Dangers of Chemicals in Cosmetics

Reading ingredients lists and labels on our food items is second nature to many of us. But what about the products we put on our bodies? Do you take an extra moment to read the labels on your facial treatments, lipsticks, shampoos, and sunscreens? You certainly should, as most personal care products and cosmetics host a collection of chemicals associated with worrisome health risks.

Research shows that many synthetic chemicals in cosmetics are cancer-causing (carcinogenic) endocrine disruptors that interfere with regular hormone function. Others are neurotoxins that hinder the nervous system, and some are reproductive toxins that cause fertility issues. The most susceptible people to the dangers of toxic chemicals in cosmetics are pregnant women and infants.

The U.S FDA (among other regulatory agencies) does not have the power to assess the safety of cosmetic ingredients, leaving product manufacturers free to use basically any chemical without approval. However, the European Union has banned over 1,000 cosmetic and personal care ingredients that could cause serious health issues.

It is widely believed that cosmetics aren’t absorbed into the body, they are not ingested, and are, therefore, harmless and safe. The unfortunate truth is that cosmetic ingredients do penetrate the skin and end up in the bloodstream. Once they are in your system they can disrupt the endocrine and nervous systems, and can cause fertility and reproductive issues for women, and development problems in children.

Take a look at our list of 8 harmful chemicals in cosmetics and everyday personal care items, and find out why you should be wary.

Ugly Truths: 8 Ingredients That Make Your Cosmetics Deadly

1. Parabens

Parabens are used as preservatives in self-care products (foundation, deodorant, body wash, etc.). This group of common compounds has antifungal and anti-microbial properties, therefore, extending the shelf-life of beauty and self-care products.However, parabens have been significantly linked with breast cancer risk because they behave similarly to estrogen, a female hormone linked with breast cancer when present in excessive levels. This is supported by the fact that parabens have been isolated in biopsy samples from breast tumors in studies [1] [2].

2. Phthalates

You can find Phthalates, a group of chemicals, in nail polish, perfume, lotion, moisturizers, deodorant, and hair spray. Phthalates work as thinners and softeners (plasticizers) and work to retain color, make nail polish less brittle, and prevent hair spray from making hair too stiff. These chemicals are also used in fragrance, but they’re not always listed as such on the product label.

While phthalates sound useful, they can upset hormonal balances, especially those hormones that are closely associated with estrogen. Studies indicate that phthalates may increase the risk of developing breast cancer, cause early-onset puberty in girls, damage the reproductive system in males and females, cause premature delivery, decrease sperm count, and cause asthma in children. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, “exposure to phthalates may cause health effects such as liver and kidney failure in young children (and can also be transferred) when products containing phthalates are sucked or chewed for extended periods.”

3. Triclosan

Another offender on the list of chemicals used in cosmetics is triclosan, an antibacterial chemical that was recently banned by the FDA from being used in soaps. However, it is still found in other self-care products such as wipes, toothpaste, and antiperspirants.Anti-bacterial chemicals such as triclosan can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, negatively affect metabolism and liver function, and disrupt the endocrine system (especially thyroid and reproductive hormones). What’s more, triclosan can cause other serious health issues such as obesity, fertility issues, low sperm quality, and early onset of puberty [3]. The European Union has classified triclosan as a skin and eye irritant, as well as being very harmful to aquatic life [4].

4. Lead

Lead is a well-known toxin that damages the nervous system, and unfortunately, it is present in most lipsticks. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, lead has a raft of negative effects, including learning and behavioral disorders. What’s more, it can cause reduced fertility in males and females, hormonal imbalances, delayed onset of puberty in females, and delayed development of testes in boys [5]. It’s important to note that lead can cause damage in even small amounts, and there is no “safe” level of lead in the blood.

5. Fragrance

“Fragrance” is found in many, if not most cosmetic and self-care products, and it is a deceptive term, referring to a complex mixture of chemicals. You can even find it lurking in products labeled “unscented” or “fragrance-free”.

