Toxic Cosmetics: Ingredients and Contaminants to Avoid in 2021
Especially these days, you may be looking for new ways to keep yourself healthier. Throughout 2020 and 2021, we all heard about the importance of keeping our hands clean and not touching our faces.
But could we be doing more to keep our skin clean and healthy? And can the products we choose affect our overall health?
In a word, yes.
Many of the beauty products we use every day, from shampoos to makeups to soaps, contain toxins and contaminants that could cause adverse health effects well beyond our bodies' surfaces.
Read on to learn about 11 of the most dangerous cosmetic ingredients and contaminants, as well as other potentially risky things that may be lurking in your products. You'll also find information about what ingredients and contaminants to avoid, including when pregnant or breastfeeding, what laws surround the cosmetics industry, and what the real deal is with organic, natural, and clean cosmetics. Finally, we'll introduce you to some companies and influencers striving to make our bodies and worlds a bit healthier.
Why Should I Avoid Toxic Cosmetics?
Toxic cosmetics contain ingredients or contaminants that could have adverse effects on your health—and we don't just mean rashes. Some can cause lifelong health conditions, cancer, endocrine issues, reproductive problems, and more.
The Federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) defines cosmetics as "articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body…for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance." The definition doesn't cover soap, though it does include shampoos.
We'll also discuss personal care products in much of our list, such as soaps and other items not strictly considered cosmetics but serve similar purposes. In some cases, these are regulated differently than cosmetics.
In most cases, typical cosmetic use—even if you wear makeup daily—doesn't pose a huge risk. However, if you work in the beauty industry, you should be doubly aware of the risks. This is particularly true for cosmetologists, barbers, hairstylists, nail technicians, or those in manufacturing (including large-scale operations and homemade products). Makeup artists who work with a lot of powders should be careful of inhalation.
Whether you're a consumer or professional, you can help mitigate risks by wearing personal protective equipment like masks and gloves, washing your hands frequently, taking breaks outdoors, and, if in your power, ensuring your environment is well-ventilated. It also helps to rinse all makeup removal products from your skin, even if not indicated in the instructions, so none is left on your skin.
11 Potentially Toxic Cosmetic Ingredients and Contaminants
There are hundreds of cosmetics containing risky ingredients. After doing thorough research, including reading up on the famed Dirty Dozen and Toxic 20 from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Byrdie, we compiled a list of 11 of the riskiest products.
Though not everyone's body has the same reactions, these are 11 ingredients to keep an eye out for and try to avoid if possible. Discover how we created this list below.
1. Asbestos and Talcum Powder
You may be thinking, "How can asbestos, which is banned for use in new construction, possibly be in cosmetics?"
While asbestos isn't intentionally an ingredient—you won't see it listed on a label—it can frequently be found in talcum powder (talc).
Talc is a naturally occurring mineral made up of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. But, it often shows up near asbestos
For years, talc was a major ingredient in baby powder. The American Association of Pediatrics says all baby powder—talc-based or not—should be avoided now. If a parent deems it essential, it should be used sparingly and not sprinkled directly on the baby. Instead, parents should sprinkle it onto their hands and pat it onto the baby. Be sure to wash your hands afterward.
You can also find talc in a variety of other products. Basically any powder you use as a makeup or anti-chafing product may contain this ingredient, though it can also be in other cosmetics.
All talc containing asbestos has been known to cause lung cancer if inhaled. Initial research...is in its infancy. Start new paragraph Not all talc contains asbestos. However, the American Cancer Society states research on asbestos-free talc is especially limited and recommends avoiding the product as a precaution.
- Common Products: Talcum powder (talc), face powders, foundation, blush, lipstick, mascara, eyeshadow
- Related Health Issues: Lung disease, cancer
- Other Names on Labels: Magnesium silicate
- Bans or Restrictions: EU, Canada
2. Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT), AKA Butylated Compounds
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are preservatives frequently found in lipsticks and moisturizers, though they are in other cosmetics and personal care products. Together, these are called butylated compounds.
BHA and BHT have long been on lists of dangerous cosmetics ingredients—but the dangers are hotly debated. While we mostly left ingredients shown to cause severe complications in animals, not people, off this list, we made an exception for this pair because of how many questions people have.
In 1981, BHA was deemed safe for use in cosmetics. In 2003, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel opted not to reopen the case regarding BHA. Even though they didn't reopen the investigation, they noted BHA was used in far fewer products and, in the remaining products, the concentrations of BHA were much lower than in 1981.
