The Ugly Side of Cosmetics

Image: hands holding makeup kit. Topic: The Ugly Side of Cosmetics.

Suzanne Anich of Minneapolis, MN, has a morning routine similar to that of many women. She shampoos and conditions her hair with products that contain “natural ingredients,” according to the labels. She brushes her teeth, then washes her face with an upscale facial wash with the word “purity” emblazoned across the jar. Then, she applies amoisturizer and what she calls a “low-maintenance” selection of makeup.

Suzanne was surprised to find out that nearly all of the personal care products she uses on her face and body contain ingredients suspected of causing cancer; potential neuro-, liver-, and immunotoxins; and suspected hormone disruptors that could cause birth defects in any children she might havein the future.

Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to find products that won’t endanger your health—and companies that do care about their customers’ well-being. Here’s what you need to know about the personal care products you may be using and what your alternatives are.

Are Cosmetics Regulated or Not?

Like Suzanne, many consumers may be surprised to learn that the US federal government doesn’t require health studies or pre-market testing on personal care products. Manufacturers are free to put just about anything they want into cosmetics—a far-reaching category used by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to include everything from make-up and deodorant to lotions and mouthwashes.

Instead, the safety (or not) of the ingredients in these products is looked into almost exclusively by a manufacturer-controlled safety committee called the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) panel. Consequently, “89 percent of 10,500 ingredients used in personal care products have not been evaluated for safety by the CIR, the FDA, nor any other publicly accountable institution,” says the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG). “The absence of government oversight for this $35 billion industry leads to companies routinely marketing products with ingredients that are poorly studied, not studied at all, or worse, known to pose potentially serious health risks.”

For example, EWG found ingredients certified by the US government as “known or probable carcinogens” in one of every 120 cosmetic products on the market, including shampoos, lotions, make up foundations, and lip balm. What this adds up to, says the group, is that “one of every 13 women and one of every 23 men are exposed to ingredients that are known or probable human carcinogens every day through their use of personal care products.” Without government surveys into chemical use in cosmetics, recent data is scarce, but EWG found that black women may be particularly at risk, with a 2016 analysis showing that less than 25% of products marketed for black women have low levels of potentially hazardous chemicals. 

Also of particular concern are the inclusion of phthalates—a group of industrial chemicals linked to birth defects that are used in many cosmetic products, from nail polish to deodorant. Phthalates are not listed as ingredients on product labels; they can only be detected through laboratory analysis. According to preliminary information uncovered by the CSC, two-thirds of health and beauty products analyzed by the FDA contained phthalates. However, a 2013 FDA survey found that only DEP, which has not been linked to specific health defects, remains in common use for US cosmetics manufacturers. Two of the most toxic phthalates, DBP and DEHP, have been banned from cosmetics products sold in the European Union (EU) but remain unregulated in the US, although California has identified DEHP as a potential carcinogen.

Another class of chemicals that’s gotten some press recently is parabens, short for “para hydroxybenzoate.” These preservatives are widely used in cosmetics, particularly nail polish. Recent studies have implicated parabens as being associated with breast cancer, though more testing is needed.

Though there isn’t always definitive evidence that a given chemical can cause adverse health affects, the fact that so few have been studied for safety is of significant concern. Plus, there’s the effect over time of all these chemicals we’re applying to our bodies to consider. The average person’s morning routine puts him/her into contact with over 100 chemicals before breakfast, according to Aubrey Hampton and Susan Hussey, founder and vice-president of marketing, respectively, of Aubrey Organics. The cumulative effect of all of the chemicals in these products can add up over time, and no one truly knows what the results are.

Is There Change on the Horizon for Cosmetics?

There are signs of hope that the cosmetics industry could be poised for a major overhaul, however:

