Dangers of Chemicals in Cosmetics

Using an array of cosmetics and personal care products is all about feeling confident and beautiful. But could they be making you sick? 

Do you thoroughly scan ingredients lists on the food products before buying? You should be doing the same for your skin care products.

Not all but most of the personal grooming products you use on a regular basis are loaded with a nasty slew of chemicals – both natural and synthetic.

Unknown to many, these synthetic ingredients carry a wide range of proven and suspected health risks; for example, these chemicals are known to interfere with hormone and nervous system functions (as endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins), and can cause allergies, skin irritation, respiratory distress, developmental problems, reproductive damage and even cancer.

Why should you worry?

Myth #1: FDA approved means safe

With the exception of color additives and some active chemical ingredients, cosmetics manufacturers have the full authority to use any ingredient without the agency’s approval.

What does it mean? Most claims made by the cosmetics companies are unregulated. Interestingly, the European Union has banned more than 1,000 ingredients to be used in cosmetics that may cause cancer, birth defects and reproductive issues.

Myth #2: Cosmetics are not absorbed into the body

The truth is cosmetics are absorbed by your skin and enter the bloodstream. The efficacy of nicotine and birth control patches confirm this. Most of the ingredients in the cosmetics penetrate the skin. You can get exposed to these chemical in a number of ways; for example, inhaling (sprays, powders) and ingestion (lipsticks, hand lotions and creams).

The health risks associated with these ‘unregulated, untested and sometimes unlisted’ chemicals have significant implications. It is because the average adult in the U.S uses 9 personal care products every day – getting exposed to 126 unique chemical ingredients [1].

There is mounting concern that the cumulative toxic burden from these chemicals may be responsible for increasing rate of reproductive issues and cancer among women. Pregnant women, babies and growing children are considered most vulnerable to these adverse effects on health and well-being.

The stakes are high and you should be paying attention to what goes in your product.

Let’s look at the top 10 toxic chemicals you should avoid and what makes these ingredients hazardous.

10 chemicals in the cosmetics you should worry about

  1. Parabens

Parabens are commonly used as preservatives in a wide range of make-up and skin care products such as lipstick, mascara, foundation, body wash, sunscreen, lotions and shaving creams. These chemicals are also found in some pharmaceutical products.  Parabens prevent the growth of fungus, bacteria and other micro-organisms in your cosmetic products – keeping them from spoiling and extending their shelf-life. But isn’t that a good thing?

Well, parabens are also linked with an increased risk of breast cancer. Parabens mimic the effects of estrogen – a female reproductive hormone excess of which is implicated in the development of breast cancer and fertility problems. These chemicals are absorbed through the skin and have been isolated in the breast tissue and biopsy samples from breast tumors [2] [3]. As reported by WebMD, a study found that parabens, even in small amounts, can encourage the growth of certain types of breast cancer cells.

  1. Phthalates

Phthalates are commonly used as solvents and softeners in hundreds of products ranging from household cleaners to grooming products such as cosmetics, nail polish, perfumes and hair spray. These controversial chemicals help to hold color, make nail polish less fragile, prevent hair spray to make hair too stiff and make fragrances last longer.

Phthalates work as endocrine disruptors – interfering in the way hormones work in our body.  They are known to disrupt the balance of other hormones that work synergistically with estrogen, including testosterone.

Phthalates are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, early puberty in girls, decreased sperm count, behavioral problems, asthma in children, ADHD, premature birth, and reproductive defects in the developing male fetus. In addition, phthalate metabolites are also associated with obesity and insulin resistance in males [4]. Both National Toxicology Program and Environmental Protection Agency consider some phthalates (like DIP and DEHP) as ‘probable carcinogens’.

  1. Synthetic colors

Colorful cosmetics make us feel happy and refreshed. Bursts of orange, yellow and red when we open a jar or squeeze the gel tube enhance the overall experience of using that product. Make no mistake, the cosmetic companies are aware of  the power this spectrum of colors has on our physiology.

But did you know synthetic colors found in your cosmetics (and in the processed food items) are derived from coal tar or petroleum? These fake colors have been linked with cancer, allergies, hormonal imbalance, skin irritation, and ADHD in children.

  1. Fragrance

Consumer research shows that fragrance is one of the important factors when it comes to choosing a cosmetic or a personal care product. But the term fragrance can be misleading; it is actually a combination of dozens of chemicals added to either lend a pleasant smell or to mask the odor of certain harsh ingredients – aimed to enhance the user’s experience. On the pretext of protecting the secret formula, the cosmetics companies are not required to disclose the full ingredient list.

The chemical cocktail is present in many products such as perfume, cologne, shampoo, hair conditioner, soap, body wash, exfoliating scrubs, facial creams and moisturizers. The use of these unlisted and often untested ingredients are known to trigger allergies, migraines, skin irritation, runny nose and respiratory disorders like asthma. Some individual ingredients are even linked with cancer, development disorders and neurotoxicity among many other serious side effects [5] [6].

  1. Triclosan

Triclosan, known for its potent antimicrobial properties, is widely used in several products such as soaps, wipes, sprays, creams and toothpaste. Recently, the FDA banned triclosan from soaps but it is still found in the toothpaste, reports the New York Times.

Studies show that triclosan and similar chemicals in products – promising germ-free hands and surfaces – can do more harm than good. The risks of using triclosan are many. Firstly, it can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Secondly, chemicals like these have been shown to negatively impact metabolism, liver, and hormone functions (especially related to thyroid and reproductive system).

Any disturbance in the endocrine system can cause many health issues including “premature puberty, poor quality of sperm, fertility issues, obesity, and even cancer” [6]. In addition, triclosan is also linked with impaired learning and memory, impaired muscle functions and allergies.

