When strolling down the skincare aisle, we often look for products that promise good and fast results. Regardless of what a product’s tagline says it will do, its quality is ultimately a function of its ingredients.
Unlike certain foods and drugs, personal care products aren’t required to announce the harmful byproducts and carcinogens they may contain. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may prohibit certain ingredients and misguided labeling, but what goes in your creams and sprays is left to each company’s discretion.
On the whole, cosmetics and personal care products don’t carry the levels of toxins needed to cause cancer. Bigger concerns are skin irritations and lack of proper cosmetic hygiene.
Still, the American Cancer Society says that health risks related to long-term exposure of toxins cannot be completely ruled out.
In addition to cancer, other concerns you may want to be aware of include increased risk of:
- contact dermatitis, or skin irritation
- birth defects in pregnant women
- disrupted hormones in children and adolescents
Read on to learn which ingredients to avoid and what you can do.
Here are the most common chemicals that can be found in cosmetics and personal care products:
1. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
- purpose: antioxidant, preservative, stabilizer, fragrance ingredient
- concerns: skin irritation, hormone disruption
- found in: lipstick, eye shadow, some petroleum products
2. Diethanolamine (DEA)
- purpose: pH adjuster, foaming agent
- concerns: skin irritation, possible organ system toxicity, contamination concerns
- found in: variety of face makeup and hair products
3. Phthalates dibutyl phthalate (DBP), dimethyl phthalate (DMP), and diethyl phthalate (DEP)
- purpose: plasticizer, solvent, fragrance ingredient
- concerns: male reproductive system damage
- found in: nail polish, hair sprays, perfumes, lotions, soaps, shampoos
4. Formaldehyde (formaldehyde releasers: bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, and quaternium-15)
- purpose: preservative
- concerns: carcinogenic impurity, skin irritations, high rates of skin allergy reactions, rashes
- found in: nail products, eyelash glue, hair gel, hair-smoothing products, baby shampoo, body soap, color cosmetics
5. Fragrance (perfume, parfum, essential oil blend, and aroma)
- purpose: chemical combination of a possible 3,000 ingredients to create scents
- concerns: skin irritation, allergic reactions, cancer or reproductive toxicity with long-term exposure
- found in: most personal skincare products
6. PEGs (polyethylene glycol or ceteareth)
- purpose: conditioning and cleaning agents
- concerns: contamination concerns
- found in: variety of skin-care and makeup products
7. Parabens (specifically propyl-, isopropyl-, butyl-, and isobutyl- parabens)
- purpose: preservative
- concerns: hormone-disrupters
- found in: makeup, moisturizers, shampoos, conditioners, lotions, facial and shower cleansers, shaving products, and scrubs
8. Sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate
- purpose: cleansing and emulsifying agent
- concerns: skin irritation, possible impurity contamination
- found in: toothpaste, shampoo, and hand soap
9. Synthetic colors
- purpose: colorants
- concerns: unapproved colors used in products
- found in: all product types
10. Siloxane (ingredients ending in -siloxane or -methicone)
- purpose: softening, smoothing, moisturizing
- concerns: hormone disrupter
- found in: hair products, deodorants
- purpose: antimicrobial agent
- concerns: disrupt thyroid and reproductive hormones, bacterial resistance development
- found in: oral products, shaving products, creams, and color cosmetics
Many products can have contaminants, which are impurities or byproducts of ingredients mixed together. Heavy metals like lead, nickel, and cobalt also fall into this category. These aren’t listed on the label, but the ingredients that create them are. Containments can still be harmful. The FDA has a list of contaminants that they continually monitor among products.
The following ingredients have contamination concerns:
- coal tar
- diethanolamine (DEA)
- butane and isobutane
- petroleum distillates
- polyethylene glycol/ceteareth
It’s unlikely to get cancer from cosmetic use alone. Products that do list carcinogen contaminants like formaldehyde usually contain very small amounts of them. The American Cancer Society notes that the scientific studies behind these claims expose animals to higher doses than we would normally experience. What causes cancer in lab animals may not cause cancer in humans.
