Toxic Chemicals in Cosmetics

by | Nov 21, 2019 | Health


  • Approximately 12 individual products are used by females on a daily basis.
  • Up to 60% of the products are absorbed by the skin.
  • Several chemicals found in skin care products have dangerous health and hormonal consequences.
  • Personal care products are highly unregulated by the FDA.
  • Chemicals include parabens, formaldehyde, sodium laurel sulfate, petroleum, coal tar, phthalates, propylene glycol, and fragrance/perfume.

Daily, Americans are exposed to several of the eighty thousand chemicals currently used in the United States, few of which are effectively examined for their health effects. (1)

Skincare products are very common. Approximately 12 individual care products are used by most females daily, several of them comprising different dangerous ingredients typically in chemical forms.

Currently, Skincare experts have assembled a list of the dangerous ingredients that beauty and skincare products contain. They look for them on the labels of all skincare products and study the relationship concerning these ingredients and certain health complications.

In different pieces of upsetting analyses, it revealed that up to sixty percent of the chemicals in products are being absorbed by the skin. In due course, they come into direct contact with the bloodstream.

Just like what we consume, what we apply on the skin should as well be harmless and healthy, but most individuals are unconscious of the circumstances.

Even while using minor quantities of the product, several of the chemicals usually found may post have tremendous health and hormonal effect, and people are a long way from being thoughtful about the

Increasing information of scientific evidence indicates that even the least quantity of some chemicals can be dangerous, as well as those found in commercial products such as cosmetics, personal care products, cleaning products, and children’s products and toys.

Personal care products are highly unregulated and the FDA does not have pre-approval procedures for most products. (1)

Common harmful skincare ingredients

toxic skincare products


Parabens are commonly used preservatives which used to prevent the growth of certain organisms found in cosmetic products such as bacteria, mold, and yeast. Parabens have estrogen-mimicking properties that are linked with a high probability of breast cancer.

These chemicals are absorbed via the skin and have been detected in tissue removal samples from breast tumors. They are used for makeup, body washes, deodorants, shampoos, and facial cleansers.

And besides, they are found in food and pharmaceutical products. Phenoxyethanol, sodium benzoate, benzoic acid, and benzyl alcohol are the most likely alternatives for parabens. (2)


Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling gas used in building materials and several household products. It is used in glues and adhesives, pressed-wood products, such as plywood, particleboard, and fiberboard, paper product coatings, permanent-press fabrics, hair care products, especially, hair straightening keratin treatments, and certain insulation materials.

It is also used to make other chemicals such as fungicide, germicide, and disinfectant, and as a preservative in mortuaries and medical laboratories. (3, 4)

Formaldehyde also occurs naturally in the environment. It is manufactured in small amounts by humans and many other living organisms as part of normal metabolic processes. Formaldehyde can be added as a preservative to food, but it can also be produced as a result of cooking and smoking. (3)

Formaldehyde and other substances that discharge formaldehyde is occasionally used in low concentrations in cosmetics and other personal care products like lotions, shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, and some fingernail polishes. These can increase the concentration of formaldehyde in the room atmosphere for a short period, but the levels reached are way below what is considered to be harmful. (3)

According to a 1997 report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, formaldehyde exists generally in both indoor and outdoor atmospheres at low levels, usually less than 0.03 amounts of formaldehyde per million parts of air (ppm). Substances containing formaldehyde can discharge formaldehyde vapor or gas into the atmosphere. One major source of formaldehyde exposure in the air is automobile exhaust emissions. (3,4)

During the 1970s, urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) was used in several households. Though, few homes are now protected with UFFI. Homes that have UFFI installed several years ago are unlikely to possess high formaldehyde levels today. Pressed-wood products containing formaldehyde resins are frequently a major source of formaldehyde in homes.

Other likely indoor sources of formaldehyde consist of cigarette smoke and the use of unvented fuel-burning appliances, like gas stoves, wood-burning stoves, and kerosene heaters can also increase formaldehyde levels indoors. (3,4)

Industrial workers who produce formaldehyde or formaldehyde-containing products, lab technicians, certain health care professionals, and mortuary employees can be exposed to higher levels of formaldehyde than the general public. Exposure occurs mostly by breathing in formaldehyde gas or vapor from the atmosphere or when the skin absorbs liquids containing formaldehyde. (4)

Health Complications

When formaldehyde is present in the air at levels higher than 0.1 parts per million (ppm), certain individuals may have health effects, such as:

  • watery eyes
  • eyes, throat, and nose burning sensation
  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • nausea
  • skin irritation

Some individuals are very sensitive to formaldehyde, but others do not react to the same exposure level. Formaldehyde in consumer products such as cosmetics and lotions can cause an allergic reaction in the skin (allergic contact dermatitis), which can cause an itchy, red rash which may result in raised or develops blisters.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) / Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), also known as sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium dodecyl sulfate, is an anionic surfactant normally used as an emulsifying cleaning agent in domestic cleaning products (laundry detergents, spray cleaners, and dishwasher detergents, toothpaste, face wash, hair products). (5) This is what forms the foam.

