Natural Life Magazine

Ask Natural Life:
Chemicals in Our Cosmetics:
Is It Only Skin Deep?
by Wendy Priesnitz

chemicals in our cosmetics
Photo (c) Hemera Technologies/

Q: I recently switched to a new brand of deodorant and broke out in a rash. When I stopped using it, the rash went away. Do you think I was simply allergic to it or could there be harmful materials in it? I couldn’t find anything on the label. And that got me wondering about any potential environmental issues as well. 

A: Your concern is well-placed. There are no health studies required for cosmetic and personal care products in the United States and Canada. And since we use an average of 10 such products per day, possibly involving over 100 chemical ingredients, they are cause for concern in terms of both human health and the environment, whether they are absorbed through our skin, rinsed down the drain or flushed down the toilet after working their way through our bodies. 

Studies finding disruption in the hormone systems of wildlife due to common water pollutants usually include personal care products, rinsed down drains and into rivers, as a major cause. As for personal health, the experts say that the amount of chemical found in any one consumer product is unlikely to cause harm when used once, except to the most sensitive individuals. In fact, that’s the argument used by the cosmetic industry to justify chemical ingredients in their products. But we use personal care products daily, often without much thought, and are repeatedly and regularly exposed to industrial chemicals from many other different sources. 

Some chemicals found in a variety of cosmetics – including phthalates, acrylamide, formaldehyde and ethylene oxide – are listed by EPA and the state of California as carcinogens or reproductive toxins.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has researched and advocated on personal care product safety for five years now. It has compiled an electronic database of ingredient labels for 14,100 name-brand products and cross-linked it with 37 toxicity or regulatory databases. They found that more than one-third of all personal care products contains at least one ingredient linked to cancer, that 57 percent of all products contain “penetration enhancer” chemicals that can drive other ingredients faster and deeper into the skin to the blood vessels below and that 79 percent of all products contain ingredients that may contain harmful impurities like known human carcinogens. Impurities are legal and unrestricted for the personal care product industry.

Incredibly, the EWG estimates that the industry has publicly assessed only 11 percent of the 10,500 ingredients the government has documented in personal care products.

Phthalates – a group of industrial chemical plasticizers linked to birth defects that are used in many cosmetic products from nail polish to deodorant – are of particular concern. Last summer, when scientists published a study finding a relationship between phthalates and feminization of U.S. male babies, they named fragrance as a possible culprit. Phthalates are not listed as ingredients on product labels; they can only be detected through laboratory analysis. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) – a coalition of environmental, social justice, and consumer groups – has found that two-thirds of health and beauty products recently analyzed by the FDA contained phthalates. Two of the most toxic phthalates, DBP and DEHP, have been banned from cosmetics products sold in the European Union (EU) but remain unregulated in the US.

Another class of harmful chemicals commonly found in cosmetics is parabens, short for “para hydroxy-benzoate.” Parabens have been identified as estrogenic and disruptive of normal hormone function. These preservatives are widely used in cosmetics, particularly nail polish. Estrogenic chemicals mimic the function of the naturally occurring hormone estrogen and exposure to external estrogens has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer. When parabens were found in human breast tumor tissue recently, researchers questioned if deodorant was the source.

Half of all cosmetic products contain added fragrance, complex mixtures of chemicals, some persistent, some neuro-toxic and some newly found to harm wildlife.

Fragrance is another big problem. EWG’s research also shows that 50 percent of all products on the market contain added fragrance – complex mixtures of chemicals, some persistent, some neurotoxic and some newly found to harm wildlife. Researchers at Stanford University published work in 2004 showing that mussels lost their ability to clear their bodies of poisons when exposed to parts-per-billion levels of common fragrance musks.

The American Academy of Dermatology says that more than 5,000 different fragrances are used in perfumes and skin products, in hundreds of chemical combinations. But because the chemical formulas of fragrances are considered trade secrets, companies aren’t required to list their ingredients. Twenty years ago, the National Academy of Sciences targeted fragrances as one of the six categories of chemicals that should be given high priority for neurotoxicity testing. Their report states that 95 percent of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum.