Regarding BHT, the CIR Expert Panel likewise found it safe for cosmetic use in 2002. In 2019, after a review of new literature, they chose to not re-investigate, as they determined the more recent evidence backed up their initial opinion.
All that said, BHA and BHT remain open to scrutiny, and scientists continue to study them.
The National Toxicology Program reports BHA "is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." However, they admit the data come from work with rodents and fish, stating, "The data available from epidemiological studies are inadequate to evaluate the relationship between human cancer and exposure specifically to BHA."
In 2019, the European Commission put out a call for research on cosmetic ingredients that potentially interrupt the endocrine system, with BHT being in group A—meaning there were already endocrine concerns they're trying to confirm or deny. Final results haven't been published as of the time of this writing.
SafeCosmetics.org states pregnant people and infants are most at risk of any dangers butylated compounds may pose.
- Common products: Lipsticks, moisturizers, and other cosmetics
- Related Health Issues: Cancer, endocrine interruptions
- Other Names on Labels: N/A
- Bans or Restrictions: EU
Carbon black is a dark powder created when materials containing carbon don't combust completely. While it's predominantly made of carbon, it contains organic toxins.
Outside cosmetics, carbon black is discussed in reference to air pollution from fuels and techniques used to strengthen and color rubber, insulate electrical equipment, and color leather and ink.
Under the FDA, coloring agents are generally regulated, and carbon black is no different—but regulations don't mean bans. D&C Black No. 2, a common type of carbon black, is permitted by the Federal Register but must be certified. Their certification process allows for small amounts of arsenic, lead, sulfur, mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and more to be present in the final product.
Carbon black is riskiest for people who work in environments where the toxin is airborne—occasional use isn't generally extremely dangerous. But, if you wear makeup frequently or work in an environment where makeup powder is in the air, it's worth looking out for.
- Common Products: Eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara, brow powders, lipstick, blush, foundation, nail polish, and other makeup
- Problems It May Cause: Cancer, organ system toxicity, pulmonary inflammation, cardiovascular disease, fibrosis, tumors
- Other Names on Labels: D&C Black No. 2, acetylene black, channel black, furnace black, lamp black
- Bans or Restrictions: FDA, EU
4. Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde Releasers
Chances are when you think of formaldehyde, you think of embalming. However, living people use it on their hair, nails, and even their babies, generally without realizing it.
Not only does formaldehyde cause allergic reactions and irritation, but it's also considered a carcinogen by the United States National Toxicology Program and International Agency for Research on Cancer.
When using cosmetics and other personal care products containing formaldehyde, inhalation, accidental ingestion, and absorption may cause health problems. This puts cosmetologists, hairstylists, and nail technicians at heightened risk, given most products containing formaldehyde are used frequently in salons and other beauty businesses.
Infants whose guardians use products with formaldehyde on them are also at a greater risk for complications than adults who use the products in their daily lives.
Another risk comes from formaldehyde releasers, which are exactly what they sound like: They're ingredients that release formaldehyde over time.
The greatest danger from formaldehyde releasers comes when products containing them are stored in high temperatures or for long periods, increasing how much formaldehyde is released. You should toss out cosmetics after they've been opened a relatively short amount of time, and you should also throw away unopened cosmetics after a while as well.
- Common Products: Baby shampoo, hair gel and smoothing products, nail polish and glue, eyelash glue, soap and body wash, color cosmetics, lotion, sunscreen, makeup remover, and more
- Problems It May Cause: Leukemia, tumors
- Other Names on Labels: Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bronopol), glyoxal, methylene glycol
- Bans or Restrictions: Japan, EU, Canada
5. Lead and Similar Compounds
Historically, lead has been a hugely popular ingredient in cosmetics. In the 18th century, it was used to achieve the pale, smooth skin popularized by Elizabeth I.
Today, lead isn't intentionally added to cosmetics in the U.S.—it's a contaminant from surrounding environments. However, it can be tested for. So, the FDA has stepped in, saying cosmetics and other external personal care products can't have a lead level higher than 10 parts per million (ppm).
That said, they've discovered 99% of cosmetics contain lead below this level; therefore, they aren't heavily regulated.
Until 2018, it was legal to use lead acetate as a color additive in "progressive hair dyes." While this is no longer allowed for hair on the scalp, you should be aware of possible exposure from previous use or dyes used for other parts of the body—the legislation specifically mentions "scalp."
