Dangerous Chemicals in Cosmetic Products

In the post-industrial age of plenty, consumers have access to more products than ever before. However, as a result of consumerism, we are also being exposed to more chemicals than before. An abundance of chemicals surrounds us almost constantly and can be found in food, water, air, and many of the products we use. Below is a list of eleven health-hazardous chemicals commonly found in cosmetic products.


You might have noticed that certain personal care products are labeled as “paraben free.” This is almost always the case with baby care products. Naturally, babies are more sensitive than adults, but as you can assume, if parabens are bad for them, they are probably bad for you too.

Unfortunately, parabens are actually very common in various cosmetic products. They are found in lotions, scrubs, creams, shampoos, shower gels, conditioners, etc. Usually, parabens are used as preservatives and can easily be detected on the ingredients list. The issue lies with the use of parabens in perfumes. Since perfume formulas are considered secret, parabens that are used to create a fragrance are not listed as ingredients of cosmetic products.

Health Effects

It is scientifically proven that parabens interfere with the function of hormones in the human body. This is especially important for women because parabens are known to imitate estrogen, which can cause endocrine disruption. What’s worse is higher levels of estrogen is linked to many cancers.

The levels of parabens in cosmetic products are usually very low. How low? Similar to the amount found naturally in certain foods such as onions, carrots, strawberries or barley. However, parabens ingested through diet are metabolized while those found in cosmetic products can penetrate the skin easily and enter the bloodstream unchanged.

The biggest concern with parabens is their suspected connection to certain types of cancer. Parabens have been found in breast cancer tissue samples.

In addition, skin care products that contain parabens, such as methylparaben, can boost the skin damage caused by UV radiation and increase skin cancer risk.

Parabens are also associated with reduced sperm production and low testosterone levels.

The Label

Parabens are easily identified on the product’s ingredients label. In most cases, the names of these substances end in “-paraben”. The most common parabens in cosmetics products are:

·         Methylparaben

·         Isobutylparaben

·         Ethylparaben

·         Butylparaben

·         Propylparaben

·         Isopropylparaben


There are three chemicals from the group of phthalates that are widely used in cosmetic products. These are:

·         Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)

·         Diethyl Phthalate (DEP)

·         Di-2-Ethylhexyl Phthalate (DEHP)

The use of these substances is controversial as they are banned in certain areas of the world such as the European Union. However, phthalates are still a part of various cosmetic formulas in the United States.

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is a chemical widely used in the plastics industry to add flexibility to PVC products. In cosmetics, DBP is usually found in nail products. Its solvent and plasticizing properties keep the nail polishes elastic after drying.

Diethyl phthalate (DEP) can be found in many scented products. Its role, as a part of the fragrance formula, is to enable the scent to linger. However, DEP is rarely mentioned in the ingredient list because fragrance formulas are considered a trade secret.

Di-2-Ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) is a component of eyelash glue.

Health Effects

Phthalates metabolites are normally found in human urine samples. Cosmetic products are not the only reason for this. These chemicals are a common part of our daily lives as they are present in food packaging and other things. Water bottles are probably the best example.

Phthalates are associated with certain types of cancer, reproductive toxicity, and the disruption of the endocrine system. Strong evidence from animal studies suggests that DEHP can cause liver tumors. DBP is known to interfere with anti-estrogen treatments in breast cancer patients, making them less effective.

All phthalates are proven endocrine disrupters. Pregnant and lactating women are especially at risk of a hormone disruption caused by these chemicals. Phthalates can affect the prenatal development of genital organs.

Certain phthalate metabolites are proven to lower sperm quality and increase the risk of male infertility. Phthalates also inhibit testosterone production during fetal development

The Label

Phthalates are usually found in nail polish, body lotions, color cosmetics, and hair care products. In the ingredient list, they are mentioned as DEP, DBP, DEHP or just phthalates.

In many cases, the manufacturer will only mention fragrance as one of the ingredients. Such products should be avoided in order to lower the risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals such as phthalates.    


Lead in paint was banned in 1978 due to its toxicity, so it may surprise you that lead is still present in many cosmetic products. Lead can be found in lipsticks, eyeliners, eyeshadows, foundations, blush, sunscreens, whitening toothpaste, moisturizers, nail colors, etc.

