Are Harmful Chemicals Hiding in Your Cosmetics?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on September 09, 2021
4 min read

The average woman in the US uses 12 cosmetic products composed of 168 chemical ingredients daily. Research indicates that not all of these chemical ingredients may be safe for human use.   

There is evidence that exposure to some of the ingredients found in cosmetics can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans.‌

‌Metals that are part of cosmetic formulations can get absorbed through the skin, accumulate inside the body, and cause harm to internal organs. Coal tar hair dyes used in hair colorants can cause allergic reactions, hair loss, and injuries to the eyes. And that's just the beginning. 

‌It’s reasonable to assume that the cosmetic products you use are properly tested for safety before they land on your shopping aisles. This isn’t the case. The FDA doesn’t pre-approve cosmetics or ingredients unless it’s a color additive. They do step in to act on consumer complaints.

Cosmetic companies are expected to ensure that their products and ingredients are safe before engaging in any form of marketing. They are also expected to label their products properly, ensure they’re not using prohibited ingredients, and are sticking to the agreed limits on restricted ingredients.   

This can result in a grey area for consumers. A study published this year showed evidence of high concentrations of fluorine in makeup products such as foundations, mascaras, and lip products. When fluorine shows up this way, it means that potentially toxic chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are present in the products.‌

Concerns were also raised on the lack of clear labelling of these ingredients.   

The PCPC (Personal Care Products Council) have stated in a detailed response that given the diversity of PFAS — with over 6,000 ingredients and widely different chemistries — it was inappropriate to assume that every fluorine atom has the same safety profile.‌

According to the PCPC, trace levels of PFAS are added to cosmetics to "condition and smooth the skin or for product consistency and texture." Some of the trace amounts from the study were the result of "materials naturally occurring in the environment" or "as a result of the manufacturing process." Trace amounts not intentionally added to products were not required to be listed on the label. 

For the average consumer, having relevant information on hand is a great first step towards understanding more about harmful chemicals that could be hiding in your cosmetics. ‌

The FDA refers to cosmetics as articles used for cleaning as well as to beautify and alter a person’s appearance to make it more attractive. These articles can be applied to the human body in many different ways including being rubbed, sprayed, or poured onto the skin.  ‌

In this sense, the term "cosmetics" can be extended to include such common everyday products as moisturizers, shampoos, toothpaste, and deodorants as well as hair color products, fingernail polishes, and perfumes.  

‌Some of the chemical ingredients listed on product labels are known to be harmful. Knowing which ones to watch out for can help you reduce or limit your exposure to these harmful chemicals:

  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) or butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). BHA and BHT are chemical compounds used as antioxidants and preservatives in cosmetic preparations. 
  • Coal tar dyes. Coal tar dyes are hair colorants that used to be made from byproducts of the coal industry, but are now made mostly from petroleum. An ingredient of hair dyes called p-Phenylenediamine, or PPD, has been known to cause allergic reactions. 
  • Diethanolamine, or DEA. DEA is used as a foaming agent and emulsifier. It was linked to cancer in animal tests from a 1998 study, but the same study did not establish a link between DEA and the risk of cancer in humans.
  • Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Formaldehyde, also known as formalin and methylene glycol, can be found in hair smoothing products. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are used to prevent the formation of bacteria. You'll also see them under the names DMDM hydantoin, polyoxymethylene urea, diazolidinyl urea, bromopol, imidazolidinyl urea, glyoxal, methenamine, quaternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate. Reported reactions to formaldehyde and related ingredients include eye irritations, wheezing, headaches, sore throat, nausea, skin rashes, and irritation. At higher levels or with prolonged exposure, the products have been linked to cancer. 
  • Parabens. Parabens, used as a preservative in cosmetics, have been linked to skin irritations, endocrine disruption, and harm to the reproductive system.
  • Fragrance ingredients. Companies do not need to disclose fragrance ingredients by law, as these are seen as "trade secrets." But as with all other ingredients, companies do need to ensure the safety of the ingredients before they are released to the market.
  • Polyethylene glycols, or PEG compounds. Polyethylene glycols have a variety of uses in cosmetic care preparations, but have been linked to various types of cancer.
  • Petrolatum or petroleum jelly. Petrolatum in unrefined form can contain toxic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
  • Siloxanes or silicones. Some siloxane compounds are considered toxic and can harm hormone function.  
  • Sodium laureth sulfate, or SLS. SLS can cause irritations to the skin and eyes and is known to contain toxic ingredients.  
  • Triclosan. Triclosan is an ingredient that helps prevent or reduce bacterial contamination. Short-term animal studies show links to a decrease in thyroid hormones, but the effect in humans has not been established. The FDA has declared that triclosan in certain over-the-counter health care antiseptic products is not generally recognized as safe and effective due to insufficient data, but they recommend that health care personnel continue to use the currently available products, consistent with infection control guidelines.

By keeping an eye on product labels with these ingredients in mind, you can feel safe about the products you're putting on your body.