Both male and female infertility may result from exposure to hormone-disrupting ingredients. These ingredients can throw off your endocrine system by mimicking or disturbing your hormones’ normal functioning. One review found that low doses may have adverse effects on human health.
Common hormone-disrupting chemicals include:
Infertility in males: According to a 2006 report, animal studies show a link between prenatal exposure to phthalates and male reproductive development. This can lead to male infertility through low sperm count and semen quality.
Female reproductive toxicity: There’s suggestive evidence that increased paraben levels may lead to diminished ovarian reserve, or the ability to be fertile. But more studies are needed to confirm the link.
Birth and pregnancy complications
Controversy exists around the link between retinoid exposure and birth defects. Retinoids treat wrinkles or severe acne. The most recent study on this topic recommends avoiding retinoids during pregnancy.
Some antiaging creams may also contain doses of vitamin A (retinol), which should be avoided in pregnancy. High doses of vitamin A can lead to abnormalities in the baby. If you’re using retinol or retinoid creams, take specific measures to prevent pregnancy.
Contact dermatitis is an umbrella term to describe skin irritation, itchiness, or rash from contact with a foreign substance. Your skin may become irritated if you have sensitive skin, allergies, or use products like with a high percentage of chemicals. Stop product use if you notice any skin changes and see your doctor.
Skin aging: Some ingredients like retinol or alpha hydroxy acids also increase your skin’s photosensitivity and aging process. In studies, the FDA found AHA-treatments for skin exfoliation increased UV skin sensitivity by 18 percent. Once participants stopped treatments their skin sensitivity reversed. Wearing sunscreen can help counteract this.
Other skin disorders
Skin disorders have been linked with skin-bleaching products. One study of 414 women who used skin-lightening products with steroids found that:
- 45 percent developed steroid-induced acne
- 40 percent developed mycoses
- 37 percent developed macular hyperpigmentation
In another study of 425 women, 105 developed dermatophyte infections and 69 developed scabies.
Who is at risk?
Women who are pregnant and breast feeding
Caution and awareness of cosmetic use is important since your body changes during pregnancy. While science hasn’t found a direct link, some chemicals are associated with pregnancy side effects and complications.
One study found that women using skin lighteners with heavy potent steroids had:
- lower plasma cortisol levels
- smaller placentas
- higher rates of low-birth-weight babies
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should also avoid hydroquinone, a skin lightening ingredient. Your system absorbs 35 to 45 percent of hydroquinone after topical use, which is higher than other ingredients.
Young children and teenagers
For children and adolescents, the biggest concern is long-term exposure to hormone disrupters that may lead to abnormal growth development. Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) study tested 20 female teenagers for common chemicals. They found that each teenage had an average of 10 to 15 chemicals in her body.
But exposure to these chemicals comes from multiple sources, including cosmetics and food. There have been no direct links between cosmetics use and higher chemical exposure.
Chemicals that are less common in your everyday products, but still have links to increased risks include:
- petroleum distillates (skin irritation)
- coal tar (potential carcinogen and toxin)
- toluene (skin reaction, birth defects, reduced fertility)
- hydroquinone (skin darkening and disfiguration)
- resorcinol (skin irritant)
- oxybenzone and octinoxate (skin irritation, hormone disrupter)
- boric acid and sodium borate (skin irritation, hormone disrupter)
- butane and isobutane (possible contaminant for carcinogen)
- p-Phenylenediamine (skin irritation)
- ingredients that end with -linone (skin irritant and toxin)
- carbon black (toxic)
- PABA (cellular changes)
- talcum (may contain carcinogens)
These ingredients may be listed in all beauty and personal care products, including nail products, shaving creams, sunscreens, and soaps.
Did you know that products list their ingredients in descending order of concentration in the product? Most of the time water is the first listed ingredient, which means water has the highest concentration in the product. More effective products usually list their active ingredient first. Look for products that list healthy ingredients in the beginning. If you can’t find a product that’s free of unwanted ingredients, you can buy ones listing these ingredients further down.
To ensure safe products, buy from reputable companies that use quality testing and be aware of different regulations if you buy from overseas. There are also apps like Think Dirty or EWG’s Healthy Living you can download. These apps help you search for safer products when you shop.