Of particular concern are products brought in from other parts of the world, particularly traditional eyeliners containing kohl (kajal, al-kahal, surma, tiro, tozoli, and kwalli are common names for these). While it's illegal to sell them in the States, they sometimes make it into small markets, and people may have them in their own homes after purchasing them in other countries. These have been linked to lead poisoning, particularly when children get hold of them.
Lead poisoning symptoms vary by age group, though children are at particular risk—it can lead to significant issues such as seizures, loss of hearing, developmental delays, and more.
In adults, fertility issues, pregnancy complications (including miscarriages and stillbirths), memory issues, and other problems can occur after too much lead exposure.
Death by lead poisoning is possible at any age.
- Common Products: All cosmetics (especially lipstick) and personal care products
- Problems It May Cause: Dozens of issues, ranging from headaches to death
- Other Names on Labels: Lead acetate
- Bans or Restrictions: FDA, EU, Canada, Japan
6. Mercury and Related Compounds
Let's be clear: The FDA states mercury isn't supposed to be in cosmetics. But testing has discovered it in some skin creams—particularly in those marketed as "anti-aging" and "skin lightening." It's also appeared in some acne treatments.
Products containing mercury are typically developed in other countries and illegally sold in the U.S. or are brought to the country for personal use. These cosmetics are often sold in stores targeting BIPOC communities.
Not only those who use the products are at risk—their families are as well. Arthur Simone, M.D., of the FDA states, "Your family might breathe mercury vapors released from these products. Your children might touch washcloths or towels that are contaminated with mercury. It could be as simple as touching someone's cheek or face."
Babies, young children, and pregnant people are at heightened risk of mercury toxicity, which can occur via touch, inhalation, and even breastmilk. Early signs of mercury poisoning appear as everyday worries many people have, like irritability, shyness, and depression, but things can get much worse.
If you discover a product you use has mercury, thoroughly cleanse any part of your body that's been in contact with it and contact poison control or your doctor for advice. Carefully put the product in a plastic bag or other leak-proof container and contact your local environmental, health, or waste agency regarding proper disposal methods.
- Common Products: Skin creams, particularly anti-aging and skin lightening formulas
- Problems It May Cause: Tremors, vision and hearing changes, memory issues, numbness or tingling in hands, feet, or mouth
- Other Names on Labels: Mercurous chloride, calomel, mercuric, mercurio; may also be on labels written in languages other than English
- Bans or Restrictions: EU, Canada, Japan, FDA
Parabens are preservatives correlated with disrupting the endocrine system. They often mimic estrogen, which can cause unique issues.
The Derm Review states the ability to mimic estrogen "can be a big problem if parabens enter the body in large amounts (or accumulate) because it can throw off the endocrine system…studies unrelated to parabens have shown that overall high levels of estrogen can lead to the development of cancer in men and women alike."
Further, there's some evidence parabens can affect male fertility and cause allergic reactions.
California has specifically banned the use of isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, and many other products, stating they may not be added to products beginning in January 2025.
Part of the problem with parabens is they're not only found in cosmetics—approximately 90% of grocery store items contain them, meaning the amount in your body can add up even faster.
Not all researchers agree parabens are bad. As Paula's Choice Skincare puts it, most studies used unrealistic amounts compared to the amount in cosmetic use.
If these issues concern you, removing cosmetics containing parabens from your routine could lower the amount your body is exposed to.
- Common Products: Deodorant, aftershave, skin cream, concealer, lip balm, undereye cream (though they can be in any cosmetic)
- Problems It May Cause: Endocrine disruptions, cancer, male fertility issues, allergic reactions
- Other Names on Labels: Look for anything containing "paraben," including isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, propylparaben
- Bans or Restrictions: EU
8. Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC)'s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Toxicology Program both have pages dedicated to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS have been used in various products since the 1950s—and new ones are still being developed.
As of today, most people in the U.S. have PFAs in their blood.
PFAS are found not just in cosmetics and personal care products but also in cookware, clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, and more. When produced or used, they seep into the natural environment as well as your body. In short, PFAS are nearly impossible to avoid entirely—but you can lower the amount you're exposed to by avoiding products containing them when possible.
No one is free from the risks related to PFAS, but children, pregnant people, and those who work in industries creating products containing PFAS should be particularly careful. If you already have cholesterol or liver problems or are at risk for cancer, you should be wary. However, even without these risk factors, PFAS may increase your chances of having those health issues.
While there's evidence they can be passed on through breastmilk, if you are or plan to breastfeed, the benefits seem to outweigh the risks—though ATSDR recommends speaking with your doctor about this or any other concern you have regarding breastfeeding.
