Harmful cosmetics

By Manon Godot, 17th of February 2011


There are about 10 500 chemicals used in personal care products. Among them, more than 3000 are potentially harmful, from skin-damaging to carcinogenic ingredients.

Many of your personal care products (soap, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, make up, moisturizer, skin lotion, nail polish, perfumes, lip balms, etc.) host toxic chemicals that can cause potential damage to the liver, the lungs, the immune system, or can cause reproductive system disorders or cancer.

Within the EU, the safety evaluation and placing on the market of cosmetics is regulated by the Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 November 2009 on cosmetic products.


The article 1.1 (a) of the Directive defines a cosmetic as “any substance or mixture intended to be placed in contact with the external parts of the human body (epidermis, hair system, nails, lips and external genital organs) or with the teeth and the mucous membranes of the oral cavity with a view exclusively or mainly to cleaning them, perfuming them, changing their appearance, protecting them, keeping them in good condition or correcting body odours.”


1.       An unreliable EU cosmetic products safety assessment


According to the EU cosmetic Regulation (R1223/2009 art. 3), all cosmetics that are sold within the EU must comply with a series of safety criteria in order to ensure the protection of the consumer health. The Annex II of the regulation lists 1,328 substances that are forbidden because of their negative effect on health, meaning that in theory, no products that are harmful to human health can be sold within the EU.

Each Member State is in charge of the evaluation of cosmetics safety in its own country. Companies that want to sell a cosmetic in the EU market must respect all the safety criteria defined by the regulation. There is however no control from the member states health authorities before the placing on the market of cosmetics. The safety assessment of cosmetics is realized a priori by control entities, the members of which being the cosmetic companies themselves. In other words, the producers of the cosmetics are also the assessors of their safety. There is no systematic public control a priori to ensure that the regulation is effectively respected and that products are safe.

The products’ safety can also be controlled after its placing on the market. If the company that placed the cosmetic on the market finds out that it is dangerous for the health, it has the legal obligation to inform the public authorities and remove the product from the market, according to the EU regulation. Public health authorities can control a posteriori the safety of the product, but it is not an obligation. According to the European Commission, “Inspectors appointed at national level may visit department stores, supermarkets, small shops and market stalls to check the products being sold. If necessary, these inspectors may take any product from the market to official laboratories to be tested for compliance with EU regulations. Article 8 (1) of Directive 76/768/EEC provides for the determination of the methods of analysis necessary for checking the composition of cosmetic products.[1]” So cosmetics can potentially be controlled, but many cosmetics placed on the Member States’ market never get assessed for safety by any public control entity.

In short, the safety of a cosmetic and its compliance with the Regulation 1223/2009 is mainly based on the good will of the companies to comply with the EU criterias; hence, the probability of the product’s safety being assessed by a public committee of scientists is quite small.


Another issue is the fact that not all the dangerous substances used in cosmetics are forbidden by the EU regulation. Some toxic chemicals are allowed in small proportions because they are considered not to be harmful in limited amounts. According to Dr. Samuel Epstein, professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, and Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, “the argument that consists in saying that carcinogen substances are not harmful in small amounts does not take into account the interaction between substances, their application on large areas of skins and for lifetime, nor the high sensitivity of infants.” To name only a few, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Propylene Glycol or 1.4 Dioxane can be found in most of the cosmetics even if they are toxic and carcinogen chemicals.


2.       Cosmetics products host toxic chemicals

Giving the fact that there is no proper control a priori realized on the safety of personal care products and that many dangerous substances are still legal and used in the fabrication of cosmetics, it is useful to be able to identify a few especially harmful ingredients.

Many personal care products contain carcinogens that penetrate the human body through the skin with the help of detergent action. Many cosmetics contain detergents that damage the skin and let other substances break through the pores. According to Dr. Epstein, “more than 80 carcinogens are used in daily used personal care & cosmetic products.” Companies choose however to keep using these substances because they are cheap, effective, they do the job people expect them to do, even if they are unhealthy. These substances make your hair shinier and smoother, preserve your personal care products, give them nice fragrances, etc. But the negative consequences of their use on human health can be significant.

