Toxins in Cosmetics & Personal Care: A Quick Reference

toxins in cosmeticsThere are often toxins in cosmetics and personal care items that you use daily. 87% of likely voters in 2016 want better regulation of personal care products.  The cosmetics, cleansers, shampoos, soaps, toothpastes, sun-screens, skin treatments and whatever else we might put on our skin, hair or nails often contain toxins.  We absorb toxins through our skin so this is important.  Of course, some people are more sensitive than others, but even so it is a good idea to pay attention when we shop.

Add this quick list to your wallet or smartphone.

FDA Categories

Some products are subject to drug regulation when they are considered to be both drugs and cosmetics.  Examples are  anti-dandruff shampoo, toothpastes with fluoride, make-up with sun protection.  Soaps however, are not regulated by the FDA and are considered a separate category.

Many toxic substances are banned from European cosmetics but are still legal in the U.S. The FDA does restrict 11 toxin/toxin groups in cosmetics: here’s a list at FDA. That list is comprised of the most  toxic chemicals such as mercury, once used in whiteners and still smuggled in from China or India.  The big problem is that the FDA has no legal enforcement power to test chemicals in cosmetics – unlike drug testing.  U.S. legislation is quite vague in defining just what cosmetics are compared to the EU where over 1,328 toxic chemicals are banned in cosmetics (as of 2016).

Unsafe component toxins in cosmetics in the U.S. are tested by a safety panel funded by cosmetic companies.  Reports from public-health groups such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics point out that about 3% of products do not meet safety standards and that 98% of all products have one or more ingredients never tested.

Toxins in Cosmetics List

For your quick shopping reference we’ve listed below the worst chemicals which are frequently included in American products and recommend that you avoid them.  All of these chemicals have been banned in the EU.  The Environmental Working Group has an extensive database by which you can look up specific personal care products.  The numbers below indicate EWG’s ranking – the higher the number the more toxic the ingredient.

These are the worst offenders:

red-10Coal Tar Dyes –  These colorants are identified by CI-12345 – (CI and a five-digit number).  They are banned in food, but are present in dyes, lipsticks and other cosmetics where color is important.  Instead look for cosmetics colored with fruit and vegetable pigments or safe pure minerals.

red-10Diethanolamine – (DEA) is a skin irritant and inhibits brain development in baby lab animals.  It is associated with cancer, allergies, eye, skin and lung irritation, and is toxic to non-reproductive organs.  It is found in many kinds of makeup such as foundation, shampoos, conditioners, soaps, skin treatments, hair color, creams, mousses and gels.

orange-8Fragrance creating chemicals are not required to be identified by the manufacturer.  Some of these fragrance chemicals are hormone or endocrine disrupters tied to reproductive problems and reproductive system cancer, including breast cancer and early puberty.  Avoid them by getting fragrance-free products or products scented with organic essential oils.  The Environmental Working Group reports that more than 16,300 products contain fragrance chemicals that are toxic.

orange-6-9Formaldehyde, and formaldehyde release (e.g. methenamine, 1,4 dioxane, quarternium-15, dmdm hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea,  diazolidinyl urea) – these are known carcinogens found in shampoo, makeup, skin lighteners, hair treatment and nail polish. Some, such as diazolidinyl urea are found in almost 1,000 products – all sorts of hair, skin, and makeup products according to the Environmental Working Group and Safe Cosmetics.

orange-7Parabens, especially butylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben – but anything that ends in paraben.  These are preservatives that imitate estrogen and have been connected to cancer, skin problems, immune system impairment, and reproductive system problems.  They are found in shampoos, lotions and cosmetics.

orange-7Triclosan is an endocrine disrupter, allergen that bioaccumulates and is toxic to non-reproductive organs.  It is an eye, skin and lungs irritant.  It is found in soaps, toothpaste, makeup and many skin care products.

orange-5-7BHA/BHT (butylated hydroxyanisole or butylated hydroxytoluene) is considered by the cosmetic industry as a “reasonable anticipated human carcinogen.”  It disrupts development of the reproductive system in fetuses and children and throws the thyroid out of balance.  Lab animal testing has shown that it causes skin, liver damage and stomach cancer.  It is found in moisturizers makeup, skin lighteners.

These are still problematic:

yellow-3Propylene Glycol is antifreeze.  It allows chemicals to penetrate your skin more easily and in lab animal testing has been found to cause damage to the reproductive system and nervous system.  It is found in both cosmetics and processed food, and in almost 6,000 personal care products.

yellow-3Sodium Laureth (e.g. sodium lauryl sulfate) is toxic both to humans and the environment.  It may damage the skin and cause eye irritation  and liver damage.  Sodium Laureth is a detergent and foaming agent found in most shampoos, conditioners, cosmetics skincare products and many house, car and engine cleaners.  It is often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a likely carcinogen. The FDA encourages manufacturers to remove 1,4-dioxane, but there’s no federal law requiring such removal.

yellow-3Talc is similar to asbestos in that it causes tumors in the lungs as well as in ovaries. Talc is found in eye shadow, powder and deodorants because of its anti-caking quality.  Use corn starch-based powders instead.  With genital use it is tied to ovarian cancer – although this is controversial.

yellow-2-4Aluminum compounds (e.g. aluminum zirconium) are  heavy metals linked to Alzheimer’s and breast cancer.  They are toxic to the respiratory system and nervous system.  They are deodorant ingredients as an antiperspirant.  Instead, use safer deodorant salts.  Many people find that when they stop eating red meat much of their offensive body odor disappears, especially with a daily shower.  The same is true of managing stress through meditation or yoga.

orange-exclaimFor Women: Also note that you should avoid alpha and beta hydroxy acids found in anti-aging products (lactic acid and glycolic acid), dark permanent hair dyes, which contain coal tar ingredients, skin lighteners with hydroquinone, and chemical hair straighteners. Learn more here.



Avoid Toxins in Cosmetics:

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Sources: Wikipedia, Environmental Working Group (, Safe Cosmetics red list (