The concentration of SLS found in consumer products varies by product and manufacturer but typically ranges from 0.01% to 50% in cosmetic products (6,7) and 1% to 30% in cleaning products. (8,9) SLS can be synthetic or naturally derived.

This chemical is synthesized by reacting lauryl alcohol from a petroleum or plant source with sulfur trioxide to produce hydrogen lauryl sulfate, which is then neutralized with sodium carbonate to produce SLS. (10)

Individuals can be exposed to SLS by using products that comprise the ingredient. Exposure to SLS from domestic cleaning products can be determined by the regularity of domestic cleaning activities, which is reported as being one to two times weekly on average. (13)The intentional use of detergents and cleaners should not lead to direct contact with product ingredients, however, misapplication of the product might result in dermal (skin and ocular) or inhalation exposure. (13)

Oral exposure to cleaning products is not likely but can occur, especially in children due to accidental ingestion. (14) Due to the consistent use of cleaning products, the delivered dose of SLS from dermal or inhalation exposure will likely be minimal assuming the low volatility and dermal absorption rate of SLS. (11,12)

From the early 1990s, misunderstood information on the human and environmental toxicity of SLS has resulted in consumer confusion and concern about the safety of SLS as an ingredient in household products. (15) As scientific collected works are inherently in danger of misunderstanding by the general public, health and safety assertions made by marketing promotions don’t at all times align with the most recent peer-reviewed scientific confirmation.

Evaluation of the human and ecological toxicity profiles of SLS is necessary to clarify the identified risks and benefits of using SLS in domestic cleaning product formulation.


Petrolatum or petroleum jelly, derived from petroleum, it is a byproduct of refining petroleum with a melting point that is approximately the body temperature. It is regularly used in personal care products as a moisturizing agent; petrolatum softens when applied and forms a water-repellant film around the area of application, generating an effective barrier to prevent the evaporation of the skin’s natural moisture and foreign constituent part or microorganisms that can cause infection. (17,18)

Petrolatum is odorless and colorless, and it has a naturally long shelf life. These petrolatum qualities make it a common ingredient in skincare products and cosmetics.

When appropriately refined, petrolatum has no identified health risk. Though, if the petrolatum is not fully refined it can be contaminated with toxic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

PAHs are byproducts of organic material combustion, generally stored in fats upon exposure due to its lipophilic properties. (19) There is no method to check proper refinement except a comprehensive refining history is provided.

Health Concerns:

Cancer is the major concern with petrolatum is the probable infection with PAHs. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) considers PAHs as a class to contain rationally estimated carcinogens, (20) the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists fourteen PAHs as likely or probable carcinogens and one PAH as an identified carcinogen. (21)

Research on Long Island, NY, establish that females with high levels of PAH-DNA adducts had a fifty percent greater possibility of breast cancer. (22) PAH-DNA adducts formation also a PAH exposure indicator, is associated with cancer development. (23)

What to look for on the label?

Petrolatum, Petroleum Jelly, Mineral Oil, White Petrolatum (refined and safe for application), and Paraffin Oil

REGULATIONS: The EU decrees that for cosmetic applications, the complete refining account of the petrolatum must be known and confirmed to be non-carcinogenic. No requirements for refinement are established in the United States and the PAH content in the petrolatum used in personal care products. (24)

Aminophenol, Diaminobenzene, Phenylenediamine (Coal Tar)

Found in: hair dye, shampoo

Coal tar, a byproduct of coal processing, coal tar hair dyes, and other coal tar ingredients (including aminophenol, diaminobenzene, and phenylenediamine). (25)

It appears odd to some individuals that coal tar is included in beauty products, but it’s shockingly widespread. On ingredient lists, the ingredients labeled as aminophenol, diaminobenzene, or phenylenediamine is still included in hair dyes and shampoos currently. In the early 1900s, coal tar was prominent in mascara formulations, and some females supposedly became blind after exposure. According to the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, it’s a cancer-causing chemical known as a carcinogen. (26)