If you want to help ATSDR learn more about PFAs and their effects, they're holding exposure assessments at and near current and former military bases throughout the country. Participants are chosen from their applicant pool at random.
- Common Products: Cosmetics in general (particularly nail polish and eye makeup), shampoo
- Problems It May Cause: High cholesterol, liver enzyme changes, decreased birth weight, lowered vaccine response in children, high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia in pregnancy, kidney cancer, testicular cancer
- Other Names on Labels: PFOA, PFOS, perfluorinated, perfluorochemicals, perfluoroalkyls, perfluorinated alkyl acids, polyfluorinated
- Bans or Restrictions: Use is challenged in many countries, but the ubiquity is hard to fight
Phthalates are used to create flexible plastics, but they can be in nearly every type of cosmetic and personal care product.
High phthalate use correlates with DNA damage in sperm, which could cause challenges with fertility or the effectiveness of fertility treatments.
Further, when pregnant people or pre-pubescent children use products with phthalates (and parabens and phenols), the age onset of puberty can be altered, particularly for girls. The girls affected developed breasts and pubic hair earlier than average, and their periods began at younger ages.
Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEP) often seems to be one of the most significant phthalates found in studies of relevant health issues. Several expert committees have stated DEP is safe enough to be used in cosmetics. Still, in addition to the risks mentioned above, it's been correlated with hepatocellular carcinomas in animals.
Have you ever gotten your nails done and noticed the nail technicians wear masks? This may be because of toluene. The worry about its effects is great enough that OPI, Orly, and Sally Hansen have removed toluene from their polishes.
Toluene is commonly found in hair dye and nail treatments, but it's also added to gasoline and paint thinner. Breathing it is particularly problematic, with salon workers and pregnant people at increased risk for health problems.
Initial signs of toluene exposure may feel a bit like flu symptoms, including nausea and tiredness. However, things can get much worse with high or frequent exposure.
Even the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued warnings about toluene, saying, "Humans exposed to high levels of toluene in air for a short time can show central nervous system depression…Persons with short term exposures to toluene at levels higher than workplace air standards have shown poor performance on cognitive tests, neurobehavioral impairment, and eye and upper respiratory tract irritation." This means beauty professionals should take special care.
When studied on animals, toluene exposure in-utero affected growth, skeletal development, and behavior; of course, studies like this on pregnant people would be generally be considered unethical. But, SafeCosmetics.org says, "A mother's exposure to toluene vapors during pregnancy may result in developmental damage in the fetus. Exposure to high concentrations of toluene via inhalation during pregnancy may be toxic to the developing fetus."
There are conflicting reports on whether toluene can cause cancer, though there's a chance it's harmful to the immune system and may correlate with blood cancer.
- Common Products: Nail polish and other products, hair dye
- Problems It May Cause: Hearing and color vision problems, cognitive and neuromuscular function, neurotoxicity, issues with memory and concentration, immune issues, potential blood cancer, and more
- Other Names on Labels: None
- Bans or Restrictions: EU
Triclosan is interesting because the FDA determined the ingredient can't be used in healthcare antiseptic products, like toothpaste and antibacterial soaps, without premarket review because information about its effectiveness and risks are unclear.
While the FDA does keep an eye on healthcare products, not all cosmetics containing triclosan are considered healthcare products. This is because triclosan can also be used as a preservative for water-based cosmetics and to halt body odor.
Triclosan, like many other ingredients, is controversial. Some sources say it's safe (as long as not ingested, overdosed on, etc.), while others state it disrupts the endocrine system and affects thyroid function. There may be risks to infants, as triclosan has been found in umbilical cords.
There's also a chance triclosan helps create triclosan-resistant bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella. When resistant bacteria are created, the bacteria become too strong for the antibacterial products to fight them effectively.
- Common Products: Toothpaste, body wash, hand sanitizer, deodorant, foot powders, body sprays
- Problems It May Cause: Endocrine disruption, thyroid issues
- Other Names on Labels: Triclocarban (this isn't quite the same as triclosan, but closely related)
- Bans or Restrictions: Canada, Japan, EU, FDA
How We Made Our List of Dangerous Cosmetics
While creating this list, we had to make difficult decisions to share the most up-to-date information about the potentially riskiest ingredients and contaminants possible.
Firstly, we left off any that are solely or predominantly irritants or allergens. This is because, according to Grace Medical & Allergy, "it's theoretically possible to be allergic to anything." There are even cases of allergic reactions to water!
