Toxic Chemicals in Cosmetics

Toxic Chemicals in Cosmetics

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Some of the ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products are toxic chemicals that may be hazardous to your health. Take a look at some of the ingredients to watch for and the health concerns raised by these chemicals.


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Antibacterials (e.g., Triclosan) are found in many products, such as hand soaps, deodorants, toothpaste, and body washes.

Health hazards: Some antibacterial agents are absorbed through the skin. Triclosan has been shown to be secreted in breast milk. These chemicals may be toxic or carcinogenic. One study has found antibacterials may interfere with the functioning of testosterone in cells. Antibacterials can kill the 'good' protective bacteria as well as pathogens, actually increasing susceptibility to infection. The products may increase the rate of development of resistant strains of bacteria.

Butyl Acetate

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Butyl acetate is found in nail strengtheners and nail polishes.

Health hazards: Butyl acetate vapors may cause dizziness or drowsiness. Continued use of a product containing butyl acetate may cause the skin to crack and become dry.

Butylated Hydroxytoluene

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Butylated hydroxytoluene is found in a variety of cosmetics and personal care products. It is an antioxidant which helps slow the rate at which a product changes color over time.

Health hazards: Butylated hydroxytoluene may cause skin and eye irritation.

Coal Tar

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Coal tar is used to control itching and scaling, to soften skin, and as a colorant.

Health hazards: Coal tar is a human carcinogen.

Diethanolamine (DEA)

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Diethanolamine is a contaminant associated with cocamide DEA and lauramide DEA, which are used as emulsifiers and foaming agents in products such as shampoos, shaving creams, moisturizers, and baby washes.

Health hazards: DEA can be absorbed into the body through the skin. It can act as a carcinogen and can be converted to nitrosamine, which is also carcinogenic. DEA is a hormone disruptor and robs the body of choline needed for fetal brain development.


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This is a contaminant that may be associated with sodium laureth sulfate, PEG, and most ethoxylated ingredients with names ending in -eth. These ingredients are found in many products, most notably shampoos and body washes.

Health hazards: 1,4 dioxane is known to cause cancer in animals and has a high probability of carcinogenicity in humans.


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Formaldehyde is used as a disinfectant and preservative in a variety of products, such as nail polish, soap, deodorant, shaving cream, eyelash adhesive, and shampoo. Even when it isn't listed as an ingredient, it can result from the breakdown of other ingredients, most notably Diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, and quaternium compounds.

Health hazards: The European Union has banned the use of formaldehyde in cosmetics and personal care products. It is associated with multiple health concerns, such as respiratory tract and eye irritation, cancer, immune system damage, genetic damage, and triggering asthma.


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The catch-all name "fragrance" may be used to indicate any of a number of chemicals in a personal care product.

Health hazards: Many fragrances are toxic. Some of these fragrances may be phthalates, which can act as obesogens (cause obesity) and may otherwise disrupt normal endocrine function, including reproductive health. Phthalates may cause developmental defects and delays.


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Lead typically occurs as a contaminant, such as in hydrated silica, an ingredient in toothpaste. Lead acetate is added as an ingredient in some lipsticks and men's hair dye.

Health hazards: Lead is a neurotoxin. It can cause brain damage and developmental delays even at extremely low concentrations.


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The FDA permits the use of mercury compounds in eye makeup at concentrations up to 65 parts per million. The preservative thimerosal, found in some mascaras, is a mercury-containing product.

Health hazards: Mercury is associated with a host of health concerns including allergic reactions, skin irritation, toxicity, neurological damage, bioaccumulation, and environmental damage. Mercury readily passes into the body through the skin, so normal use of the product results in exposure.


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Talc is used to absorb moisture and provide a hint of sparkle. It is found in eye shadow, blush, baby powder, deodorant, and soap.

Health hazards: Talc is known to act as a human carcinogen and has been directly linked to ovarian cancer. Talc can act similarly to asbestos when inhaled and may lead to the formation of lung tumors.


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Toluene is found in nail polish and hair dye as a solvent, to improve adhesion, and to add gloss.

Health hazard: Toluene is toxic. It is associated with reproductive and developmental damage. Toluene may be carcinogenic. In addition to decreasing fertility, toluene may cause liver and kidney damage.


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