Avoid These Chemicals in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products

There are more than ten thousand chemical ingredients in regular use in personal care products around the world (source).  Scientific research studies in recent years have demonstrated that some of the most commonly used chemicals in cosmetics are potentially harmful*; because many of the chemicals that come into contact with your skin can be absorbed, this may increase the risk for harm from these chemicals–especially if they are used over prolonged periods of time or in large amounts.  This risk is compounded by the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, to have approval before they go on the market.


*The average cosmetic product today contains between 15 to 50 ingredients. Some of these are harmless, but others can be very harmful.


person holding white makeup container


Some Chemicals of Concern in Cosmetics


  • Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate (SLS/SLES): These foaming agents, are used in shampoo, toothpaste, shower gel, shaving cream, makeup remover, mascara, facial cleaners, and more. These chemicals are surfactants, which means they lower the surface tension between ingredients. They also strip away natural oils, potentially leading to irritation in your eyes, skin, and lungs. Some consumers have reported sensitivity to SLS / SLES.
  • Parabens: This is one of the biggest names on the list in this class of chemicals which is commonly used as preservatives to keep cosmetics free of bacteria. They are found in a variety of products, from soaps to lotions and makeup, and they come in several forms: methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben. Research has shown that parabens can disrupt hormones by mimicking estrogen in the body, which can lead to hormonal imbalances, affect fertility and birth outcomes, and increase the risk for some types of cancer, as well as causing skin irritation in some cases.
  • Phthalates: These are a family of industrial chemicals used to soften some types of plastic, and as solvents in a variety of consumer products. In cosmetics, they’re typically found in nail polishes, perfumes, hairspray, and lotions, where they are added to improve texture.  Some phthalates have been linked to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity, type II diabetes, neurodevelopmental issues, fertility and reproductive issues, and more. 
  • Toluene: This petrochemical solvent can be found in most nail polishes and hair dyes. The fumes can irritate the throat, the eyes, the mouth, and skin, cause headaches, dizziness, confusion, and anxiety. Increased, long-term exposure may lead to tiredness, slow reaction, difficulty sleeping, numbness in the hands or feet, reproductive system damage, and miscarriage. If swallowed, toluene can cause liver and kidney damage. 
  • Lead: Found in many traditional eyeliners such as kohl and kajal, this heavy metal is used to give these products their dark coloring. The WHO describes lead as a cumulative toxicant, as the body stores it over time. In children, lead poisoning can lead to serious issues with brain and nervous system development, and in adults, it can cause kidney damage, miscarriage, and high blood pressure. The Environmental Working Group also reports lead is linked to some cancers. Products containing kohl and similar lead-based ingredients are not allowed to be sold in the U.S., but sometimes make their way into specialty markets and through internet retailers.
  • Oxybenzone (and other sunscreen chemicals): These ingredients act as light and UV ray absorbents, and are typically found in sunscreen, lip balm and nail polish. However, research has recently revealed that these chemicals can do more harm than good to humans, as well as the environment. Oxybenzone and other similar chemicals are endocrine disruptors, and can cause skin allergies. They also alter thyroid function, reduce male fertility, and may also cause cancer. Additionally, when the sunscreen washes off into the water, high concentrations of these chemicals can also adversely affect marine life.
  • Formaldehyde: The liquid form of this naturally occurring organic compound is often used as a preservative in skincare products, to help keep them bacteria-free. It can also be found in nail polish, hair gel, shampoo, deodorant, lotions, hair straightening products and more. It is a known carcinogen and has also been linked in scientific studies to asthma, hair loss, neurotoxicity, and scalp burns.


♦ PFAS:  The findings of a recent scientific study uncovered laboratory indicators (high fluorine levels) of toxic PFAS chemicals (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in most waterproof mascara, liquid lipsticks, and foundations tested.  Those makeup products that had the highest indicators for the presence of PFAS chemicals then underwent further analysis and were all confirmed to contain at least four PFAS chemicals of concern. The majority of products with high fluorine, including those confirmed to have PFAS, had no PFAS listed on the label*.

In addition to makeup, PFAS has also been found hiding in perfumes and moisturizers. See more here.

woman applying makeup

Avoiding Chemicals of Concern in Your Cosmetics

1-Read the labels before you put an item into your shopping cart. Avoid the chemicals of concern listed above.

2-Check specific cosmetic products against the list of problem chemicals here: Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep platform

3-DIY it…There are many recipes available online (as well as numerous “how to” videos) for making a variety of personal care products and cosmetics on your own using nontoxic ingredients.  You can make anything from your own toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoo and conditioner, to lip balms, moisturizers, mascara, blush, and much more. You can start by scrolling down to the bottom of this blog post and enter words into the search bar like “DIY” or “Solutions” and the specific type of cosmetic or personal care product you are looking for.

4-Buy personal care products and cosmetics that have an “organic” certification label**.  (Avoid products where labels merely say “natural ingredients” or even “contains organic ingredients”.)

**In order to be certified organic, a producer has to be approved by a certification agency (in the U.S. that is the USDA) and meet specific requirements including proving that ingredients are free of any toxic chemicals, are grown in soil that has not used prohibited chemicals like synthetic pesticides, and that the products have been harvested and prepared with the use of nontoxic, organic ingredients.