When it comes to beauty products, the effects of the ingredients they contain can be more than just skin deep. The cosmetics industry uses thousands of synthetic chemicals in its products, in everything from lipstick and lotion to shampoo and shaving cream.
Many of these substances are also used in industrial manufacturing processes to clean industrial equipment, stabilize pesticides and grease gears. And we can all agree that an ingredient that effectively scours a garage floor may not be the best choice for a facial cleanser.
In the U.S., major loopholes in federal law allow the cosmetics industry to put thousands of synthetic chemicals into personal care products, even if those chemicals are linked to cancer, infertility or birth defects. The following are some of the chemicals commonly found in cosmetics and what they do to us.
What is it? Phthalate (prounced thal-ate) is used mainly in nail products as a solvent for dyes and as a plasticizer that prevents nail polishes from becoming brittle. Phthalates are also unlisted fragrance ingredients in many other cosmetics.
Why is it harmful? It has been shown to cause developmental defects and is toxic to reproduction and can also harm the unborn and impair fertility. Phthalate exposure has been linked to early puberty in girls, and a risk factor for later-life breast cancer. Dibutyl phthalate is banned in cosmetics in the European Union.
What is it? Primarily used as a foaming agent or detergent to be found in shampoos, facial cleansers, bubble bath products, household and utensil cleaning detergents.
Why is it harmful? Depending on the manufacturing process, Sodium laureth sulfate may be contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. Both contaminants may cause cancer. Also, ethylene oxide may harm the nervous system and interfere with human development, and 1,4-dioxane is persistent. In other words, it doesn’t easily degrade and can remain in the environment long after it is rinsed down the shower drain.
What is it? Parabens are a group of compounds widely used as an antifungal agent, preservative and antimicrobial in creams, lotions, ointments and other cosmetics, including underarm deodorants. An estimated 75-90% of cosmetics contain this toxin.
Why is it harmful? Parabens are easily absorbed by our skin. Parabens can mimic estrogen and has been detected in human breast cancer tissues. It is estimated that women are exposed to 50mg of parabens per day. They are absorbed through the skin and have been identified in biopsy samples from breast tumors.
What is it? These are primarily preservatives commonly found in cosmetics. It is also found in baby bath soap, nail polish, eyelash adhesive and hair dyes.Look for: DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quaternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate. These ingredients slowly and continuously release small amounts of formaldehyde.
Why is it harmful? Formaldehyde has a long list of adverse health effects, including immune-system toxicity, respiratory irritation and cancer in humans. Formaldehyde is a recognized human carcinogen.
What is it? BHA and BHT are synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives in lipsticks and moisturizers and are also used as food preservatives.
Why is it harmful? They can cause allergic reactions, liver, thyroid and kidney problems along with lung function impairment and problems in blood coagulation. Moreover, they mimic estrogen and can have an adverse impact on reproduction. BHA is toxic to the immune system and the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies it as a possible human carcinogen. Studies suggest that BHT may be toxic to the skin, lungs, liver, and immune system. Both chemicals can cause allergic reactions, are suspected of interfering with hormone function (endocrine disruption), and may promote tumor growth.
What is it? Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil and gasoline. One of the more common PAHs is naphthalene. Some cosmetics and shampoos are made with coal tar and therefore may contain PAHs.
Why is it harmful? Phenylenediamine, used in hair dyes, has been found to be carcinogenic in laboratory tests conducted by the U.S. National Cancer Institute and National Toxicology Program. Coal tar is recognized as a human carcinogen and the main concern are their potential as carcinogens. As well, colors may be contaminated with low levels of heavy metals and some contain aluminum (a neurotoxin). This is of particular concern when used in cosmetics that may be ingested, like lipstick.
What is it? DEA and DEA compounds are used to make cosmetics creamy or sudsy.
Why is it harmful? These cause mild skin and eye irritation. Exposure to high doses of these chemicals has caused liver cancers and pre-cancerous changes in skin and thyroid. DEA is also possible hormone disruptor, has shown limited evidence of carcinogenicity and depletes the body of choline needed for fetal brain development..
What is it? Apart from being used in perfumes and deodorants, they are used in nearly every type of personal-care product. Of the thousands of chemicals used in fragrances, most have not been tested for toxicity, alone or in combination. Over 3000 chemicals are used to manufacture synthetic fragrances.
Why is it harmful? These are often unlisted ingredients that are irritants and can trigger allergies, migraines, and asthma symptoms. The catchall term "fragrance" may mask phthalates, which act as endocrine disruptors and may cause obesity and reproductive and developmental harm. In laboratory experiments, individual fragrance ingredients have been associated with cancer and neurotoxicity. For example, one chemical of concern is dimethyl phthalate, or DEP. Widely used in cosmetics to make fragrances linger, DEP is suspected of interfering with hormone function (endocrine disruption), causing reproductive and developmental problems. Health Canada recently announced regulations banning six phthalates in children’s toys, but DEP is still widely used in cosmetics.
What is it? PEGs are widely used in cosmetics as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture-carriers and hence used for products requiring a cream base and also in laxatives.
Why is it harmful? PEG (and its chemical cousin, propylene glycol) opens the skin’s pores, allowing harmful ingredients to penetrate more deeply. PEG and other “ethoxylated” ingredients (which usually have chemical names including the letters “eth”) may be contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. Both contaminants may cause cancer. Also, ethylene oxide may harm the nervous system and interfere with human development, and 1,4-dioxane is persistent. In other words, it doesn’t easily degrade and can remain in the environment long after it is rinsed down the shower drain.
What is it? Petrolatum (mineral oil jelly) is used as a barrier to lock moisture in the skin in a variety of moisturizers. It is also used in hair care products to make your hair shine. Look out for the terms "petroleum" or "liquid paraffin."
Why is it harmful? A petrochemical, it can be contaminated with cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The European Union considers petrolatum a carcinogen and restricts its use in cosmetics. 1,4-dioxane is not listed on ingredient labels. It is a petroleum-derived contaminant formed in the manufacture of shampoos, body wash, children’s bath products and other sudsing cosmetics. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has ranked it as a possible carcinogen, and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) has identified it as a reasonably anticipated carcinogen.
What is it? Cyclomethicone and ingredients ending in “siloxane” make hair products dry quickly and deodorant creams slide on easily. They are also used extensively in moisturizers and facial treatments to soften and smoothen and in medical implants.
Why is it harmful? Cyclotetrasiloxane and Cylcopentasiloxane —D4 and D5 — are endocrine disruptors, interfere with human hormone function and possible reproductive toxicants that may impair human fertility, cause uterine tumors and harm the reproductive and immune systems.
What is it? Triclosan is used mainly in antiperspirants/deodorants, cleansers, and hand sanitizers as a preservative and an anti-bacterial agent. Also used in laundry detergent, facial tissues, and antiseptics for wounds. Triclosan is classified as a pesticide.
Why is it harmful? It can pass through skin and can affect the body’s hormone systems—especially thyroid hormones, which regulate metabolism—and may disrupt normal breast development. Widespread use of triclosan may also contribute to bacterial resistance to antimicrobial agents. The Canadian Medical Association has called for a ban on antibacterial consumer products, such as those containing triclosan.