An In-Depth Look at Cosmetic Safety

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An In-Depth Look at Cosmetic Safety

Most people don’t think twice about what they put on their skin or cosmetic safety, forgetting that it’s the body’s largest organ. The skin acts as a semipermeable membrane, working day and night to keep anything harmful from getting inside. However, up to 60% of the chemicals that are put onto your body get into your body through absorption.

While certain substances just absorb into the skin and muscle, others actually enter the blood stream and circulate through your major organs.[1]

Regulation of cosmetics began seventy years ago when the Federal Cosmetic Law was written. While this may lead consumers to believe that personal care products are heavily monitored for safety, the FDA has, in fact, only banned the use of eight ingredients out of 12,000+ since the enactment of this law; those eight harmful ingredients pale in comparison to the 1,000 currently banned in the EU.[2] What’s more shocking is less than an estimated 20% of ingredients in cosmetics have even been tested for safety.

This makes it very important to know what you are putting on your body, because it will likely get into your body. Here are a few of the biggest ingredient offenders that could be lurking in your cosmetics.

BHA/BHT: these butylated compounds are found in a variety of skincare products and have been linked to endocrine system disruption, organ-system toxicity, development and reproductive concerns, cancer, and irritation.[3]

Colors and dyes: most commercially used colors and dyes are artificial and some are even known carcinogens.[4] In fact, some synthetic colors have been linked to cancer not only when ingested but also when applied to the skin.[4] Some colors and dyes even contain heavy metals, like lead and arsenic.

Fragrance/Parfum: there is no federal regulation of what chemicals companies can put in their “trade secret” or signature scent. This means there can be a bouquet of harmful ingredients that aren’t listed on a product’s label, such as hormone distributors and allergens.[5]

Formaldehyde: used as a preservative, this compound is a known human carcinogen, asthmagen, neurotoxicant, and developmental toxicant.[5]

Talc: is made of fine particles, similar in structure to that of asbestos. It has been associated with cancer as well as can cause lung and respiratory system irritation.[6]

Petrolatum: impurities within this compound have been linked with breast cancer. It is also considered a probable human carcinogen and its use is banned in the EU.[7]

Diethanolamine (DEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA), and Triethanolamine (TEA): have been known to form cancer-causing nitrates and nitrosamines in the body. These ingredients have already been restricted in the EU because of their known carcinogenic effects.3
Parabens (Methyl, Propyl, Butyl, and Ethyl): often used as a preservative in products to extend their shelf life. However, parabens are known to be toxic and should be avoided.[8]

Phthalates (Dibutyl phthalate DBP, Dimethyl phthalate DMP, and Diethylphthalate): linked with potential harm to an unborn child. Furthermore, phthalates do not have to be included on a product’s label if they’re in its fragrance, which is where they’re often found.[9]

Polyethylene Glycol (PEG): has been shown to cause lung, skin, and eye irritation. Furthermore, long-term application has been linked to renal failure.[10]

Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): surfactants used in many personal care products to create foam. Both ingredients have been connected to negative allergic reactions, such as skin, eye, and respiratory irritations.[11]

All of this information, especially if you haven’t previously educated yourself on the safety of personal care products, can be overwhelming. We encourage you to do the following steps to ensure that you’re using the safest products possible.

Simple Steps to Avoid Harmful Products

  1. Print out this list and keep it with you when making purchasing decisions. Refer to it often until you’ve committed these dangerous ingredients to memory.
  2. Read labels. Avoid big, red flags like “phthalate,” “sulfate,” “paraben,” and “PEG.” They may be stand-alone ingredients or part of a longer ingredient name.
  3. Look up ingredients. ToxNet is a great resource. It provides the toxicity concerns and all relevant studies pertaining to individual chemicals. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) also has an outstanding database called SkinDeep that rates products based on the safety of their ingredients.
  4. Find trustworthy brands you like. There are many companies that are dedicated to providing safe, effective personal care products. Make sure the safety of the products you choose are substantiated by a safe ingredient list.
  5. Avoid synthetic colors and strong, artificial fragrances. These are considered “trade secrets” and a company does not have to divulge the ingredients that make up its unique color or particular scent, therefore, the safety of such products is unknown.
  6. Understand labeling claims. The FDA requires that all USDA-certified organic products use 95% organic materials. However, claims such as “made with organic ingredients” and “all natural” have absolutely no regulation control.
  7. Use tools. There are helpful apps such as the EWG’s SkinDeep app and the Think Dirty app that will help you stay informed, even on-the-go.

When it comes to cosmeticsafety, knowledge really is key. You’re responsible for what you’re putting on your skin, and we hope this article helps!


[1] Hartje-Dunn, C. (2013). Safe cosmetics. Retrieved from

[2] Environmental Working Group (n.d.) Myths on cosmetics safety. Retrieved from

[3] Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. (n.d.). Butylated compounds. Retrieved from

[4] Cancer Prevention Coalition. (n.d.) Cosmetics and personal care products can be caner risks. Retrieved from

[5] Environmental Working Group (n.d.) Top tips for safer products. Retrieved from

[6] Ballestero, S. (n.d.). Are your cosmetics making you sick? Retrieved from

[7] Health Report UK (n.d.). Petrolatum Health Concerns. Retrieved from

[8] Hampton, A. (n.d.) Ten synthetic cosmetic ingredients to avoid. Retrieved from

[9] Herman, J (2011). Dangerous ingredients to watch out for in cosmetics. Retrieved from

[10] Toxicology Data Network (n.d.) HSDB: polyethylene glycol. Retrieved from

[11] Toxicology Data Network (n.d.). HSDB: sodium lauryl sulfate. Retrieved from



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