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How to Avoid Toxic Cosmetics

Updated on May 31, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

According to The Skin Store, “American women [apply] a staggering 16 products minimum to their faces - before even leaving the house.” Blush, lipstick, eye shadow, nail polish, and all the other adornments applied to the body add up to a considerable chemical load. Formaldehyde, lead, and coal tar are among the names to be found in some formulations. A PhD in chemistry should not be a requirement for understanding the contents of a bottle of shampoo.


Five Cosmetic Toxins

Cosmetic manufacturers add literally hundreds of chemicals to their products. Some of these are relatively harmless; others are not. Here are five of the bad ones.

1. Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring substance that is used in funeral homes as an embalming fluid. It also crops up in cosmetics to prevent the growth of bacteria in skin creams, for example. Manufacturers add it to body washes, shampoos, nail polish, and other beauty products.

2. Phthalates used “as solvents in cosmetics and other consumer products, can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system—particularly the developing testes—according to animal studies” (Health Care Without Harm). Phthalates also turn up in various forms in perfumes, lotions, deodorants, and other personal care products.


3. Parabens are present in somewhere between 75 percent and 90 percent of cosmetics; they function as preservatives. Unfortunately, parabens can mimic estrogen and can be absorbed easily through the skin. The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption warns about the negative impact parabens have on human health. The David Suzuki Foundation reports that “It has been estimated that women are exposed to 50 mg per day of parabens from cosmetics.”

4. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a surfactant that makes beauty products foam and bubble; think shower gels, and shaving cream, as well as dish-washing soap. “SLSs are known to be skin, lung, and eye irritants” (HuffPost). There’s also concern that this chemical combines with others to form nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens. They are also linked to respiratory illness and kidney damage.

5. DEA (diethanolamine) is used in personal care products to make them sudsy and creamy. Moisturizers, sunscreens, shampoos, and soaps are where you’ll find them. Mild eye and skin irritation is the least of its issues as tests have connected it to liver and other cancers. “The European Union classifies DEA as harmful on the basis of danger of serious damage to health from prolonged exposure” (David Suzuki Foundation).

There are scores of other troublesome compounds that find their way into personal care products.

Regulation of Cosmetics

In America, rules about what can and cannot be put into cosmetics are fairly simple; just about anything goes.

The Federal Drug Administration is tasked with overseeing the cosmetics industry, but since the 1930s it has only banned or restricted 11 chemicals. The industry that uses more than 12,000 different formulations regulates itself. It’s a standard of stewardship that has failed to work in many spectacular instances such as the financial crisis of 2008 and the Boeing 737 Max-8 crashes of 2018-19.

In the U.S. it’s really a buyer beware situation. Cosmetics companies can use any raw material that they like and there’s no way to know if they are safe before they reach the shelves. The contrast with the EU (European Union) is stark and troubling.

Janet Nudelman, director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

The European Union is much stricter about what goes into cosmetics. Products may not be put on the market without approval and more than 1,300 ingredients are banned.

In Canada, between 500 and 600 substances are outlawed or restricted. However, Canada only prohibits ingredients when they are shown to be harmful rather than requiring then to be proven harmless before inclusion.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) says the oversight of the beauty products industry is too lax, particularly in the United States. Along with other advocacy groups it suggests more research is needed to find out if there is a connection between increasing cancer incidence and cosmetic use.

Nneka Leiba of EWG told The Guardian “Cancer is on the rise, infertility is on the rise, allergies in children are on the rise, and people can’t figure out why. The increases are not just due to genetics and new diagnostic techniques.”

A bit over the top perhaps?
A bit over the top perhaps? | Source

Safe Alternative Cosmetics

We don’t have to use products that have the potential to harm us. Help is at hand.

Here’s a salient piece of advice from writer Madeleine Somerville: “Stop buying useless crap–the stuff flashy multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns convince you to buy. Perfumed body wash, razors with strange aloe strips surrounding the blades, toners, astringents, and a different soap for your hands, body, and face–you don’t need most of it.”

There are plenty of recipes on the Internet for homemade soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, and the like. Making your own beauty products is way cheaper and leads to less packaging waste. Okay, so you don’t have time to fiddle about with ingredients to make lotions and unguents. That’s perfectly understandable.

So, check out the website of the Environmental Working Group (linked below in Sources). This non-profit organization is a storehouse of information about safe cosmetics. It rates popular brands on a one-to-ten scale for toxicity, with zero being a product that is relatively safe to use.

It certifies safe products with its “EWG Verified” logo. By the end of May 2019, EWG had tested just over 71,000 products and verified 1,329.

Bonus Factoids

Those with long memories may recall Tammy Faye Bakker, the scandal-plagued televangelist of the 1980s. Some wag once remarked that she wore so much make-up it looked as though it was applied by Janitor-in-a-drum using a trowel. Ms. Bakker died of cancer in 2007 and fans still show up at her grave and leave behind tubes of lipstick and mascara.

For fashionable Elizabethan ladies the preferred look was a skin as pale as possible. To achieve the most alluring appearance women applied a substance called ceruse to their faces, necks, and bosoms. It was a mixture of lead and vinegar. Perhaps, the male suitors could get used to the pungent fragrance of vinegar, but the women could not ignore the lead poisoning that resulted from their beauty treatments.

According to MarketWatch the global value of cosmetics is expected to reach $390 billion by 2024. Only 28 countries have Gross Domestic Products higher than that. Among those with lower GDPs than $390 billion are Israel, South Africa, and Hong Kong. (Figures from the World Bank).

Yikes. | Source


  • Environmental Working Group.
  • “Pretty Hurts: Are Chemicals in Beauty Products Making Us Ill?” Lauren Zanolli, The Guardian, May 23, 2019.
  • “How Much Is Your Face Worth? Our Survey Results Revealed!” Emma, The Skin Store, 2017.
  • “Dangers of Phthalates and DEHP.” Health Care Without Harm, undated.
  • “ ‘The Dirty Dozen’ Cosmetic Chemicals to Avoid.” The David Suzuki Foundation, undated.
  • “Are Your Beauty Products Banned in Europe.” Kaia Products, September 18, 2018.
  • “US Cosmetics Are Full of Chemicals Banned by Europe–Why?” Oliver Milman, The Guardian, May 22, 2019.
  • “Give Your Cosmetics a Safety Makeover by Using this Simple Website.” Madeleine Somerville, The Guardian, March 1, 2016.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor


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    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      22 months ago from UK

      I had heard that the European Union is stricter than the USA on what it permits in food, but I had not considered cosmetics. This is an interesting and informative article.


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