The Toxic 15: Harmful Chemicals in Makeup, Skincare, and More

According to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, personal care products expose the average person in the United States to over a hundred chemicals daily, many of which remain unregulated and untested. The ingredients in these products can be misleadingly labeled, making it difficult for consumers to know what they are exposing themselves to.

Chemical exposure contributes to several health issues, including rising rates of breast cancer, asthma, autism, and reproductive problems. Under an outdated law from 1938, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has limited power to regulate the chemical ingredients in personal care products. Although some American companies are changing their practices due to consumer pressure, a need for improving legislation to regulate the industry persists.


Toxins in Personal Care Products

The following are some potentially harmful chemicals in your shampoos, soaps, cosmetics, and other personal care products.


1. Parabens

Parabens are a class of chemicals used as preservatives in shampoo, conditioner, moisturizers, makeup, shaving products, and many more. A growing body of clinical evidence demonstrates the chemical’s ability to stimulate the mechanisms of normal breast cells, leading to an increased risk of breast cancer.


2. Coal Tar

According to Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, coal tar is a prevalent ingredient in several makeup, medication, and personal care products. Exposure to or contact with this chemical can cause skin tumors to develop. In addition, coal tar may contribute to the occurrence of cancer in the lung, kidneys, bladder, and digestive tract.


3.  Lead

Lead is a neurotoxin linked to developmental delays, behavioral problems, and lung, stomach, and urinary malignancies. Unfortunately, this heavy metal is a common ingredient in lipsticks and other cosmetics.


4. Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate (Octinoxate)

Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate is a sunscreen agent that protects skin from the sun’s harmful UVB rays. While it may help protect against sun damage and skin cancer, researchers concluded that ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate has genotoxic properties that may damage human DNA and lead to malignant transformation over time.

The FDA is currently conducting further tests to determine octinoxate’s safety. Still, sunscreens with this active ingredient remain available for purchase in stores.


5. Phthalates

Phthalates are chemicals found in hundreds of products, including soaps, shampoos, and hair sprays, warns the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Regular exposure to these chemicals may lead to reproductive problems and other health concerns.


6. Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a flammable, strong-smelling chemical used in construction materials and to manufacture many household products. Classified as a human carcinogen, why formaldehyde is also an ingredient in personal care products is puzzling, considering even small concentrations of the chemical are enough to trigger a reaction in people with weakened immune systems.


7. Mercury

This heavy metal is sometimes present in skin-lightening creams and other cosmetics. Mercury is a neurotoxin that, when inhaled, can produce harmful effects on the nervous system, digestive tract, immune system, lungs, and kidneys. 


8. Methylisothiazolinone (MIT)

This preservative used in many personal care products may be hard to pronounce, but research shows it is even harder on the body. Although the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) does not classify MIT as a known, probable, or possible carcinogen, it is “moderately to highly acutely toxic in oral, dermal, eye irritation, dermal irritation, and inhalation acute toxicity studies,” shares the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA).


9. Benzophenone

Because of its floral scent, in personal care products, benzophenone is a fragrance enhancer or an ingredient that prevents soaps and other personal hygiene products from losing scents and colors when exposed to ultraviolet light. However, according to The California EPA’s Proposition 65, benzophenone is a human carcinogen.


10. Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)

BHA is a synthetic antioxidant that serves as a preservative in many personal care products and consumables. BHA has associated health risks, with the National Toxicology Program referring to it as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” BHA is an endocrine disruptor, which can lead to developmental malformations, disturbances in the nervous and immune system function, interference with reproduction, and increased cancer risk.


11. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

A surfactant used in shampoos, body washes, and toothpaste, exposure to SLS has been linked to skin irritation and organ toxicity. In 2015, researchers found that sodium lauryl sulfate absorbs into the bloodstream and accumulates in the heart, lungs, liver, and brain, causing life-threatening damage over time.


12. Retinyl Palmitate

The Environmental Working Group revealed that excessive exposure or application of preformed vitamin A, which includes popular anti-aging agents like retinol and retinyl palmitate, can cause liver damage, hair loss, dry and brittle nails, bone diseases, and hip fractures in adults.


13. Oxybenzone

Oxybenzone is a hazardous petrochemical found in 70 percent of sunscreens sold in the US. It can enter the bloodstream following application, causing a myriad of health issues in adults and children. In particular, exposure may cause the following problems, although further research is necessary to confirm how oxybenzone harms the body:


  • Hirschsprung’s disease
  • Skin and Respiratory tract irritation
  • Eye irritation
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Organ toxicity
  • Increased cancer risk


14. Toluene

This clear and colorless volatile organic compound (VOC) is commonly used in nail polishes. It may cause nerve damage, skin inflammation, liver and kidney damage, among others. Since 30 percent of the population struggles to control their nail-biting tendencies (even with nail polish on), ingesting toluene and experiencing its adverse health effects is more common than most people know.


15. Triclosan

Triclosan is an antimicrobial agent in deodorants, soaps, toothpaste, and other personal hygiene products. Despite its antibacterial properties, triclosan is an endocrine-disrupting chemical that can wreak havoc on hormone functions.


Takeaway: Chemicals to Avoid in Skincare and Cosmetics

Many personal care products contain toxic chemicals that can have long-term effects on our health and well-being. Consumers may be unaware of the risks associated with the products they use every day, as ingredient labels can be misleading, and some companies conceal problematic ingredients in proprietary formulations. While more and more American companies are beginning to change their practices and formulations, the road toward improving legislation and regulation in the industry remains long and rutted.


As consumers, we must educate ourselves on the risks associated with certain ingredients and choose safer alternatives. By advocating for non-toxic products and better regulations, we can work toward a future where personal care products are both effective and safe for everyone.

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