Avoid these common — yet counterproductive or worse — cosmetic chemicals
Appearance matters to society and self-image, but are you willing to risk your health for it?
Given our beauty-obsessed culture, it's no surprise that America hosts the biggest cosmetics market in the world.
In 2015, Americans spent more than $80 billion on cosmetics — beauty, hair care, and skin care products.
That’s almost five times more than what Americans spent that year for cheese — or for computers and video games combined.
Sadly, many cosmetic products contain ingredients that range from concerning to toxic.
Read labels to avoid undesirable ingredients like the 12 reviewed below. If one or more appears on the label, think twice and look for alternatives.
Before delving into the dirty dozen, let's take a quick look at natural and organic alternatives.
Note: In the next issue of Vital Choices, we’ll review two remarkable ocean-source agents — natural wonders whose benefits extend well beyond skin and beauty.
Natural and organic alternatives
It’s not hard to find cosmetic products labeled “natural” or “organic”.
While some such products warrant the halo that hovers over those terms, neither is a guarantee of purity.
In fact, many products labeled natural or organic contain one or more of the undesirable ingredients covered below.
But the ingredients on cosmetics product labels are listed from highest percentage to lowest. which makes it easier to pick the purest products.
Look for product labels on which synthetic ingredients — if any — appear at the bottom of the list.
Then you can decide whether the presence of a problematic ingredient causes enough concern to prevent you from purchasing the product.
Even traditional, all-natural cosmetic products and ingredients consist of many chemicals — some of which can be problematic for some people.
However, traditional cosmetic ingredients have passed a test of time a test that’s typically lasted hundreds or thousands of years.
And many traditional ingredients — such as shea butter, lavender, rosemary, and extra virgin olive oil – actively benefit hair and/or skin health.
Natural label on cosmetic products
The term “natural” on a cosmetic product labels is legally meaningless.
Be aware that names of some natural ingredients sound synthetic. For example, sodium chloride is salt, citric acid abounds in citrus fruits (although most is produced synthetically), “pyridoxine” is vitamin B6, and “pantethine” is simply vitamin B5.
Organic label on cosmetic products
This term on a cosmetics product label means that at least some of the ingredients were grown organically.
A welter of confusing federal and state regulations governs use of the term “organic” on cosmetic products — and cosmetic products don’t have to consist only of certified-organic ingredients to say “organic” on the label.
It’s easier and best to look for the USDA Organic seal, which means the product contains at least 95% organic ingredients.
The dirty dozen cosmetic ingredients
The evidence suggests that it’s smart to avoid these 12 ingredients:
#1: Hair dye
According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 5,000 different chemicals are used in hair dye products.
Some directly promote cancer in animals, while others can convert to carcinogens once they get into your body.
All these chemicals penetrate the scalp and enter the bloodstream. They’re filtered out through the kidneys into the urine and bladder, where they can still be detected.
The lining of the bladder is a very sensitive mucous membrane, and it’s considered risky to routinely expose it to carcinogens, including the ones in hair dye.
These synthetic preservatives come in 4 categories: methyl, propyl, butyl, and ethyl parabens.
They remain the most common preservatives used in cosmetics, even though several sources list parabens as “highly toxic.”
In cell and animal experiments, paraben-class preservatives behave as so-called “xenoestrogens”, which means that they can mimic estrogen, making them potential hormone disruptors.
The estrogenic effects of parabens hold negative implications for estrogen-dependent health conditions, such as PMS, fibroid tumors, and estrogen-fueled cancers.
Urea is a common preservative in shampoos, body washes, and skin cleansers.
The two most common forms of urea are imidazolidinyl and diazolidinyl — also called Germall II and Germall 115.
The key drawback to urea is that it releases formaldehyde, which is a proven toxin and carcinogen.
This colorless, unstable gas has been associated with menstrual irregularities, depression, headaches, joint and chest pain, allergies, ear infections, and chronic fatigue.