Lead is also not the only heavy metal used in cosmetic formulas. The other ones include:

·         Mercury

·         Arsenic

·         Iron

·         Chromium

·         Zinc

·         Aluminum

Lead and mercury pose the biggest health risk as they do not have any physical function in the human body.

Health Effects

Lead is a neurotoxic poison that is associated with cancer, developmental delays in children, and hormone imbalances.

Lead is especially dangerous to pregnant women as it can pass through the placenta and enter the brain of the fetus. This heavy metal is also dangerous to children as it is associated with behavior problems and high levels of lead can disrupt the learning process (especially language learning in children).

Lead is also associated with reproductive toxicity. It increases the risk of infertility in both women and men, causes irregularities of the menstrual cycle, and impairs the development of testes. Exposure to high concentrations of lead is also connected with the late onset of puberty in adolescents.

Biopsies of breast cancer tissue commonly show higher concentrations of lead and other heavy metals when compared to the biopsies of non-cancerous tissue.

The Label

In some cases lead will not be listed, but when lead and other heavy metals are an intentional part of the formula, you will find the following names on the ingredients label:

·         Lead acetate

·         Sodium hexametaphosphate

·         Thimerosal

·         Chromium

·         Hydrogenated cottonseed oil


Aluminum occurs in large quantities in nature. It is one of the most abundant elements on Earth and makes up 1.4% of our planet mass. Therefore, aluminum is very difficult to avoid. This element can be found in water, food, medications, and cosmetic products.

The most frequent application of aluminum in cosmetics is for the production of antiperspirants. Aluminum salts are found to be very effective in controlling sweat. They reduce the amount of sweat on the surface of the skin by dissolving and blocking its flow from the sweat glands.

Other uses of aluminum in cosmetics include cosmetic colors and thickening agents. Aluminum-based cosmetic products are not water-soluble so their application in the area around the eyes and on the lips decreases the risk of “color bleeding”.

Health Effects

In the past aluminum contamination has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. These claims were based on animal testing which included aluminum injections. The results were inconclusive and since then no studies have confirmed the connection between aluminum and Alzheimer’s.

The toxicity of aluminum is highly dependent on the dosage. Large concentrations of this heavy metal are associated with neurotoxicity, breast cancer, kidney disease, and reproductive toxicity.

In small amounts however, like the amount found in antiperspirants, aluminum exposure is considered safe and widely approved by health authorities. Certain studies have shown that the amount of aluminum absorbed through the skin is many times smaller than the amount ingested through food.

The Label

Aluminum chlorohydrate is an aluminum salt commonly found as an active ingredient on the labels of cosmetic products (namely antiperspirants).  

Butylated Compounds (BHT and BHA)

Butylated compounds are commonly used chemical preservatives. They are found in many processed foods such as sausages, salami, chips, butter, beer, chewing gums, cooking oils, etc. These chemicals prolong the shelf life of various products, including cosmetics.

BHA (Butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (Butylated hydroxytoluene) are preservatives widely used in cosmetic products such as: lipsticks, foundations, eyeliners, eyeshadows, blush, sunscreens, antiperspirants, lip products, hair products, diaper creams, and perfumes.  

Basically, all cosmetic products that contain fats and oils require the use of chemical preservatives such as BHA and BHT.

Health Effects

BHA is a proven animal carcinogen and a suspected human carcinogen. The animal studies were focused on the dietary intake of this preservative. However, various health authorities suggest caution when using the cosmetic products containing BHA.

In the European Union, BHA is listed as an endocrine disrupter due to its hormone function interfering properties. BHA is also associated with kidney cell damage and reproductive toxicity.

The animal testing of BHT showed that high doses of this chemical can be toxic and cause damage to the kidneys, lungs, liver, and the thyroid gland.

This chemical has the ability to imitate estrogen, a principal female sex hormone. This can interfere with the efficiency of anti-estrogen therapy for breast cancer and promote tumor growth. BHT is also a proven irritant of the human respiratory tract.

Both BHA and BHT can cause irritation to the skin. Also, both chemicals tend to bio-accumulate inside the body. This property enables them to reach higher, more health hazardous concentrations over time.

The Label

BHA is banned as a fragrance ingredient in the European Union. Some states in the US require special labeling of cosmetic products to warn about the possible health effects of BHA.