Even though all of Europe has forbidden the use of these ingredients in hair dyes, the United States has not engaged in such a step yet and the FDA approves its use in dandruff and psoriasis shampoos. Be cautious while reading the labels on hair care products, and if you get your hair professionally dyed, ensure to enquire from the colorist the kind of dye they use. (25, 26)


A collection of chemicals applied in hundreds of products for maximizing the elasticity and flexibility of plastics and vinyl. The primary phthalates in cosmetics and individual care products are dimethyl phthalate in hairspray, diethyl phthalate in perfumes & lotions, and dibutyl phthalate in nail polish. (27)

Phthalates are used in many consumer products, including:

  • Cosmetics and personal care products
  • Plastic and vinyl toys
  • Shower curtains
  • Mini-blinds and wallpaper
  • Vinyl flooring
  • Raincoats
  • Food packaging and wraps
  • Detergents
  • Adhesives
  • Plastic pipes
  • Medical equipment and devices
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics
  • Hair Care
  • Skincare
  • Body care

Health Complications:

The health effects of exposure to phthalates are not yet entirely identified but are being reached by numerous government agencies. One phthalate, Di (2-Ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), is an endocrine disruptor and possibly will cause cancer. Certain phthalates can affect human reproduction or growth. (27)

Phthalates had been used to manufacture pacifiers, soft rattles, and teething rings. But since 1999, it has not been permitted in those products. (27)

Propylene Glycol

Also known as, propanediol, an organic compound that is a clear, colorless, and hygroscopic liquid consisting of propane and hydroxyl groups. It is readily absorbed in the body. This agent is metabolized by the liver, specifically and an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase which converts it to lactate. Primarily lactate leads to metabolic acidosis. Moisturizers, makeup products, shampoos, conditioners, hairspray, and sunscreen contain propylene glycol and function as a humectant or an emollient.

Unfortunately, it can also be found in our food as a “flavoring agent” or a solvent. It’s a minor organic alcohol composite that is used as a skin conditioning agent. It is categorized as a skin irritant and penetrator which may result in hives and dermatitis. (28) Additionally, it is found in solvents for oral intravenous, and topical pharmaceuticals, however, generally considered safe. In large doses can be very toxic.

Health Complications

  • Hyperosmolality
  • Increased risk of metabolic acidosis
  • Acute Kidney injury
  • Sepsis like syndrome


Fragrance and toxic chemicals

A truly shady one here, for the reason that it can only be seen listed as Fragrance or Parfum on the label, for legitimately a company is not required to reveal their ‘secret formula’. Artificial fragrances have been acknowledged to affect the body’s hormone reactions, leading to dermatitis and lung disease. [29]

According to EWG, there are about 14 secret chemicals that are not listed in fragrance and ~80% of them are not being tested for safety by the FDA for use in personal care products. In the 70s and 80s, more ingredients were used such as herbs and flowers.

Unfortunately, today fragrance and perfumes are 95-100% synthetic. Toulene, a hazardous waste labeled by the EPA is volatile and flammable. It is often found in nail polishes and skincare products.

Health Complications

  • Central nervous system disorders
  • Dizziness, nausea, vomiting
  • Slurred Speech and drowsiness
  • Irritation of the mouth, nose, and throat
  • Effects the function of lungs and kidneys
  • Respiratory failure, ataxia, and fatigue

One of the challenges I faced when I was a cosmetologist was working around chemicals. The strongest one was hair straightening products which contained formaldehyde, among many other chemicals, and I used to wear a face mask.

On the positive note, there is an increased awareness of these harmful chemicals now and there are many cleaner toxin-free alternatives in the market.


  1. Try to look for products that are simple in ingredients, names you can pronounce, and at least free of the top 8 harmful agents.
  2. There are many more toxins but this is a great start to a cleaner you. Minimizes your toxic load and take care of your beautiful body.
  3. Check out the beauty page if you are just starting on your journey to switch to toxic-free.
  4. Skin issues are often associated with gut issues and allergies/sensitives, so it is a good idea to get the gut checked. Schedule your free consultation to see how I can help you. 

About Me

Hi, I’m a registered dietitian. It’s my personal mission to offer clear and easy to understand information and actions that will increase your depth of knowledge and make optimizing your health a breeze. Happy reading!


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