And some forms of urea release formaldehyde even at low temperatures, with diazolidinyl releasing the toxin at just over 10º F
These chemicals are most often used as a cleanser, emulsifier (hold water and oil together), foaming agent, or emollient (skin softener).
There are three main types: diethanolamine (DEA), monoethanolamine (MEA), and triethanolamine (TEA) — with DEA and TEA causing the most concern.
DEA, which is often used in shampoos, is a suspected carcinogen, while TEA can cause several allergic reactions, including eye problems and dry skin and hair.
Other research indicates that TEA can become significantly toxic if it’s absorbed frequently and consistently over a long period.
Phthalates are chemicals employed mainly as “plasticizers” — meaning that they can raise the plasticity (flexibility) of a material or reduce its viscosity (thickness).
They’re widely used in fragrances, deodorants, nail polishes, makeup, hair products, and lotions, as well as in plastics.
Phthalates are oily, and therefore help moisturizers and lotions penetrate skin.
This is bad news, because phthalates have produced liver cancer and birth defects in animals.
Of the phthalates, dibutylphthalate (DBP) is the worst. It’s used in nail polish and mascara to help thin films stay flexible, reducing brittleness and cracking.
The European Union has banned its use in all cosmetics, because DBP is an endocrine disruptor, and can therefore lead to fertility problems and raise the risk of breast, prostate, thyroid, and ovarian cancers.
Triclosan is an antibacterial often used in skin cleansers, antibacterial gels, and toothpaste.
Chemically, it resembles Agent Orange — the defoliant used in the Vietnam War that became notorious for making soldiers on both sides sick. In fact, the EPA categorizes triclosan as a pesticide with toxic properties.
Triclosan is especially dangerous because it can accumulate in your liver, lungs, and kidneys. Over time, the stored amounts can reach toxic levels and disrupt hormone function.
Toluene is a hazardous chemical used in commercial paint thinners — and in many nail polishes.
Toluene is so dangerous that toxicologists warn against inhaling it, which can cause confusion, weakness, memory loss, nausea, loss of both color vision, and hearing loss.
#8: Petroleum jelly
Also known as petrolatum and paraffin jelly, petroleum jelly — think Vaseline — is used to seal in moisture.
This is ironic, because petrolatum actually interferes with your skin’s moisturizing ability.
Petroleum jelly sits on the surface of your skin, which can result in clogged pores that in turn can lead to acne — particularly blackheads and whiteheads.
#9: Propylene glycol
This mix of synthetic petrochemicals attracts water, making it a so-called humectant.
It’s used in moisturizers to reduce flaking and restore suppleness. Propylene glycol is also used in many food products — as well as in auto brake/hydraulic fluids and antifreeze.
The FDA allows its use at concentrations as high as 98% in topical drugs and 92% in oral products.
That FDA approval is both ironic and scary when you consider that the official Material Safety Data Sheet for propylene glycol warns users to “avoid contact with eyes, skin, and clothing” and to “avoid prolonged or repeated exposure.”
Those warnings make sense because propylene glycol can cause allergic reactions, and degrade proteins and the structure of your cells.
#10: Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)
Both SLS and SLES belong to a category of chemicals called ethoxylated alcohol salts.
Like detergents, SLS and SLES are “surfactants”, or chemicals that allow water to mix with fats and oils, so they act as cleansing agents.
Accordingly, they’re used in many shampoos and body washes — and in car washes and engine degreasers.
Like some other surfactants, SLS and SLES are proven skin irritants, with the degree of irritation depending on the levels of either ingredient in a product, the “base” within which the surfactant is immersed in a product, and your personal genetics.
As a panel of industry and independent experts concluded in the most recent safety review, “The potential to produce irritation exists with … [SLS and SLES] … but in practice they are not regularly seen to be irritating because of the formulations in which they are used.” (Robinson VC et al. 2010)
That same expert panel came to similar conclusions regarding related compounds known as alkyl sulfates, which are used in many shampoos, cleansers, and soaps
Unsurprisingly, SLS can cause eye irritation, skin rashes, diarrhea, hair loss, scalp dryness (like dandruff), and allergic reactions.