They include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and many other known toxics and sensitizers. Propylene glycol is a common ingredient in fragrances and is considered an immunotoxic chemical. Others include cyclohexanol, which has a depressive action on the central nervous system; linalool, which has been shown to provoke ataxic gait, depression and respiratory disturbances; methyl ethyl ketone, which can induce unconsciousness, emphysema, congestion of the liver and kidneys, eye, nose and throat irritation, and numbness of the extremities; and formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen with many other damaging traits.

Although the U.S. FDA does not require safety testing on cosmetics, they do require companies to post a warning label on personal care products that have not been safety tested. After pressure from the EWG, the EPA warned companies to comply with the law or face persecution. Should companies comply, EWG estimates that over 99 percent of cosmetic products would have to be labeled.

According to Health Canada’s Cosmetics Programme, “only ingredients that do not pose an unreasonable health and safety risk to the Canadian public, when used according to directions, are allowed in cosmetic products.” Like the U.S., cosmetic companies are not required to submit information on the safety of their products or ingredients, but merely to notify Health Canada of the ingredients. To help cosmetic manufacturers satisfy this requirement, Health Canada has developed the Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist – a list of substances that are restricted and prohibited in cosmetics. Changes are underway to Canada’s Cosmetics Regulation that will require companies to notify consumers of the full ingredients of cosmetic products.

Under pressure from lobby groups (including cancer prevention organizations, which are, ironically, often supported by cosmetic companies), the industry seems to be cleaning up its act voluntarily. L’Oréal, Revlon, Unilever, Avon, Procter and Gamble and Estée Lauder have said they have removed phthalates from their products.

In 2003, the European Union passed an amendment to its Cosmetics Directive, which requires companies doing business in Europe to eliminate chemicals that are known or strongly suspected of being carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxins. Of the thousands of questionable chemicals in these products, the directive targets about 450. (Compare that to the nine chemicals the FDA has banned or restricted in personal care products.)

In the face of no federal regulation of cosmetic ingredients, California followed the EU’s lead and passed the California Safe Cosmetic Act of 2005. This bill requires manufacturers selling cosmetic products in California to provide the state Department of Health Services with a list of their products and to identify products that contain chemicals identified as carcinogens or reproductive toxins. The bill faced tough opposition from major cosmetics companies, including Mary Kay.

You might be able to avoid harmful ingredients in cosmetics and other personal care products used by your family by choosing brands that are certified organic. However, be cautious because nowhere does the idea of “natural” or “organic” take a more gratuitous bruising than in the skin care industry. A product is not guaranteed to be nature just because the label contains the phrase “derived from …(some natural substance).”

What To Do About Chemicals in Cosmetics

Here are some things you can do to protect you and your family from ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products that may pose risks:

  • Use fewer products. Is there something you can cut from your daily routine, or a product you can use less often? By cutting down on the number of chemicals contacting your skin every day, you will reduce any potential health risks associated with your products.
  • Read labels. Marketing claims on personal care products are not defined under the law, and can mean anything or nothing at all, including claims like organic, natural, hypoallergenic, animal cruelty free and fragrance free. Read the ingredient label carefully to find evidence that the claims are true.
  • Use milder soaps. Soap removes dirt and grease from the surface of your skin, but also strips away your body’s own natural skin oils. Choosing a milder soap may reduce skin dryness and your need for moisturizers to replace oils your skin can provide naturally.
  • Minimize or eliminate your use of dark hair dyes. Many contain coal tar ingredients that have been linked to cancer in some studies.
  • Cut down on your use of powders; avoid the use of baby powder on newborns and infants. A number of ingredients common in powder have been linked to cancer and other lung problems when they are inhaled. FDA warns that powders may cause lung damage if inhaled regularly.
  • Choose products that are fragrance free. Fragrances can cause allergic reactions. Products that claim to be “fragrance free” on the packaging may not be. They could contain masking fragrances that give off a neutral odor. Read the ingredient label – in products truly free of fragrance, the word “fragrance” will not appear there.
  • Reduce or eliminate your use of nail polish. It’s one of the few types of products that routinely contains ingredients linked to birth defects. Paint your toenails and skip the fingernails. Paint nails in a well-ventilated room, or outside, or avoid using nail polish altogether, particularly when you are pregnant. 

Information provided by the Environmental Working Group

Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over 40 years of experience. She has also authored 13 books.


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