  1. Mineral oil

Mineral oil is a colorless, odorless by-product of petroleum distillation process. It is an extremely common ingredient in baby oil, hair oil, moisturizers, lip-balm and other cosmetics. Why should you avoid using mineral oil?

According to a  2011 report by the National Toxicology Program, “Untreated and mildly treated mineral oils are known to be human carcinogens based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in humans [8].” While cosmetics contain a better grade mineral oil, scientists have raised grave concerns as much of the mineral oil we use contain contaminants that can be extremely damaging.

There is another reason to worry. Skin is one of the most important detox machinery in the body and works together with other organs to release toxins. But it needs to breathe to be able to perform this important function. The mineral oil is an “occlusive agent”—meaning it creates a barrier over your skin to prevent the loss of moisture; something like a plastic wrap. The skin can’t breathe and is left with clogged pores and toxin build up – increasing your risk of a breakouts and other skin disorders. This process can also damage collagen leading to premature skin aging.

  1. Sunscreen chemicals

Your treasured sunscreen product may contain active ingredients that are absorbed through the skin into the blood stream where they work as endocrine disruptors; especially among children. While these ingredients are added to protect the skin against the sun’s ultraviolet rays, studies show chemicals in most of the sunscreens can trigger cellular damage and even cause cancer.

Oxybenzone, the most common chemical used in the sunscreen, was found in 96% of the population in a study by CDC. This is an alarming figure as the chemical is a known endocrine disruptor, lowers sperm count in men and may cause endometriosis in women [9]. A 2015 Swiss survey for another ingredient octinoxate suggest that the exposure may put young children at increased risk of thyroid disruption.

This issue is very serious as the use of sunscreen – as a tool against sun exposure – has risen sharply; and people generally slather large amounts of sunscreen and over a large skin surface before stepping out in the sun.

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

SLS and SLES are surfactants widely used in cleansing products, shower gels, bubble baths, face wash and in shampoos – lending foaming and lathering properties to these products.

Both these ingredients are skin, eye and lung irritants. In addition, SLS can interact with other chemicals to form nitrosamines, cancer causing substance. On the other hand, SLES is found to be contaminated with 1,4 dioxane – classified as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

  1. BHA and BHT

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are used as preservatives in many personal care products such as lipsticks, moisturizers, sunscreens, hair products, antiperspirant, deodorant, and other cosmetics. These chemicals are added to prevent the oxidation of fat and oils in these products; that can otherwise make the items go rancid and bad.

Both BHT and BHA are linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, liver and kidney toxicity, fertility issues, and reproductive and developmental toxicity [10].

  1. Lead

Most women apply lipstick without a second thought. But what they don’t know that most lipsticks, if not all, contain lead – a metal known for its neurotoxin properties. Lead has no useful role in the body but inside the body it mimics calcium and gets deposited in teeth and bones – causing severe damage to all the organ systems; with nervous and endocrine system taking the maximum impact. Lead is associated with learning and behavioral disorders, reduced fertility in both men and women, and delayed onset of puberty in girls and development of testes in boys. [111]

It is important (and scary) to know that there is no safe level of lead in the blood and it can be dangerous even in small quantities.

In fact, a recent study, conducted by the University of California, suggested that lead may not be the only metal in the lipsticks. The team detected nine toxic heavy metals, including chromium, aluminium, cadmium and manganese besides lead [12].

Is there something you can do to safeguard yourself?

It may not be possible to avoid every single chemical that is toxic. But you can definitely limit your exposure. Eating clean and avoiding processed food items loaded with preservatives, artificial sweeteners and fake colors is a good starting point to reduce the toxic burden on your system.

What else can you do?

  • Go for certified organic products
  • Awareness is the biggest tool you can have. Take out time to educate yourself and do your research before you buy any product.
  • Buy products with shorter ingredients lists and less chemicals. (See a name you can’t pronounce? Drop it)

It is again very important to note that buying a natural or herbal product may not always mean it is 100 % safe. EWG has created Skin DeepⓇcosmetics database, to help you research what toxic chemicals could be in your cosmetics and help you find safer, healthier alternatives.


  1. Exposures add up – Survey results. EWG.org
  2. 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.
  3. Darbare et al. Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours. J Appl Toxicol. 2004 Jan-Feb;24(1):5-13.
  4. Stahlhut, RW et al. Concentrations of urinary phthalate metabolites are associated with increased waste circumference and insulin resistence in adult S. males. Environmental Health Perspectives 115, 6 (Jun 2007).
  5. S. National Toxicology Program. NTP toxicology and carcinogensis Studies of 2,4-hexadienal (89% trans,trans isomer, CAS No. 142-83-6; 11% cis,trans isomer) (Gavage Studies). Natl Toxicol Program Tech Rep Ser. 509 (Oct 2003):1-290
  6. S. National Toxicology Program. NTP Toxicology and Carcinogenesis Studies of Methyleugenol (CAS NO. 93-15-2) in F344/N Rats and B6C3F1 Mice (Gavage Studies). Natl Toxicol Program Tech Rep Ser. 491 (Jul 2000): 1-412.
  7. Nicole Greenfield. The Dirt on Antibacterial Soaps. NRDC. March 15, 2016.
  8. Mineral Oils: Untreated and Mildly Treated,Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition (2011), National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services.
  9. The Trouble With Oxybenzone and Other Sunscreen Chemicals. EWG
  10. Butylated Compounds. Safe Cosmetics.
  11. Lead In Lipstick. Safe Cosmetics.
  12. Liu et al. Concentrations and Potential Health Risks of Metals in Lip Products. Environ Health Perspect; DOI:10.1289/ehp.1205518