Among the hundreds of toxic compounds found regularly within cosmetic products, here is a list of substances selected entirely at random in order to demonstrate that the application of cosmetics can be unhealthful.

Benzoic Acid or Benzyl

Benzoic acid is a preservative that is used in many toothpastes, mouthwashes and diaper creams. It contains benzene rings & toluene that are carcinogens, endocrine disrupters and susceptible to cause birth defects.  According to the Pesticide Action Network’s Pesticides Database, benzoic acid toxicity is described as: “toxicity to humans, including carcinogenicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, and acute toxicity.” Material Safety Data Sheets reflect that benzoic acid is harmful to eyes, skin, lungs and the digestive tract.


Used in most sunscreen products, Benzophenone-4 can provoke skin irritations, premature skin aging and cancers. Activated by UV, this substance produces free radicals (atoms, molecules or ions with open electrons in an open shell configuration) that react with other molecules and damage the fats, proteins and DNA of the cells. Benzophenone-4 appears in the Annex IV of R1223/2009 as a UV-filter allowed in cosmetic products.

Benzyl Alcohol

Benzyl Alcohol is used in hair care and skin care products as a preservative.  It releases a substance called formaldehyde that is carcinogenic, causes neurotoxicity (alteration of the normal activity of the nervous system by toxic substances called neurotoxins) in humans and is toxic to the organs.

Benzyl Alcohol is listed in the annex III of the EU regulation as potentially dangerous. According the Directive, it can however be used in solvents, perfumes and flavourings for inhibiting the development of micro-organisms in products.


Collagen is an insoluble fibrous protein which molecule is too large to penetrate the skin. When applied on the skin, it forms a film layer that suffocates the tissues, obstructing the pores and causing skin irritation. It is commonly found in shampoos, conditioners, moisturizing lotions and toners.


Used in many hair care products to add lubrication and shine to the hair, Cyclopentasiloxane has been shown to produce tumors, endocrine disruption, neurotoxicity, organ toxicity and skin irritation on tested animals.

TEA (Triethanolamine)

When it interacts with nitrites, TEA forms a potent carcinogen called nitrosamine. TEA has also been shown to cause liver & kidney cancer in animal studies. It also is a mild skin irritant. TEA makes water-soluble and oil-soluble ingredients blend together and maintains the PH balance of the products.

Diazolidinyl Urea

Diazolidinyl Urea is an antimicrobial preservative used in cosmetics. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it is susceptible to cause dermatitis. It also releases carcinogen chemical formaldehyde. Diazolidinyl Urea is listed in the Annex V of R1223/2009 as a preservative allowed in cosmetic products within the EU.


Found in many cosmetics, 1.4 Dioxane is a well known carcinogen. 1.4 Dioxane is the byproduct of certain ingredients such as detergents, foaming agents, emulsifiers and solvents identifiable by the prefix, word, or syllables “PEG,” “Polyethylene,” “Polyethylene glycol,” “Polyoxyethylene,” “-eth-,” or “-oxynol-“.

Dmdm hydantoin

It is a common alternative to parabens that releases carcinogenic Formaldehyde. Dmdm hydantoin is listed in the Annex V of R1223/2009 as a preservative allowed in cosmetic products within the EU.


According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Formaldehyde is a probable carcinogen. It is however found in many cosmetic products, especially manicure kits. It is listed in the Annex V of R1223/2009 as a preservative allowed in cosmetic products within the EU.

Imidazolidinyl Urea

Imidazolidinyl Urea is a common alternative to parabens (used as a preservative in cosmetics). It releases carcinogenic Formaldehyde. Imidazolidinyl Urea is allowed by the Annex V of the EU Regulation (preservatives allowed in cosmetic products) when used at a maximum concentration of 0.6%.

Lead and Other Heavy Metals

Lead can be found in hundreds of cosmetic products, from sunscreen to foundation, nail colors, lipsticks or whitening toothpastes. It is a proven neurotoxin, and it is linked to hormonal damages, miscarriage and fertility issues.

Other metals such as Titanium dioxide (used as a colorant, allowed in R1223/2009 – Annex IV), Zinc oxide (used as a colorant – allowed in R1223/2009 – Annex IV), Iron Oxides or Aluminum  are linked to breast cancer and nervous system damages.