If you develop what you believe to be an allergic reaction to a cosmetic or personal care product, such as a rash, swelling, or difficulty breathing, stop using it and seek a doctor's advice.
With the exceptions of BHA and BHT, we also decided not to discuss ingredients where severe complications were only reported in animals. Animal testing is almost always done using amounts humans couldn't possibly be exposed to via cosmetics use. For instance, using a lotion appropriately is drastically different from strictly eating food laced with an ingredient found in said lotion, which is common in animal testing.
As with allergic reactions, if you ever have questions or concerns about an ingredient's safety—in cosmetics, food, or any other product—speak to a medical professional.
We eliminated some oft-mentioned ingredients on similar lists because, in the years since the research was performed, their appearance in U.S. cosmetics has been eliminated or reduced to such minor levels that they don't raise alarms in the medical community.
However, if any ingredient makes you uncomfortable for any reason, don't use a product containing it. Additionally, if you have health risks (e.g., autoimmune disorders, cancer, asthma, etc.), you should always speak to a doctor about any products you use—even cosmetics.
We highly recommend researching any cosmetic product before using it. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review is a great place to start, as it allows you to search their reports by ingredient.
Cosmetic Ingredients to Avoid by Product
Using the list of 11 potentially dangerous cosmetics ingredients above, we've provided this at-a-glance list about which cosmetics they're most likely to appear in. However, they may appear in other cosmetics as well.
The terms listed beneath each ingredient are other names it may be listed under on labels.
As always, be sure to read labels and speak to a medical professional if you're concerned.
Cosmetic Ingredients to Avoid When Pregnant or Breastfeeding
The International Forum for Wellbeing in Pregnancy (IFWIP) reminds us that many cosmetic and personal care products contain chemicals that haven't been thoroughly tested on pregnant people. Clinical trials performed on pregnant people are strictly regulated. Additionally, chemicals are often passed from parent to child while breastfeeding.
However, there are some general recommendations many sources bring up.
Any potential endocrine disruptor is especially important to avoid during pregnancy, with one study stating products with these often include nail polish, nail polish remover, and hair dye.
The study also recommends researching the amount of any ingredient that could be released while in use, using the example of opting for non-spray deodorant, as spray versions tend to release more phthalates.
Of course, lead and mercury should also be avoided, as they can both lead to poisoning.
We specifically mentioned the dangers for pregnant and breastfeeding people in our list of eleven potentially toxic cosmetics ingredients and contaminants. However, the IFWIP adds others to avoid, which we've listed below:
- Hydroquinone (skin-lightener)
- Mercury and related compounds
- Other heavy metals (e.g., arsenic and cadmium)
- Retinoids (often in skin products)
The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) further reminds pregnant and breastfeeding people that just because something is labeled as natural, green, and so forth, that doesn't mean it's safe to use. They particularly call out "those related to soy, clover, or hops, can disrupt endocrine systems" and, echoing the study above, say it's better to use lotions or wipes rather than sprays because of the potential for inhalation.
What Other Toxins Are Present in Cosmetics?
Of course, the eleven listed above aren't the only potentially dangerous ingredients in cosmetics. The EWG reports, "Since 2009, 595 cosmetics manufacturers have reported using 88 chemicals, in more than 73,000 products, that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and reproductive harm."
Many major retailers in the U.S. have already removed and banned cosmetics containing the eleven listed above, as well as several other ingredients, from their shelves. Some of these companies include CVS, Rite Aid, Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods, though the banned ingredients vary by company.
Additionally, as of 2015, the California Department of Public Health reports 169 cosmetics manufacturers "have reported at least one product discontinuation and a total of 7,480 discontinued products." They also state, "There are 151 companies that reported removing at least one chemical from a total of 1,784 products. The total number of removed ingredients is 2,193." The department doesn't require companies to explain why they removed ingredients, but it's reasonable to assume California's increasingly strict cosmetics laws played a role in these decisions.
As mentioned, not all toxins in cosmetics are ingredients—many are contaminants that enter the product during manufacturing. These won't show up on any ingredient list, so if you're concerned about contaminants, research what companies and products have been frequently cited as having these contaminants in their products.
Below, you can see other potentially toxic cosmetics ingredients and contaminants. We've also included some general product groupings with many toxins in them. This is by no means a comprehensive list but can serve as a starting point for further research and discussion with your medical provider.
