Chemicals in Cosmetics: The Forgotten Toxins

What price do we pay for beauty? We certainly spend a lot of money on cosmetics, that's for sure. The U.S. cosmetics industry brought in nearly $60 billion in revenue last year. But are we paying the ultimate price with our health? When George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” we're pretty sure he wasn't referring to cosmetics. Still, the adage works well for some of the more questionable beauty practices over the ages. Consider these ill-advised beauty trends from past centuries: 

  • Ancient Egyptians used eye makeup consisting of different metals, including lead.
  • Ancient Greeks applied lead to their faces to clear the complexion and improve skin color.
  • Romans used white lead to lighten the face and used red lead to add a touch of “rosiness.” They also dyed their hair using lead-based substances. 
  • During the Renaissance, both men and women used lead mixtures to bleach their skin.
  • In the 19th and early 20th centuries, lead lurked in many cosmetics, along with mercury and carbolic acid.
  • In the 1930s, potentially deadly substances still appeared in beauty products, such as Lash Lure, an eyelash dye that caused 16 cases of blindness and one death.

Some seventy years later, in 2007, cosmetic safety concerns arose yet again with the finding that one-third of 33 red lipsticks tested had potentially hazardous lead levels. Perhaps we are not as advanced as we think.1

Danger Lurks in Makeup Bags

Plenty of unsavory ingredients show up in everyday beauty products. Some of the more common culptrits include:

  • BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are preservatives that appear in many moisturizers and makeup products. They may cause cancer and disrupt the endocrine system. Additionally, when they get into the ecosystems, they harm fish and other wildlife. A healthier alternative is Vitamin E.
  • Coal tar dyes mostly show up in in hair-coloring products. Mostly derived from petroleum, they are known carcinogens, and may contain harmful heavy metals as well.  When coloring hair, look for herbal-based dyes free of ammonia, peroxide, PPDs (para-phenylenediamines), coal tar, lead, toluene, and resorcinol.
  • Phthalates are mainly used as plasticizers and show up in nail care items, eye shadows, blushes, mascara, nail polish and some fragrances, and they may disrupt the endocrine system. To help avoid them, consider using fragrance-free cosmetics.
  • Parabens, preservatives used in makeup and perfume, are also suspected endocrine disrupters and have been identified in biopsy samples from breast tumors. Look for cosmetics with natural preservatives such as grapefruit seed extract, citric acid, ascorbic acid and rosemary extract.
  • Sodium laureth sulfate makes cosmetics and cleansers soft and foamy but may be 1,4-dioxane contaminated, making it a possible cause of cancer. One possible substitute is sodium coco sulfate, made from coconut oil, often used in homemade beauty products.
  • Triclosan, classified as a pesticide, appears in antibacterial cleansers, toothpastes and more. It is a suspected endocrine disrupter and thyroid hormone disrupter, in addition to being a contributor to increasing antibiotic resistance. If you want antibacterial properties, consider essential oils such as thyme, lavender, peppermint and rosemary. Note: Essential oils often need to be diluted in order to be safe to use.
  • Lead, found in various beauty products, is a proven neurotoxin. It leads to learning, language and behavioral difficulties, in addition to causing miscarriage and reducing fertility. Avoid it at all costs.

Tracking Beauty Product Contents

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibits a relatively small number of substances from inclusion in beauty products, espcially when compared to other countries. FDA regulations ban less than a dozen chemicals from cosmetics and beauty products.2

  • Bithionol, an anti-parasitic drug, may cause irritation upon exposure to sunlight.
  • Chlorofluorocarbon propellants, which damage the ozone layer.
  • Chloroform, which may cause cancer, although residual amounts.
  • Halogenated salicylanilides (di-, tri-, metabromsalan and tetrachlorosalicylanilide), which may cause serious skin problems.
  • Hexachlorophene, a preservative, is toxic and penetrates human skin. The FDA allows its use only when no other preservative is effective, but it may not exceed 0.1 percent and may not be used in cosmetics that are applied to mucous membranes.
  • Mercury is another preservative that is also a neurotoxin.
  • Methylene chloride is a solvent used in aerosol products such as hairspray. It causes cancer in animals.
  • Prohibited cattle materials that may carry bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as "mad cow disease."
  • Vinyl chloride used in aerosols, contributes to cancer and other health problems.
  • Zirconium-containing complexes, used in aerosols, have a toxic effect on lungs of animals, as well as the formation of granulomas in human skin.

Granted, these are some nasty substances. However, they are few in number. The FDA takes the stance that manufacturers cannot include any harmful ingredients that pose a risk when the item is used as intended, which give manufacturers a lot of wiggle room in terms of ‘harmful” ingredients. Some liken the situation to the fox guarding the henhouse.

Do the Europeans Have It Right?

The European Commission Health and Consumers site lists at least 1,377 substances prohibited from inclusion in cosmetic products.3 The reason for the vast difference in prohibited substances between U.S. and European agencies perhaps comes down to the definition used for a cosmetic. The FDA defines a cosmetic as:

articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body...for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance" FD&C Act, sec. 201(i).

Compare that to the European Union Cosmetics Directive (EUCD) definition of cosmetics:

…any substance or preparation intended to be placed in contact with the various external parts of the human body (epidermis, hair system, nails, lips and external genital organs) or with the teeth and the mucous membranes of the oral cavity with a view exclusively or mainly to cleaning them, perfuming them, changing their appearance, and/or correcting body odours and/or protecting them or keeping them in good condition.

American Beauty

Relying on claims of “all-natural” or even “organic” still provides no guarantee of avoiding harmful substances. Consider these tips instead:

  • If you are a natural food devotee, use the same approach with cosmetics as with food products. Look for items with few ingredients, preferably ones you can pronounce and identify without the use of Google.
  • Choose fragrance-free products or ones that fully list fragrance ingredients.
  • Make your own makeup. For instance, The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics provides some good DIY cosmetic recipes.
  • Use salons, spas and manicurists that use safer products.

No one says you must memorize an endless list of harmful cosmetic ingredients. Nonetheless, the more educated consumers are, the better choices they can make about what to avoid.  


  1. Dickler, Jessica. "Group: Lipsticks Test Positive for Lead." CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 12 Oct. 2007. Web. 09 Mar. 2015. <>.
  2. "Prohibited & Restricted Ingredients." U.S. Food and Drug Administration. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2015.<
  3. "List of Substances Prohibited in Cosmetic Products." CosIng. European Commission, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2015. <

This article is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to be used as or substituted for medical advice.  Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified health care provider with any questions about your health or a medical condition.  Never disregard or delay seeking medical advice because of something you have read on the internet.