Products containing Butylated compounds should have BHA and BHT listed on the ingredients label.


Benzophenone is a chemical commonly used in various household and cosmetic products for UV light protection purposes. It is a toxic chemical that has bio-accumulative properties and can be found in food packaging, cleaning products, sunglasses, etc. It has the ability to transfer from packaging to the food and drinks.

Cosmetic products that contain Benzophenone and its derivatives, benzophenone-2 (BP2) and oxybenzone (BP3) include: sunscreens (including baby sunscreens), hair spray, conditioners, shampoos, foundation, moisturizers, lip balm, nail polish, etc

Benzophenone stabilizes the properties of cosmetic products in the presence of UV light. It prevents them from losing color and scent. Benzophenone also absorbs the UV light and enhances the fragrance.

Health Effects

Some metabolites of benzophenone have estrogenic properties. This means that they are able to imitate estrogen and interfere with normal hormone levels. For this reason, benzophenone is associated with the disruption of the endocrine system.

Some animals’ studies have shown that benzophenone can be toxic and cause damage to the kidneys and liver even at lower doses. Benzophenone is also linked with allergic skin reactions. However, the usual concentrations found in sunscreen formulas are rarely the cause of this.

Benzophenone is also a suspected human carcinogen. Some studies associate it with several types of tumors. Oxybenzone, a derivative of benzophenone, is known to cause anti-androgenic processes in breast cancer cells.

There is also a concern that higher concentrations of benzophenone, which are washed away in rivers and oceans, can be harmful to the species that inhabit those ecosystems. Areas that are popular for beach tourism and have many people using sunscreen there are at greater risk.

The Label

When Benzophenone is used as a fragrance enhancer it is not listed on the ingredients label. In all other cases this chemical can be recognized under the following names:

·         Benzophenone

·         Benzophenone-2

·         Benzophenone-3 (Oxybenzone)

·         Benzophenone-4

·         Benzophenone-5

Sunscreens based on titanium dioxide and non-nanosized zinc oxide are a good alternative to products containing Benzophenone.

Coal Tar

The International Agency for Research on Cancer includes coal tar on the list of carcinogens. Coal tar is actually a mix of different compounds, many of which are known carcinogens. This complex mixture includes:

·         Toluene

·         Benzene

·         Xylene

·         Pyridine

·         Anthracene

·         Naphthalene

·         Benzopyrene

All of these compounds are associated with cancer. The last one on the list, Benzopyrene, is a polycyclic hydrocarbon, a proven carcinogen.

Coal tar is normally a byproduct of coal burning, but it can also be produced synthetically. It is a thick liquid, black or dark brown in color.

In cosmetics, it can be a part of soap, shampoo, lotion, and hair dye formulas. Additionally, coal tar is used in the textile and food industry for coloring purposes.

Health Effects

Coal tar is equally harmful to everyone. However, since women are more likely to dye their hair than men, they are also at the higher risk of being exposed to unsafe concentrations of coal tar.

Skin tumors are associated with coal tar use. There is a clear connection between Benzopyrene and skin cancer. Other types of cancer connected with the exposure to this substance include stomach, colon, bladder, kidney, and lung.

There is inconclusive evidence of a connection between coal tar and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Neurological damage is also recorded. It is linked with the effects of pyridine, one of many compounds that make up coal tar. The symptoms of neurological damage include impaired coordination and sleep disturbances.

The Label

Most health authorities regulate the use of coal tar. The substance is either prohibited or its concentration in cosmetic products is limited (0.5 to 5% in the US).

On the ingredients label, coal tar can be recognized under the following names:

·         Coal

·         Tar

·         Coal tar solution

·         Coal tar solution USP

·         Carbo-cort

·         Crude coal tar

·         Picis carbonis

·         Naphtha

·         Naphtha distillate

·         High solvent naphtha

·         Estar

·         Impervotar

·         KC261

·         Lava tar

·         Petroleum benzin

·         Benzin B70

Fragrance (Perfume)

Fragrance or perfume is a term frequently found on labels of many cosmetic products. Although fragrance is one word it usually stands for a mix of various chemicals. These chemicals are legally not made known to the wider public because the fragrance formulas are considered to be a trade secret. This does not mean that all fragrance ingredients are safe. It is actually well known that some of them are associated with various health issues.