Finally, as with the eleven ingredients listed above, we've opted not to include those that are primarily allergens. Allergies should, of course, be taken very seriously, and you should speak to your doctor if you believe you're allergic to any product.
|1,4-dioxane (often found in sulfates)
||Anything that makes suds; hair relaxers
||Potential carcinogen (byproduct of processing methods)
|Black haircare products (45 risky ingredients found)
||Root stimulators; hair lotions; relaxers; hot oil treatment; anti-frizz polishers
||Endocrine disruption, including reproductive issues and birth defects; asthma; cancer
||Potentially linked to seizures and deaths (typically following misuse); inconclusive results for cancer
||Shampoos; soaps; cosmetics
||Liver and kidney tumors (in mice)
|Hair Dye (up to 25 risky ingredients)
||Potentially severe issues if ingested; chemical burns
|Heavy metals (including cadmium, chromium, iron, nickel, and lead—though other heavy metals may appear)
||Foundation; lotion; hair dye; sunblock; whitening creams; lipstick
||Increased lifetime cancer risk (except in lipstick); these metals are often contaminants
||Cancer (animal studies; contaminant)
||Sunscreen; foundation; shampoo; lotion; nail polish; hair dye; lip balm
||Reproductive issues (animal studies)
||Anything with fragrance
||Poisoning, particularly if containing ethanol or isopropyl alcohol (very rare if not ingested)
||Petroleum jelly; moisturizers
||Cancer (due to contamination)
|Polyethylene glycols (PEGs)
||Cancers (varies by type of PEG)
||Prescription creams treating acne, eczema, psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, and more
||Gastrointestinal issues; neurological issues; slow heartbeat; trouble breathing (often short-term and expected side effects, but not always)
||Potentially higher risk for prostate cancer (by contrast, may lower risk for lung and liver cancer)
||Hair products; makeup products; skincare products
|Synthetic musks (fragrance, musk xylene, galaxolide, tonalide)
||Endocrine disruption; organ toxicity; reproductive issues
||Various hair products, including depilatory creams and those for perms
||Chemical burns, system toxicity; those working in cosmetics should be particularly careful
||Eyeliner; mascara; hair products; moisturizers; sunscreen; many others
||Cancers (only when combined with N-nitrosating ingredients)
|Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP)
||Reproductive issues; endocrine disruption
What Cosmetics Laws and Regulations are in Place?
After all of this, you may be thinking, "How can this be legal?" Unfortunately, unlike many other countries, cosmetics are largely unregulated by the U.S. government. However, certain states have additional laws surrounding the topic.
At the federal level, any regulations fall largely under the purview of the FDA. The FDA only needs to approve color additives (except in hair dyes for body parts other than eyebrows or lashes); they generally don't have to approve other ingredients or individual cosmetics.
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C)
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C) oversees cosmetics regulation, including ingredients and marketing. The FD&C focuses on:
- Adulterated cosmetics: Injurious ingredients or packaging; dirty substances or those that have expired; products prepared or packaged in unsanitary conditions; unsafe color additives except in hair dyes
- Misbranded cosmetics: False or misleading labels; labels without required and prominently displayed information; labels don't include warnings about regulated ingredients; the label doesn't follow regulations for potentially poisonous products
While the FD&C and other laws don't require tests to prove safety or communication with the FDA, companies are legally bound to ensure their products are safe.
As with medical manufacturers, the "FDA can and does inspect cosmetic facilities to assure cosmetic product safety and determine whether cosmetics are adulterated or misbranded under the FD&C Act or FPLA." The FDA can't recall cosmetics, but they can request a company does so if they discover the brand has produced hazardous products
Interestingly, cosmetic manufacturers don't have to register with the FDA or provide lists of ingredients or registration numbers for importation, though they may volunteer to do so.
Do Cosmetics Have to Have Ingredient Labels?
Cosmetics intended for sale directly to consumers must include ingredients on their labels. Those for professionals to use at work don't need to include ingredients unless the products are sold to consumers at spas, salons, etc.
Ingredient list fonts and displays must be large enough to reasonably expect consumers to read the list before purchasing. If there are too many ingredients to fit on a package, a pamphlet with the rest must be in the package. The information must be in English and, if misuse could be dangerous, that fact must be prominently displayed.
The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA), which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) oversees, says labels must include exactly what the product is, who manufactured it and where, and the net quantity of contents.
When ingredients must be included on cosmetics labels, they must be listed in descending order of the ingredients' amounts, unless the product contains 1% or less of an ingredient. Those small amounts of ingredients may be in any order.
