Most of us read ingredients lists and labels on our food items. But how about facial treatments, lipsticks, sunscreens and shampoos? Most of the cosmetics and personal care products you use on a daily basis contain a slew of chemicals associated with a wide array of health risks. Surprised?
Studies suggest that these synthetic chemicals are carcinogenic (cancer causing), powerful endocrine disruptors (that interfere with normal workings of hormones), neurotoxins (that disrupt the nervous system functioning), and reproductive toxins (that cause fertility issues among both men and women). Pregnant women and infants are the most susceptible of the population to the harmful effects exerted by these chemicals.
The U.S FDA and, in fact, many other regulatory agencies have no power to review the safety of the ingredients – giving product manufacturers carte blanche to use more or less any chemical without the approval of concerned authorities. In a nutshell, most of the ingredients are unregulated and untested for long-term health risks. On the other hand, the European Union has been proactive in banning more than 1,000 ingredients in their cosmetics and personal care products that may cause serious health issues.
Most people believe that cosmetics are not absorbed into the body, thus harmless. But the truth is ingredients in your cosmetics are very much capable of penetrating the skin and entering the bloodstream. Once inside they can specifically damage the endocrine and nervous systems – with a potential to cause reproductive, fertility and developmental problems.
Let’s look at the 8 chemicals that are prevalent in your everyday personal care and grooming products and why should you be concerned.
Ugly Truths: 8 Ingredients That Make Your Cosmetics Deadly
Parabens are a group of common compounds with anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties, and used as preservatives in body wash, lipstick, foundation, deodorants, shaving cream etc. Parabens are generously added to your cosmetics as they inhibit microbial growth in these products and extend their shelf-life.
But what you may not know is that parabens are associated with breast cancer risk. These compounds behave a lot like estrogen, a female hormone that, in excess, has been linked with breast cancer. Parabens have been isolated in biopsy samples from breast tumors in studies  .
Phthalates are a group of chemicals commonly used in nail polishes, hair sprays, perfumes, lotions, deodorants and moisturizers. These chemicals work as plasticizers (thinners and softeners) and serve a range of purposes; for example, to retain colour, make nail paints less brittle and prevent hair spray from making hair too rigid. Phthalates are also used as fragrance in many cosmetics, but you may not always find them listed on the label.
They may sound harmless and even useful, but phthalates upset the hormonal balance and especially disturbs the hormones that closely work together with estrogen. Studies suggest that phthalates increase the risk of developing breast cancer, and cause early onset of puberty in girls, reproductive system damage in both males and females, premature delivery and decrease sperm count. These chemicals are also known to 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.”
Triclosan is an anti-bacterial chemical that was recently banned from soaps by the FDA. Unfortunately, it is still found in other products including toothpaste, wipes, antiperspirants creams and sprays.
Studies suggest that anti-bacterial chemicals like triclosan pose several dangers to your health. To start with, triclosan can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These ant-bacterial ingredients also adversely affect metabolism and liver, and create disruption in the endocrine system, particularly in hormones associated with thyroid and reproductive system. Not surprisingly, triclosan can cause obesity, early onset of puberty, low sperm quality and fertility problems. 
The European Union has classified triclosan as a skin and eye irritant; and extremely harmful to aquatic life .
Most lipsticks contain lead, a well-established toxin that damages the nervous system. According to Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, lead can cause learning and behavioral disorders, reduced fertility in both men and women, hormonal imbalances, delayed onset of puberty in girls, and delayed development of testes in boys . What is worth noting is that there is no safe level of lead in the blood, and that it can cause damage even in small concentrations.
The term fragrance can be very deceptive. It is a collective term used for a complex mixture of many chemicals. Fragrances are typically found in deodorants, perfumes and colognes but you will find these chemicals added to almost every personal care product – including soap, body wash, shampoo, facial creams, lotions and moisturizers. Fragrance is even found in products labelled unscented or fragrance-free.
What muddles the water even more that it is not mandatory for the cosmetics manufacturers to reveal the full list of ingredients as they are ‘entitled’ to protect their trade secret. These chemicals are often untested for toxicity, whether standalone or in combination.
Harsh and untested chemicals in fragrances can cause allergies, migraines and asthma. Studies suggest that exposure to perfume can even worsen symptoms in asthmatic people and lead to its development in children. Skin irritation and runny nose are also common with fragrance use .
Formaldehyde is an effective preservative and is used in many cosmetic products to prevent bacterial contamination. But the resulting increased shelf life comes at a serious health cost. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies formaldehyde as a cancer-causing agent. Formaldehyde can cause allergic skin reactions and irritate the respiratory system.
Formaldehyde is commonly found in nail polishes, nail hardeners, hair straighteners, eyelash glues, hair gels, shampoos, lotions, deodorants and make-up. You may not find formaldehyde listed clearly on the label as cosmetic companies don’t exactly add this agent in its pure form but make use of several chemicals that slowly degrade over time and release formaldehyde. A wide array of cosmetics contain these formaldehyde releasing chemicals and the most concerning to watch out for are DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea and quaternium-15.
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
Both SLS and SLES are surfactants, meaning substances that reduce surface tension of a liquid when added. These chemicals are used in foaming products, such as shower gels, bubble baths, shampoos, facial cleansers, and in household cleaning products. These chemicals are known to cause skin, eye and lung irritation.
Sodium laureth sulfate is sometimes contaminated 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.”  Sodium Lauryl Sulfate on the other hand combines with other chemicals to form cancer causing nitrosamines.
- Mineral oil
Mineral oil is a by-product of petroleum distillation. Since it works as a skin barrier to prevent the loss of moisture, mineral oil is used in a range of skin creams and moisturizers, and also in hair care products. The problem with mineral oil is that it is often contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), long-term exposure to which is linked with cancer. PAH’s can also cause allergies and skin irritation.
In addition, mineral oil clings to your skin almost like a plastic wrap – leaving skin with no capacity to breathe and eventually leading to clogged pores. This not only increases your risk of acne but also break-down collagen, which can make your skin to age prematurely.
This is not an exhaustive list of chemicals found in your cosmetics and personal care products. The jars of creams, gels, lotions, and serums sitting above your dresser or lining the bathroom shelves are saturated with even more toxic substances that the manufacturers “ignore” to list as ingredients. Manufacturers may choose to feign ignorance on these matters, but can you?
What can you do to avoid chemical exposure from cosmetics?
While avoiding cosmetics may not be the solution or even possible, one can still do a lot to limit their exposure. Switch to clean eating and avoid pre-packaged and processed foods that are bursting with toxic additives in the form of artificial food dyes (to make the food attractive) and preservatives (to make the food last longer). Supplement your diet with Vitamin C and Magnesium, that not only act as powerful anti-oxidant, boost the immune system but also help the body to detoxify.
Only buy certified organic products and steer clear from the cosmetic products that has a long list of ingredients and chemicals listed on their labels. For more information and to search for safer products, you can visit EWG’s Skin DeepⓇcosmetics database.
- 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.
- Darbare et al. Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours. J Appl Toxicol. 2004 Jan-Feb;24(1):5-13.
- Nicole Greenfield. The Dirt on Antibacterial Soaps. NRDC. March 15, 2016.
- European Commission. Regulation (EC) 1272/2008 , Annex VI, Table 3.2. Sep 2009.
- Lead In Lipstick. Safe Cosmetics.
- Fragrance and parfum. David Suzuki Foundation
- 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.