The list of cosmetic products that contain fragrance or perfume is very long. It includes facial creams, lotions, skin toners, makeup, soaps, shampoos, deodorants, perfumes, scrubs, serums, etc

Many chemicals that make up the fragrance mix are responsible for different aspects within the formula. Some of them make up the scent, others stabilize it, make it last longer, and so on. There are thousands of these types of chemicals that fall under the term fragrance.

Health Effects

Chemicals used to produce fragrance have been associated with various health hazards, ranging from sensitivities and allergies to reproductive toxicity and cancer. The fragrance is also linked to gastrointestinal and cardiovascular problems as well as asthma and migraines.

The following is a list of some chemicals commonly found in fragrance formulas along with their health-damaging effects:

·         Benzophenone – Carcinogen

·         BHA – Carcinogen

·         Benzyl Salicylate – Allergen

·         Benzyl Benzoate – Skin and eye irritant

·         Butoxyethanol – Carcinogen and irritant

·         Butylphenyl Methylpropional (Lilial) – Sensitizer

·         Chloromethane – Toxin

·         Dichloromethane – Occupational carcinogen

·         Diethyl Phthalate – Respiratory tract, skin, and eyes irritant

·         Formaldehyde – Carcinogen

·         Methanol – Toxin

·         Oxybenzone – Toxin

·         Titanium Dioxide – Occupational carcinogen

·         Vinyl Acetate – Irritant and carcinogen

·         Synthetic Musk – Toxin

·         Essential Oil Mixture – Potential allergens

The Label

The chemicals which make up the fragrance formula are legally not required to be named independently on the label. They remain hidden behind names such as:

·         Fragrance

·         Parfum

·         Perfume

·         Aroma

·         Essential oil blend

Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde-releasing Preservatives

According to the United States Department of Health, formaldehyde gas is listed as a human carcinogen. This colorless but intensely-smelling gas is usually found in industrially processed wood (walls, furniture, etc.). However, formaldehyde is also an ingredient of some cosmetic products. It can be present there directly, as formaldehyde gas, or indirectly as a product of certain formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs).

Formaldehyde and FRPs are often present in the following cosmetic products: hair gel, soaps, baby shampoos, eyelash glue, nail glue, nail polish, etc

Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are chemicals used to prolong the shelf life of cosmetic products. Slowly and over time, they release small doses of formaldehyde. Higher temperatures and longer storage time can allow FRP-containing products to release higher, health-damaging, amounts of formaldehyde.

FRP’s commonly found in cosmetic products are:

Bromopol – a chemical capable of forming nitrosamines when joined with amines in the same formula. Nitrosamines are chemical compounds associated with skin cancer. Bromopol is found in moisturizers, makeup removers, and nail polish.

Quaternium-15 – the most potent sensitizer of all FRPs. It is found in shampoos, lotions, blush, and mascara.

Glyoxal – a skin allergen, usually a part of nail treatment products formula.

Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate – is associated with causing dermatitis. Hair care products, such as shampoos and conditioners often contain this FRP.

Diazolidinyl Urea, Imidazolidinyl urea, and Polyoxymethylene urea – allergens found in body lotions, antimicrobial products, conditioners, shampoos, and eye shadow. Diazolidinyl urea is known to release the highest amount of formaldehyde.

Health Effects

Many studies associate formaldehyde, especially inhaled formaldehyde, with various cancers. There is scientific evidence to support the claim that formaldehyde boosts, and even initiates, tumor growth. The increased risk of leukemia has also been linked with formaldehyde.

Skin absorption of formaldehyde and its effects have not been thoroughly studied yet, with the exception of FRP Bromopol (explained above). Formaldehyde is also an allergen. It causes allergic reactions of the skin such as rash and contact dermatitis.

The biggest concern for the majority of people is repeated exposure, which can lead to sensitivity and medical issues. For this reason, formaldehyde exposure is considered an occupational hazard, with hair salon and nail salon workers having the highest risk of experiencing health-damage.

The Label

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are labeled under the following names:

·         Formaldehyde

·         Diazolidinyl Urea

·         Imidazolidinyl urea

·         Polyoxymethylene urea

·         Dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin

·         Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate

·         Quaternium-15

·         2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3diol

·         Bromopol

·         Glyoxal

Those products that have not been properly stored (e.g. in the sunlight) or are expired should be especially avoided as they are certain to have an increased concentration of formaldehyde.