The International Journal of Toxicology has even found that SLS damages your hair follicles, actually causing your hair to fall out!
And it can also strip your hair and skin of key nutrients, including essential fatty acids and amino acids — the very nutrients it needs to build and maintain collagen and elastin in hair and skin.
#11: Synthetic colors
Synthetic colors are listed as FD&C or D&C colors, such as FD&C Red 6 or D&C Yellow 8.
FD&C colors have been FDA-certified “safe” for drugs and cosmetics as well as food by the FDA — while D&C colors can only be used in drugs and cosmetics.
Despite that safety certification, the FDA recommends against using most FD&C and D&C colors in cosmetic eye products, including creams, mascara, shadow, liners, and foundations.
But eye products are the cosmetics in which synthetic colors are most commonly used — go figure.
#12: Synthetic fragrance
A fragrance — which labels may instead list as “perfume” or “parfum” — can contain dozens of natural and/or synthetic chemicals.
Some people may be sensitive to certain chemicals in natural fragrances, but the evidence suggests that synthetic fragrances are much more likely to cause offense or significant health problems.
Synthetic fragrances are known to cause headaches, dizziness, rash, hyperpigmentation, coughing, vomiting, and skin irritation.
And because the olfactory bulb — the only part of the brain that extends beyond the skull — directly absorbs chemicals from the environment, synthetic fragrances can even strike harm in the central nervous system.
Is Europe stricter about cosmetics?
Many have the impression that European cosmetics are more natural and less synthetic than their American counterparts.
But — with a few notable exceptions — the European Union hasn’t been significantly stricter than the U.S. FDA when it comes to banning cosmetic ingredients linked to potential safety problems.
Although the EU has banned more than 1,300 ingredients from cosmetic products, most (about 80%) of those either haven’t been used in cosmetics or likely never would be.
Overall, it’s unwise to assume that European cosmetic products generally offer superior safety or purity.
In our next issue, we’ll review the evidence on omega-3s and astaxanthin — two skin-loving substances from the sea.
- Andrew AS, et al. Bladder cancer risk and personal hair dye use. Int J Cancer. 2004 Apr 20;109(4):581-6.
- Bolt HM and Golka K. The debate on carcinogenicity of permanent hair dyes: new insights. Crit Rev Toxicol. 2007;37(6):521-36.
- Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Toluene. Accessed at http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/chem_profiles/toluene.html.
- Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR). Final report on the safety assessment of sodium lauryl sulfate and ammonium lauryl sulfate. Int J Toxicol. 1983;2(7):127–81.
- de Sanjose S, et al. Association between personal use of hair dyes and lymphoid neoplasms in Europe. Am J Epidemiol. 2006 Jul 1;164(1):47-55.
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- Gago-Dominguez, M et al. Permanent hair dyes and bladder cancer: risk modification by cytochrome P4501A2 and N-acetyltransferases 1 and 2. Carcinogenesis. 2003 Mar;24(3):483-9.
- Personal Care Products Council. U.S. and EU Cosmetics Regulation. Accessed at http://www.cosmeticsinfo.org/cosmetics-regulation
- U.S. FDA. Diethanolamine. December 21, 1999; updated October 27, 2006. Accessed at http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductandIngredientSafety/SelectedCosmeticIngredients/ucm109655.htm.
Statista Inc. Statistics & Facts on the U.S. Cosmetics and Makeup Industry. Accessed at https://www.statista.com/topics/1008/cosmetics-industry/
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- Rauscher GH, et al. Hair dye use and risk of adult acute leukemia. Am J Epidemiol. 2004 Jul 1;160(1):19-25.
- Robinson VC, et al. Final report of the amended safety assessment of sodium laureth sulfate and related salts of sulfated ethoxylated alcohols. Int J Toxicol. 2010 Jul;29(4 Suppl):151S-61S. doi: 10.1177/1091581810373151.
- Zhang Y, et al. Personal use of hair dye and the risk of certain subtypes of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Am J Epidemiol. 2008 Jun 1;167(11):1321-31.