The exception is if a cosmetic is also considered a drug (e.g., antidandruff shampoos, sunscreen, aromatherapy products). In those cases, active ingredients must be listed first, no matter the amounts.
Do Cosmetics Need to Have Tamper-Resistant Packaging?
Toxins, germs, and so forth can get into cosmetics when packaging isn't tamper-resistant, but most products don't need to have this type of packaging. Exceptions include oral hygiene products and cosmetic vaginal products like douches.
Cosmetic Ingredient Review and Personal Care Products Council
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) tests cosmetic ingredient safety and reports their findings in peer-reviewed literature, which is available to the public. Though the FDA supports the group, they aren't a governmental organization and don't report to the FDA.
Due to their intensive methods and peer-reviewed reports, their information can reasonably be trusted by consumers.
The CIR is an affiliate of the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), which has existed since 1894 and has two primary focuses:
- Scientific, regulatory, legal, legislative, and international issues
- Serving as a trade association for cosmetics and personal care product businesses
Over 90% of the beauty industry in the U.S. are members of the PCPC. While this may sound like a conflict of interest—after all, cosmetic companies use many of these chemicals—the PCPC abides by a strict Consumer Commitment Code. This code says they work to ensure cosmetics companies perform testing, eliminate dangerous products, disclose any risks to the FDA, and more.
California Prop 65 Cancer Warnings
While the federal government doesn't regulate cosmetics or require warnings about anything other than misuse, California has Proposition 65. This requires companies to warn consumers about potential exposure to chemicals that may cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive issues.
The proposition has been around since 1986 and is updated yearly, with around 900 chemicals on their most recent list.
If you see this warning and you don't live in California, it's likely because your product was shipped from California or is distributed to people in California. The product's company is covering their bases rather than creating different packaging for different states.
This warning doesn't mean a product violates any federal standards. It exists to ensure consumers are fully aware of potential risks.
New Cosmetics Laws or Regulations in the Works
There are no significant cosmetics laws or regulations in the works at the federal level as of early 2021, though there are evaluations in progress for certain ingredients, such as talc.
Senator Dianne Feinstein and others have introduced bills to Congress to attempt to change the rules, but these bills have yet to pass. She first brought the bill, called the Personal Care Products Safety Act, to the floor in 2017. Feinstein reintroduced it in 2019, but it still hasn't passed, despite support from major companies and organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, Johnson & Johnson, and L'Oréal.
The act sought to require "the FDA to evaluate a minimum of five ingredients found in personal care products per year to determine their safety and appropriate use," then determine if the ingredients should be allowed, banned, or indicated on warning labels.
As of early 2021, Feinstein and others haven't reintroduced the issue in Congress.
How Does US Cosmetics Law Differ from Other Countries?
Three other locations have well-known cosmetics laws: the European Union (EU), Japan, and Canada. However, other countries also have various laws and regulations.
Unlike the U.S., those three countries have stringent laws at the national level to ensure the safety of cosmetic products:
- European Union: Cosmetics must undergo scientific safety testing; products must be registered; some products need additional regulation; all cosmetic animal testing is banned; EU countries must partake in market surveillance
- Japan: Cosmetics may not contain any potential health hazards; cosmetics can't have medical ingredients; there are limitations on other ingredients
- Canada: All cosmetics that are sold to the public (including homemade ones and soaps) are included in their rules; manufacturers and importers must provide ingredient lists and report intent to sell to Health Canada; the packaging must follow the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act; bans and restrictions on certain ingredients, such as heavy metals
Are Organic, Natural, and Clean Cosmetics Free of Toxins?
No, organic, natural, and clean cosmetics aren't necessarily free of toxins or safe to use. Even the FDA states, "An ingredient's source does not determine its safety. For example, many plants, whether or not they're organically grown, contain substances that may be toxic or allergenic."
Further, the words "natural," "organic," and "clean" are even less regulated than cosmetics in general, especially when talking about non-food products.
"Additionally, many so-called natural products contain high concentrations of botanical extracts that are a leading cause of both irritant and allergic contact dermatitis and photosensitization…At this point in time, there seems to be discordance between what dermatologists know about the science of the skin and what is being disseminated to consumers through the clean beauty movement," according to Courtney Blair Rubin, MD, MBE, and Bruce Brod, MD.
What Are Organic Cosmetics?
The FDA doesn't have a definition for "organic" when it comes to cosmetics, and cosmetic companies can put that word on a label.
The Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does have a definition, but it's only for food—they have no hand in the cosmetics industry. However, cosmetics can apply for National Organic Program (NOP) certification if desired.