  • Major Companies Phase Out Phthalates: Under pressure from the CSC, top cosmetics companies L’Oréal, Revlon, and Unilever recently said they have voluntarily removed phthalates DBP and DEHP from products sold in the US. Avon, Procter & Gamble, and Estée Lauder agreed to remove phthalates from their products in 2004.
  • FDA Gets Tough: By law, companies are required to post a warning label on products that have not been assessed for safety. In the past, most companies haven’t adhered to this law. In 2005, the FDA issued an unprecedented warning to the cosmetics industry stating that it will be taking steps to enforce the label law. “Such an enforcement action could ultimately require companies to issue consumer warnings for the more than 99 percent of personal care products on the market that have not been publicly assessed for safety,” says the EWG.
  • The EU Gets Tougher: In 2004, an amendment to the EU’s Cosmetics Directive took hold, which requires companies doing business in Europe to eliminate chemicals in their cosmetics that are known or strongly suspected of being carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins. Of the thousands of questionable chemicals in these products, the directive targets about 450. (Compare that to the 11 chemicals the FDA has banned or restricted in personal care products.)
  • California Follows the EU’s Lead: Hoping to emulate the EU’s efforts, California state senator Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) introduced the California Safe Cosmetic Act of 2005. This bill took effect in January 2007 and requires manufacturers peddling cosmetic products in California to provide the state Department of Health Services with a list of their products and to identify products that contain chemicals identified as carcinogens or reproductive toxins.
  • The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: The CSC is calling on all cosmetics companies to phase the chemicals banned from the EU out of products sold in the US. Visit to help the CSC call on companies to be responsible. “Consumers have real power they’re not exercising,” Janet Nudelman of the CSC told Dragonfly Media. “We need to let cosmetics companies know we’re not going to buy their products unless they make a strong commitment to safety.”

Over the years, consumers have pressured cosmetics companies to remove phthalates from their products, and a 2008 study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics says it's working. The study found a drop in the percent of products that used certain phthalates, and also a drop in internal phthalate levels in women.

How to Avoid Harmful Cosmetics

Here’s how to find the safest personal care products for you and your family:

  • Be Suspicious of Labels: Though words like “natural” or “hypoallergenic” look reassuring, on some products, they’re basically meaningless. The FDA has no control over these labels. Products labeled “natural,” for example, may contain some natural ingredients, but they may also include synthetic dyes and fragrances. “Hypoallergenic” merely means that the most common irritants are left out, but other potentially problematic chemicals may still be in the mix. “Fragrance-free” means a product has no perceptible odor—synthetic ingredients may still be added to mask odors. The FDA notes, however, that if "fragrance" is not included on an ingredient list, phthalates are not included.
  • Scrutinize Ingredients: The EWG recently launched its Skin Deep online database, making it easier than ever to check the safety of over 7,500 personal care products, from OPI nail polish to Aveda shampoo to Johnson’s Baby Oil. If your product of choice isn’t yet listed on Skin Deep, you can enter suspicious-looking ingredients into Environmental Defense’s chemical database, Scorecard lets you know about known and suspected health effects caused by hundreds of chemicals, along with the sources (often government agencies) that have questioned each chemical.
  • Go Organic: Cosmetics that contain certified organic ingredients generally contain mainly natural ingredients, including those that have been grown without the use of toxic pesticides. Unfortunately, organic doesn’t necessarily mean problem-free. Even organic companies need to keep their products from rotting away on store shelves, in warehouses, and in your medicine cabinet. Some may turn to synthetic chemicals to keep their products fresh and useful. Be sure to check the ingredients list on your favorite organic products.
  • The Compact for Safe Cosmetics: To date, 87 companies have signed the CSC’s “Compact for Safe Cosmetics,” pledging to phase the 450 chemicals banned by the EU out of all of their products. The vast majority of them are organic and natural products companies—including members of Green America’s Business Network, who are screened for their commitment to going the extra mile to protect their workers, consumers, communities, and the environment. In addition, cosmetics giants L’Oréal and Revlon say their cosmetics now comply with European law, though they haven’t signed the compact. You can find a list of the companies who have signed on the CSC website.

The very best option is to find a cosmetics company that has signed the CSC’s compact and uses certified organic and natural ingredients. Those companies are listed in the box on this page, and many have products that are readily available at natural products and food stores, as well as online or by mail order.

One such company is EcoColors, which sells “almost all-natural” commercial and home hair dye kits made with organic ingredients. “When I became pregnant with my son in 1990, I was a hairdresser doing five colors a day in the salon and teaching hair color at night,” says Lisa Saul, president of EcoColors. “I started getting rashes on my wrists and having sinus issues, and I thought, ‘If these chemicals are doing this to me, what are they doing to my child?’”

That question led her to found her company, and it also takes her to the lab on a regular basis, where she works on pinpointing problematic hair dye ingredients and making her company’s products as safe as possible.

“I’ve known so many people who’ve gotten hurt by the chemicals in different products,” she says. “So I’m committed to making sure hairdressers and my customers are using things that are healthy for them.