Like you and me, people across the world use a wide variety of cosmetics and personal care products in their daily lives. We all brush our teeth, wash our skin, and shampoo our hair. Some of us use a lot more products than others. On average, American women use 12 personal care products every single day, totaling 168 different chemicals. American men use an average of six personal care products every day, with 85 different chemicals.
We use everything from moisturizers, deodorants, shampoos, hair dyes, baby powders, and perfumes, to lipstick, nail polish, and other makeup. Most products are applied directly to the skin—the body’s largest organ—where ingredients can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream.
And some ingredients in personal care products aren’t that pretty.
Though most chemicals likely pose little risk, some have been linked to serious health concerns, including cancer, neurological and reproductive harm, and hormone imbalances. Since 2009, cosmetic manufacturers have reported using 88 chemicals that have been linked to cancer, reproductive harm, or birth defects. Those 88 chemicals have been found in over 73,000 products. Though many of these chemicals are added as ingredients, another problem is that cosmetics can be contaminated with harmful compounds such as heavy metals and even asbestos.
Many chemicals pose little or no risk, especially when contained in only minute amounts. However, it’s important to note that repeated exposure—even at low doses!—can interfere with the hormone system and immune system and even cause cancer. The endocrine-disruption chemicals are especially harmful during pregnancy and early development, when the organ and neural systems form in the body.
Some cosmetics can even cause acute risks, such as burns and infections. Formaldehyde-based hair straightening procedures, known as keratin treatments, are one of the worst culprits and have been linked to hair loss, rashes, blisters, nosebleeds, bleeding gums, and loss of taste and smell.
So what’s being done about all of this?
Disclosure is one of the most important factors, and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) requires that all cosmetics have their ingredients listed. However, the act cannot force companies to disclose “trade secrets,” and therefore ingredients in “fragrance,” which can be considered a trade secret, are exempt from federal labeling requirements. Instead, companies can just list the ambiguous word “fragrance” and you’ll have no idea what’s in it.
In terms of regulation, there is not a single category of consumer products that has less government oversight than cosmetics and personal care products. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have authority over medical drugs, foods, and pesticides, but not over personal care products. The only cosmetics legislation is the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), which was enacted in 1938. Of the 829-page act, only two pages govern cosmetics.
In the following eight decades since the FD&C Act, the cosmetics industry has grown dramatically and is now a $532 billion industry. But Congress has not granted the FDA authority to regulate chemicals or contaminants in cosmetics, and so the FDA largely relies on the personal care products industry to regulate itself. Companies are free to use almost any chemical ingredient without having to prove it is safe. They do not have to register with the FDA, provide safety records, or even report adverse incidents. The FDA has no power to order recalls when products pose health risks, and so many products remain on the market even after they’re found to be toxic.
“It’s clear that unregulated personal care products represent a slow-motion public health crisis.”
The United States is far behind other countries in regulation of cosmetics. Internationally, over 40 nations have taken steps to restrict or ban over 1,400 chemical in personal care products. 77% of American consumers want stricter regulations on chemicals in order to ensure their safety. And it seems like some retailers are starting to listen, as many chemicals have been slated for removal from major retailers like Target, Rite Aid, CVS, and Whole Foods. Hopefully we’ll catch up to international standards soon.
In the meantime, what can you do to shop safely?
First off, avoid any chemicals on the David Suzuki Foundation’s Dirty Dozen list.
- BHA and BHT are antioxidants used as preservatives. They are suspected carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and reproductive toxicants, and have the potential to bioaccumulate and cause toxicity to aquatic life.
- Coal tar dyes are colors derived from coal tar. They have been found to irritate skin, damage DNA, and cause cancer, and they are additionally often contaminated with heavy metals. Look for m- and o-phenylenediamine ingredients.
- DEA, TEA, and MEA ingredients are ammonia compounds used as emulsifiers and foaming agents. They have been links to organ and neural system toxicity, skin inflammation, and even cancer in lab animals. Look for diethanolamine (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA) and monoethanolamine (MEA) ingredients.
- Phthalates are widely-used plasticizers and carriers for synthetic fragrance. They are known endocrine disruptors, reproductive and early development toxicants, and suspected carcinogens. Watch out for listed “fragrance,” which may contain hidden phthalates.
- Formaldehyde ingredients can be found in various preservatives. It is a known carcinogen, gastrointestinal and liver toxicant, and neurotoxin. Look for urea, methylene glycol, and quaternium-15.
- Parabens are widely-used preservatives. They are known endocrine disruptors and can lead to impaired fertility and fetal development.
- Fragrance and parfum are often complex mixtures of many chemicals, most of which do not need to be individually disclosed. These ingredients can trigger allergies, migraines, asthma, and irritation, among other health concerns.
- PEG and PPG compounds are petroleum-based chemicals used for thickening and softening. They can cause irritation and system toxicity, and they are penetration enhancers that allow other chemicals to more readily absorb into your skin and body. Look for polyethylene glycol (PEG) and polypropylene glycol (PPG).
- Petrolatum ingredients come from petroleum and are used as emollients and lubricants. They are often contaminated with impurities linked to cancer. Look for petroleum jelly, mineral oil, and paraffin wax.
- Siloxanes are silicone-based products used to soften, smooth, and moisten.They are endocrine disruptors and system and reproductive toxicants.
- Sodium laureate sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate are surfactants used to create foams. They are penetration enhancers and cleansing ingredients that strip natural oils from your skin and can cause irritation.
- Triclosan is an antibacterial, often contaminated with chloroform and dioxins, that has been linked to endocrine disruption, organ toxicity, allergies, and irritation.
This is a lot to remember, and it can be difficult to parse through ingredient lists when you’re not familiar with industrial chemicals. We recommend using Skin Deep, the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s guide to cosmetics, where you can look up individual products for their safety rating before you decide to buy.
And, of course, you can choose to buy from brands that choose natural over toxic chemicals, and voluntarily disclose all of their ingredients. Here are some of our favorites.
Non-Toxic Personal Care Brands
100 Percent Pure creates natural, biodegradable personal care products that are non-toxic and cruelty-free. Sustainability is core to their mission, and they run on solar power and contribute to tree-planting.
Fat and the Moon has a smaller line of personal care products and beauty cosmetics that are all handmade with clean, natural ingredients.
Pacifica uses natural ingredients in its range of personal care products ranging from makeup to skincare to hair care. They are cruelty-free and even have a recycling program to give new life to empty cosmetic packaging.
Elate Cosmetics creates clean, vegan beauty products through cruelty-free and ethical practices. Their ingredients are fair-trade and palm oil-free, and their cosmetic packaging is made from bamboo.
Alima Pure is a cosmetics brand whose products are free of many toxic ingredients and come in the form of refillable compacts. As an added bonus, they offset 100% of their carbon emissions!