Chemicals In Cosmetics: What You Need To Know

July 23rd, 2009 - filed under: The Fashion » Beauty and Cosmetics

Okay, I don’t mean to alarm you, but it’s time to take a closer look at our grooming habits. Fact: you will find unhealthy additives in almost every personal care product you own, from lead in your lipstick to mercury in your mascara (1). And menfolk, you don’t get off that easy. There’s toxins in that toothpaste and carcinogens in the conditioner, too. And so, although this may seem overwhelmingly scary, we’ve got to face the facts.

On average, we interact with twelve personal care products each day (2), and that means twelve daily chances for exposure. If you’re like me and slather on the organic, all natural hippie stuff, you may be surprised to learn: Apparently, lotion isn’t food! That means in the US, there’s no federal standard for labeling of these terms (2). So ‘organic’, ‘natural’, and ‘botanical’ mean virtually nothing here.

So what’s the worry? Well, in a recent study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a small group of teenaged females were tested for cosmetics-related chemicals. Every single girl, aged 14-19, tested positive for toxins in their blood and/or urine. There were 16 separate compounds found, each of which is linked to its own slew of health problems. Two parabens (methylparaben and propylparaben) were present in every teen that was tested. (2)

What the . . . ???

Ingredients are classified by the Cosmetic Ingredients Review (CIR), which is supported by the FDA (3). There are four official categories: ‘safe’, ‘safe with qualifications’, ‘insufficient data’, and ‘unsafe’. But the CIR appears reckless in their labeling, as phthalates –suspected carcinogens – have been deemed as ‘safe’. This designation was granted even though 1) the affects of phthalates on males have been understudied and inconclusive, 2) it is not understood what quantity of phthalates are absorbed through the skin, and 3) there is no comprehensive analysis that includes the range of products containing phthalates, so there is no way to measure potential exposure (3).

On top of that, ‘odors’ (chemical compounds) are considered ‘trade secrets’, so ingredients won’t be listed. There is no approval required for ‘color additives’ either, and these could include any endless number of synthetic creations (3). It’s best to purchase products that actively advertise themselves as free of these sorts of additives. Here’s a mini-list of what you’ll want to avoid:

Sayward’s Quick List for Personal Care – What To Avoid

antibacterial/antimicrobial products – It’s pretty common knowledge (and many studies corroborate (1)) that washing with warm water and standard soap is just as effective as antibacterials. Overuse is breeding resistant bugs, including very serious strains like E. coli and Salmonella. Triclosan is a common ingredient (see below). (1)

triclosan – An antibacterial, antifungal, and preservative agent. It has been linked to cancer and shown to affect both thyroid function and testosterone activity. Triclosan is detectable in breast milk. Luckily, it must be clearly labeled on the package. (1)

parabens – These are hormones used as preservatives. They are linked to cancer, especially breast cancer, and have a mild estrogenic affect. Parabens have been shown to interfere with sperm formation. Look for ‘methyl-‘, ‘ethyl-‘, ‘propyl-‘, ‘butyl-‘, and ‘isobutyl-‘ -paraben. (1)

phthalates – These hormones, often added for fragrance, are also linked to cancer. They mimic estrogen in the body, influencing hormone-related cancers, PMS, premature menopause and infertility. There is also a suspected relation to obesity (1). Often, phthalates are just listed as ‘fragrance’ (or related terms), so look for products that specifically say ‘phthalate free’.

sodium laureth sulfate – A detergent and foaming agent that’s classified as a ‘moderate to severe’ eye irritant. This contains small amounts of 1,4-dioxane (see below) and may combine with other chemicals to form nitrosamines, very powerful carcinogens.(4)

sodium lauryl sulfate – Another detergent and strong surfactant, this is implicated in a whole slew of health issues, including skin irritation, induced canker sores, and hair loss. Also can combine with other chemicals to form carcinogenic nitrosamines.(5)

1,4-dioxane – A known carcinogen, nephrotoxin (liver and kidney), and hepatotoxin (blood) (4). Look for ingredients containing ‘PEG’, ‘-xynol’, ‘ceteareth’, ‘oleth’, and other ethoxylated ‘eth’ chemicals (1).

Animal Testing – This practice is the industry standard, but is not required by law. This unnecessary process has been repeatedly shown to fail at predicting human-chemical response. Remember that a product may say ‘no animal testing’ or show the crossed out bunny logo (bottom left), but this only refers to the finished product. It does NOT mean that individual ingredients weren’t independently tested. Always look for the jumping bunny logo (bottom right), which means totally, entirely, 100% cruelty free.


This is just the beginning, but it’s a really good place to start. Avoid these additives and you’ll be avoiding a lot of toxic exposure. For advanced reading and more information, check out the following links:

The Dirty Thirty: 30 chemicals linked to cancer.