What Are Natural Cosmetics?
There's no agreed-upon definition of "natural cosmetics."
Chemists Corner, a site for cosmetic chemists, states, "When asked 'what is natural?' many people will just say that something is natural if it 'comes from nature.' This description isn't helpful because the term remains vague. When pressed further, people might say something like 'not made by people.'"
This broad definition means ingredients like petroleum are technically natural, but people don't typically think of petroleum as natural—potentially making this definition flawed.
If it's narrowed to saying it's from plants, you must confront the question of whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are natural.
Then, there's the question of whether products that are identical to natural ones but created in labs are considered "natural," as they're technically synthetic.
These unanswered questions mean individuals and companies can define "natural ingredients" however they want.
The FDA doesn't define or regulate the term, either. Therefore, cosmetics companies can use it on packaging freely, so long as it isn't within their ingredient statement—ingredient lists can't use descriptors.
Chemists Corner also says natural ingredients can't be effectively used in their original states, so they generally need to be chemically altered. The site suggests cosmetics companies come up with a strict definition and guidelines for internal use.
What are Clean Cosmetics?
"Clean" is a buzzword in cosmetics, generally referring to cosmetics containing both natural and synthetic ingredients largely deemed safe for skin and the environment. This means they typically don't have ingredients like formaldehyde-releasing agents or parabens. Still, not all cosmetics companies agree—seeing the word on a label can mean one thing for one brand and something different for another.
Like the other terms, the FDA doesn't define "clean."
When it comes to clean cosmetics, The Washington Post says, "On the sidelines, some scientists are saying enough already. There's a disconnect between the information widely circulated by clean beauty enthusiasts…"
As with organic and natural ingredients, there isn't a consistent definition of "clean," and not all clean ingredients are free of potentially worrisome toxins.
Cosmetics Companies Fighting Against Toxins
If you search for "toxin-free cosmetics brands," you'll discover list after list proclaiming favorites and best-ofs. In conjunction with the Mayo Clinic, SkinSAFE allows you to learn about different products, including what common allergens are in them, what toxins they include, if they're safe for babies, and more.
For instance, they gave Clinique Acne Solutions Cleansing Bar for Face and Body a 100% rating based on its hypoallergenic qualities, freedom from many dangerous ingredients, and its safety for teens, among other factors.
We looked through some toxin-free cosmetics lists, checked several of their products against SkinSAFE, and determined these three companies are among the best in the business when it comes to keeping you safe from toxins
Based in Portland, OR, Alima Pure only makes products free of many common toxins, like parabens and talc. They're also 100% carbon neutral, never test on animals, and all their products are refillable, meaning less goes into the garbage.
Bioassance was started by scientists who developed an accessible malaria cure. Wanting to continue helping others, they now focus on skincare. Over 2,000 ingredients are banned for use by the company.
Not only are e.l.f. products affordable and available in many major retailers, but they're also vegan and free of many common toxins. They also use the bare minimum amount of packaging, cutting down on over 650,000 pounds of waste.
As with any other cosmetic product, it's important to remember words like "clean" and "organic" don't necessarily mean "safe." Before using a product from any company, look at the ingredients and make sure you're comfortable with them.
Influencers in the Fight Against Toxic Cosmetics
Of course, there are influencers in the world of nontoxic cosmetics. Here's a roundup of a few of our favorites.
Jessica Williams, Feel More Gooder
Jessica Williams has a degree in Kinesiology and has been a lifelong athlete. Along the way, she learned what you put into and onto your body is as important as exercise. While this may give non-athletes pause, not only does she teach people about products that may help them live a healthy lifestyle, but she also wants people to "feel empowered to accept, love, and motivate yourself."
You can find her on Instagram @feelmoregooder.
Madisen, Naturally Madisen
Madisen of Naturally Madisen focuses on helping people care for their skin and natural hair. But that's not all—she also wants people to practice self-care and take control of their mental health. Her blog has helpful tips for all this and more, plus advice for future content creators and bloggers who want to follow her lead.
Check out her Instagram, @naturally_madisen.
Salia, Eden's Love
If you have eczema, Salia of Eden's Love may be just the influencer for you—though folks with eczema aren't the only ones who can learn from her. After trying everything she could to get her eczema to clear up, including nontoxic cosmetics, she made a full switch to organic products— including things like bedding. Salia 's mantra is "Heal your body by healing nature." She uses and teaches people about products containing chemicals, companies that use sweatshops, and more.
Her Instagram is @salia.edenslove.