beauty Products
If you’re looking for products that don’t contain these preservatives, then Shop Joyous has you covered! In addition to being formulated using safe, effective, high quality, organic ingredients all of our products are free from harsh chemicals, toxins, preservatives, fragrance, dyes, GMOs or any hormone disrupting ingredients. Try subbing conventional brands for the following:
My hope is that this article has empowered you with knowledge about how these synthetic antioxidants are used in many conventional beauty products, while providing you with options for healthier alternatives. Once we know better, we can do better!
I encourage you to use this knowledge to create a beauty routine that works for your skin.
The first step to making a change to your beauty routine is learning about what these ingredients are, what they do, and how to spot them. To help you learn more check out the following articles on common skin and beauty product ingredients to avoid:
You can feel confident exploring Shop Joyous Health for all-natural, plant-powered skincare, hair care, and body care products! We make a promise not to use any of these potentially harmful ingredients to protect you and the planet.