Caring Consumer: for a list of companies that DO NOT test on animals, and a list of companies that DO test on animals

Skin Deep: an online database that matches the ingredients in over 25,000 products against 50 toxicity databases, resulting in the most comprehensive safety information on personal care products.


  • Jack Christopher

    A rule of thumb: if you don’t put it in your mouth, don’t put it on your skin and hair.

    I trust cocoa butter (from very dark chocolate) and extra virgin coconut milk/oil for skin and hair care cause I eat them.

  • Jenny B.

    Hey Sayward,
    wondeing if you can reccomend any products (brands) that you use. Thanks. xoxoxo

  • Mr.Man

    This is very useful. Thanks for posting!

  • sarah

    I would add to the links, the Green Guide’s “Dirty Dozen Chemicals in Cosmetics” (

    @Jenny B… I have researched this subject a LOT, and finally found miONEgroup (miessence) from Australia, which is all organic or certified organic, and liked it so much I became a rep ( It’s seriously expensive, but it’s good stuff. I don’t use only their stuff, but my two recommended items are the deodorant (the only natural deodorant I have personally tried that works – my husband uses it too) and the Tropicana Body Lotion (I have never liked lotion – I like this stuff). Their facial stuff is all great, but I don’t care for their hair stuff. I use John Masters Organics for hair.

    Although on the topic of hair, Sayward I would also be interested in hearing what product you prefer, specifically for styling, seeing as how we have somewhat similar (spiky) hairstyles. I currently use John Masters (link below)… but it doesn’t work as well as chemicals ;) My pre-organic favorite was Redken Rough Clay 20, but wow, don’t read the ingredient list.

  • Sayward

    @ Jack Christopher – I totally agree, and that’s the direction I’m going with all homemade/single ingredient products.

    @ Jenny B. – Stay tuned. ;)

    @ Mr Man – You’re welcome!

    @ sarah – Thanks for all the info. Posts on products (including hair) are in the works!

  • Heather

    Hi Sayward,
    I was also wondering about what hair care products you recommend and hope I haven’t overlooked a post about it. I’m namely wondering about hair dye-my 5 year old daughter wants to color her hair bright pink, but I’ll only allow non-toxic brands. Any suggestions?

  • Sayward

    @ Heather – Yes! I’ve got good-ish news and bad-ish news. =)

    Let’s get the bad over with. As far as I can tell, there is no such thing as an organic, all natural, ‘chemical-free’ hair dye. Boo.

    But the good news is this – there IS something very close, and it’s what I use. Manic Panic is a non-toxic semi-permanent ‘vegetable-based’ dye. It’s totally vegan and does not have any of that ‘chemical’ hair dye smell. I know people who have successfully used this on children – it’s what I’ll use on my kids, if they ever want to have weird hair like mommy. =)

    Good luck! Also, pictures!!!

  • Heather

    Thanks Sayward! I used to use Manic Panic when I was a teenager, but had no idea it was vegetable based. Very cool.
    I actually went the Kool Aid route! Unsweetened of course :) She was so excited, but it made her head itch. So, we had to wash it out right away. She was so bummed! We’ll try something else, soo, and yes, there will be pictures :)

  • Sayward

    @ Heather – Bummer about the Kool Aid, I tried that once in high school but I did it wrong and it didn’t work. I wonder if you could boil down some beet cooking water and make a sort of concentrated beet extract? Might go on pretty red/pink . . .

  • Kelly

    For lotion, I got completely fed up with all the chemicals and BS prevalent in everything commercially made and started rubbing in organic extra virgin olive oil. Looks great, feels great, I just hope there’s not something else I’m missing with it…

  • Sayward

    @ Kelly – Does it leave an oily film though? I’m planning to try coconut oil as a moisturizer soon, but olive oil would be cheaper! =)

  • Kelly

    I reserved a hand towel for just that purpose and so far I haven’t experienced any issues, but I have very dry skin.

    Also, I made your deodorant recipe the other day and it is just phenomenal. My husband and I are very thankful!

  • Sayward

    @ Kelly – Awesome, good to know, thanks. And you’re welcome! =)

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  • Meaghan

    Have you done any research on BareMinerals makeup? that is what I use! is it bad???

  • Sayward

    @ Meagan – I’m not familiar with it, but you should look it up in the Cosmetics Safety Database I link to in the post!

  • Sarah Nehemia

    Check out the Bismuth Oxychloride…. Urban Butterfly is a fantastic choice (Vegan, Jumping bunny, No nasty or questionable ingredients!

  • Susan Gonzalez

    Great post! Sometimes we want to look good and don’t care (or don’t want to know) what we’re using.
    Hopefully with more awareness women will make good choices

  • Heather

    I have been using animal cruelty free products for some time now. Peta actually offers a wonderful list that they will send to your house about every product that does not test on animals as well as products that are vegan. I would recommend looking at it. This is a great blog, thanks for sharing and keeping everyone aware!