To make things even more complicated, it is not mandatory for cosmetics manufacturers to disclose the full list of ingredients used, as they are ‘entitled’ to protect trade secrets, meaning fragrance chemicals are often untested for toxicity.

Untested chemicals in fragrances can cause asthma, migraines, and allergies. What’s more, studies suggest that perfume exposure can worsen asthma symptoms and lead to asthma development in children. Fragrance is also commonly associated with skin irritation and a runny nose [6].

6. Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is commonly found in make-up, deodorant, lotion, nail polish, nail hardener, hair straighteners, shampoo, hair gel, and eyelash glue. It is an effective preservative and prevents bacterial contamination in cosmetic products. However, the increased shelf-life provided by formaldehyde comes at a serious cost to health. It can cause allergic reactions of the skin, and an irritated respiratory system. Alarmingly, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies formaldehyde as a cancer-causing agent.

It’s tricky to ascertain whether or not your chosen cosmetic contains this toxic ingredient. Why? Because while cosmetic companies don’t use it in pure form, they use chemicals that slowly degrade and release formaldehyde. Many cosmetics contain these formaldehyde-releasing toxic chemicals, with the most concerning chemicals being DMDM hydantoin, Diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, and quaternium-15.

7. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

SLS and SLES are known as surfactants, a substance that reduces the surface tension of a liquid when added. Surfactants are added to foaming products such as bubble bath, shower gel, shampoo, facial cleanser, and household cleaning products. These chemicals are known to irritate the skin, eyes, and even lungs.

Even more worrisome, Sodium Laureth Sulfate is sometimes spiked with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane during the manufacturing process. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified “ethylene oxide as a known human carcinogen and 1,4-dioxane as a possible human carcinogen.” [7]. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, on the other hand, can form cancer-causing nitrosamines when combined with certain other chemicals.

8. Mineral oil

Mineral oil, a by-product of petroleum distillation works as a skin barrier to prevent moisture loss, and is, therefore, used in many skin creams, moisturizers, and hair products. However, mineral oil is contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs can cause allergies and skin irritation, and more concerningly, long-term exposure is linked to cancer.

What’s more, mineral oil sticks to the skin and stops it from breathing, ultimately leading to clogged pores. This increases the risk of developing acne and causes the break-down of collagen, leading to premature aging.

This list of unsafe chemicals in cosmetics is not exhaustive, as there are many more toxic ingredients hiding in your serums, creams, gels, and lotions. Even worse, many of these substances are not even listed on the label. While manufacturers may neglect to face up to the truth about cancer-causing chemicals in cosmetics, should you?

What can you do to avoid chemical exposure from cosmetics?

Avoiding cosmetics and self-care products altogether would be nearly impossible, but you can take other measures to avoid exposure to harmful chemicals. Focus on clean eating and skip the pre-packaged or processed foods that are packed with toxic additives such as food dyes and preservatives. Bolster your diet with Vitamin C and Magnesium supplements for anti-oxidant support, immune support, and to detoxify the body.Limit your purchases to certified organic products only and avoid cosmetics that have a long list of ingredients and chemicals on their labels. For more information and to search for safer products, you can visit EWG’s Skin Deep?cosmetics database.

  1. L Barr et al. Measurement of paraben concentrations in human breast tissue at serial locations across the breast from axilla to sternum. J Appl Toxicol. 2012 Mar;32(3):219-32. doi: 10.1002/jat.1786. Epub 2012 Jan 12.
  2. Darbare et al. Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours. J Appl Toxicol. 2004 Jan-Feb;24(1):5-13.
  3. Nicole Greenfield. The Dirt on Antibacterial Soaps. NRDC. March 15, 2016.
  4. European Commission. Regulation (EC) 1272/2008 , Annex VI, Table 3.2. Sep 2009.
  5. Lead In Lipstick. Safe Cosmetics.
  6. Fragrance and parfum. David Suzuki Foundation
  7. Black RE, Hurley FJ, and Havery DC. "Occurrence of 1,4-dioxane in cosmetic raw materials and finished cosmetic products." Int J PharJ AOAC Int. 84, 3 (May-Jun 2001):666-70.