Hydroquinone is an aromatic organic compound found mostly in skin bleaching cosmetic products because of its whitening properties. These products are usually marketed to people of color. They include skin lighteners, facial cleansers, hair conditioners, moisturizers, and nail coating products.

Hydroquinone can often be found as an impurity in skin care products containing synthetic Vitamin E (tocopheryl acetate). For its health-damaging effects it is banned in the European Union. However, the United States legislation allows for cosmetic products to contain less than two percent of this chemical.

Health Effects

Hydroquinone achieves its skin whitening effect by decreasing the production of melanin and boosting the degradation of the existing pigment in the skin. Because melanin is the skin’s natural protection against the harmful UVA and UVB radiation its low presence leaves the skin exposed. This vulnerability of the skin significantly increases the risk of skin cancer.

Irritation of the respiratory tract due to exposure to hydroquinone is an occupational hazard. This chemical acts as a potent irritant of the upper respiratory tract (nose and throat) when it is inhaled. A persistent cough and decreased lung capacity are also associated with a longer period of hydroquinone inhalation.

Toxicity due to exposure to high concentrations of hydroquinone over a longer time period can cause eye pigmentation and permanent damage to the cornea. Ochronosis is another condition linked to hydroquinone exposure. This is a skin condition characterized by the bluish-gray coloration and thickening of the skin.

Hydroquinone is equally harmful to all humans. However, women of color are the highest risk of experiencing hydroquinone-related health complications. This is because cosmetic products containing this substance are mainly marketed to them.

The Label

Ingredients labels that contain hydroquinone or tocopheryl acetate indicate that the product might contain this harmful substance. Hydroquinone does not have any health benefits and should be avoided by all.


Triclosan is an anti-bacterial agent and a preservative used in a variety of household items and cosmetic products. Its main roles are the extension of the shelf life of various products and hygiene maintenance. In the past, triclosan was used by surgeons for sanitizing hands prior to surgery.

Recently it has found multiple new applications such as in mattresses, linens, furniture fabric, clothing, shoes, toys, toilet fixtures, and garbage bags. Triclosan is added to prevent the growth of bacteria, mildew, and fungus.

In cosmetics, triclosan has been widely used in deodorants, antiperspirants, antibacterial gels and soaps, toothpaste, facial tissues, and shaving products.

Triclosan has the ability to bio-accumulate and is so wide spread that it is detected in the urine samples of three out of every four tested individuals.

Health Effects

Recent studies have confirmed the existence of triclosan-resistant microorganisms. This discovery is alarming because the mechanism in which triclosan acts against the bacteria is similar to one of the antibiotics. This raises concern that widespread use of triclosan can cause bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics.

Triclosan is also a proven endocrine disruptor. It has the ability to penetrate the skin and interfere with normal hormone function causing a drop in thyroid hormone levels.

Increased endocrine activity is also associated with triclosan exposure. This can result in a boost of the hormone response in breast cancer patients and cause the multiplication of cancer cells (tumor growth).

When triclosan enters the human body it is not easily expelled. It has the ability to accumulate inside the fatty tissue. Certain concentrations of triclosan have been found in umbilical cord blood samples as well as in human milk. These findings are alarming and they demonstrate the need to better understand the possible effects of triclosan on fetal and infant development.

Because of its widespread use, triclosan has made its way through the sewage systems and into the environment. It has also been detected in fish and other aquatic species.

The Label

Various health authorities in the developed world have restricted the use of triclosan in cosmetic products. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies triclosan as a pesticide. Furthermore, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that antibacterial soaps are more efficient in fighting bacteria than normal soaps.

Names triclosan (TSC) and triclocarban (TCC) can be found on the ingredients labels of cosmetic products that contain this chemical.

Final Word

Chemicals are all around us, it is virtually impossible to completely avoid them. Luckily, that is also not necessary as most are found in low doses or highly regulated. With that said, there are still chemicals that are sneaking though the regulatory cracks and effecting our health. It would be beneficial if stricter regulations and additional studies were conducted as information is crucial. Knowing what to look out for is the first and the most important step. When you are choosing a cosmetic product, read the label carefully and make a healthy choice.

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