Methylisothiazolinone (MIT)

Methylisothiazolinone is used as a preservative in many shampoos. Brands such as Head & shoulders, Suave, Pantene, Clairol and Revlon use Methylisothiazolinone to prevent bacteria from developing. The concentration of this chemical in ready for use preparation cannot exceed 0.0015%, according to 1223/2009 Annex V. Rat studies showed that chronic exposure to Methylisothiazolinone led to malfunction is the nervous system and damages of skin cells.


It is mainly used in sunscreens and other skincare products, as it absorbs and dissipates UV light. Animal studies showed that oxybenzone, when entering our system after being absorbed through the skin, can cause cellular damage and affect hormones setting.


Also known as Methylparaben, Propylparaben, IIsoparaben, Butylparaben, parabens are a group of chemicals widely used as preservatives in face and body moisturizers, body wash, and cleansers. They have been linked to possible carcinogenicity. According the US Environmental Protection Agency, long term use of parabens – methyl, propyl, butyl and ethyl – stimulates excessive production of estrogens, provoking breath cancer[2]. No successful studies showed that repeated and prolonged use of parabens is safe, despite all the efforts of many large cosmetic brands to prove their safety.



Phthalates are mainly used as plasticizer (to make plastic softer and more flexible). In cosmetics, they are especially used as fragrance fixative. They are most of the time not listed on the products labels, as being part of proprietary fragrances. Phthalates are hormones mimics and teratogen (can disrupt the development of the embryo or fetus).

Polyethylene glycol (PEG)

PEG is found in many face cleansers. It can contain 1.4 Dioxane, a dangerous carcinogen, estrogen mimic and endocrine disruptor. PEG also contributes to stripping the natural moisture and nutrition of the skin, leaving the immune system vulnerable and causing premature ageing.

Propylene Glycol

Propylene Glycol is the cosmetic form of mineral oil used in hydraulic fluids and in industrial antifreeze. It irritates the skin and may cause dermatitis & damages to the liver and kidneys. It is found most of the moisturizers.

Quaternium 15

Quaternium 15 is a common alternative to parabens. It may release carcinogenic Formaldehyde. It is also an eye & skin irritant, as well as an allergen. This preservative is allowed by the EU Regulation (Annex V, n° 31), as long as its concentration does not exceed 0.2%.

Sodium Fluoride

Sodium Fluoride is a potent carcinogen. It can also cause teeth mottling, bone problems and tissues irritation. The Annex III of the EU Regulation allows its use in oral products as long as it is labeled. Its concentration cannot exceed 0.15%.

Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate

It is a common alternative to parabens that may release carcinogenic Formaldehyde.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

SLS is a detergent. It denatures the proteins of the skin (the skin is made up with proteins), opening a doorway for any harmful ingredient to penetrate even further. It is hash irritant and contributes to yeast infections. Long term use of SLS can have harmful consequences on the eyes, brain, lungs, heart and liver. It can cause cataract and affect eyes development for kids under 6.



Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

Sodium Laureth Sulfate is similar to Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. SLES is less irritating than SLS, but dries up the skin.

Stearyl alcohol

Stearyl alcohol is used in cosmetics to prevent the oily & dry parts to separate. It has been shown that stearyl alcohol produces tumors when used on high doses on animals.

Talc (talcum powder)

The use of talc may provoke acute or chronic lung disease (Talcosis) and contribute to ovarian cancers. Talc is carcinogen when inhaled. It is used in many baby care products.

Triclosan (5-Chloro-2- (2,4- dichlorophenoxy) phenol)

Triclosan is commonly used for its antibacterial properties in many cosmetics and personal care products (preservative allowed by Annex V R1223/2009). It has however been registered it as a pesticide by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The chemical formulation and molecular structure of this compound are similar to dioxins and PCBs. The EPA considers triclosan as a product with high human health and environmental risk.












[1] European Commission – Consumer affairs, http://ec.europa.eu/consumers/sectors/cosmetics/scientific-assessment/analytical-methods/index_en.htm

[2] US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s report “Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in the Environment: Agents of Subtle Change?”


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