Dangerous Beauty: Toxic Beauty Ingredients to Avoid

Just as you pay attention to the quality of the food you put inside your body, you should pay attention to the products you put on your body. In other words, your beauty routine could be harmful to your health.

Thousands of beauty products, including lipsticks, foundations and skin care creams and lotions, on the market in the U.S. contain dangerous chemicals, including pesticides, carcinogens, plasticizers and degreasers. Labels on body care products are largely unregulated, and the words “natural” and “organic” can be misleading at best. For example, manufacturers are supposed to use the word “organic” on their product labels only if all ingredients are “certified organic.” However, they can claim a product is “made with organic ingredients” if it contains at least 70 percent certified-organic ingredients. That other 30 percent can include toxins.

One of those toxins is lead. A study conducted in 2013 by University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health detected lead in 24 of 32 lipstick samples. Although the study found that the lead concentrations were within the FDA’s safety guidelines, lead in a product you use on your mouth is disturbing.

Lead, a naturally occurring metal, is toxic to humans and can harm the liver, kidneys, nervous system and reproductive system. Lead is a neurotoxin that is especially dangerous for pregnant women and for children. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) reports than more than 60 percent of commercial lipsticks contain lead.

Another problem is that cosmetic manufacturers can use the GRAS –generally recognized as safe – loophole in their labeling. In many cases, unless a certain chemical has been proven to cause harm, the FDA can approve it as a product ingredient.

Our skin absorbs these chemicals, and some of them are small enough to even enter our bloodstream. Babies and young children are particularly susceptible to toxins. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) published the results of two studies that found 287 toxic chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborn American babies born in the fall of 2004.

The best approach to protect your family is to become a confirmed label reader. Be especially wary of products that you don’t wash off. For example, take extra precautions with the ingredients in body lotions and with sunscreens that you use all over your body and then let soak into your skin. Face cleansers that you apply and then quickly wash off will obviously not provide the same exposure to chemicals.

In addition to lead, here is a list of some of the top ingredients to avoid:

Synthetic colors. Look for products without artificial colors, such as FD&C or D&C. These colors are derived from petroleum or coal tar sources and are suspected to be carcinogens. They have been banned by the European Classification and Labeling system.

Phthalates and Parabens. These chemicals are often added to beauty products to preserve scents and color. They are thought to disrupt the endocrine system and have been linked with breast cancer, early breast development in girls and reproductive birth defects in both males and females.

Toluene. This petrochemical (also known as phenyl methane, methylbenzene and toluol) can be found in nail polish, sunless tanning products, perfumes and hair color. It can cause respiratory problems, nausea and skin irritation. It also has been linked with birth defects.

Formaldehyde. Even though it is classified as a probable human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency, formaldehyde is found in hair straighteners, nail polish, face wash and makeup. A preservative that releases formaldehyde, DMDM-Hydantoin, is also found in some shampoos.


Propylene glycol. Found in skin moisturizers, makeup, conditioner, shampoo, hair spray and sunscreen, propylene glycol is a skin irritant associated with dermatitis and hives.

Triclosan is an antimicrobial chemical found in moisturizers, acne treatments, deodorants, toothpaste and soap. It can disrupt the endocrine system, especially thyroid and reproductive hormones.


Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). A preservative and a stabilizer, BHA is found in a wide variety of beauty products, including eyeliner, eye shadow, blush, mascara, lip-gloss and lipstick, concealer, moisturizer and acne treatments. BHA can increase our sensitivity to harmful rays from the sun.

Sodium Lauryl (also known as Laureth Sulfate). This chemical found in makeup remover and skin cleansers, can cause irritation and inflammation of the skin.


Ammonia. Ammonia is a toxic chemical used to manufacturer explosives and in commercial cleaning products. Because it swells the hair to make it porous so it can absorb color, ammonia also is found in most commercial hair coloring products.

Added fragrance. That fragrance could be doing more than making you or your beauty product smell good. The EWG database reports that added fragrance mixes have been linked with respiratory distress, dermatitis, allergies and negative effects on the reproductive system.


DMDM Hydantoin. This ingredient is what is known as a “formaldehyde releaser.” Found in eye makeup, concealers and eye creams as well as in body wash, it can cause dermatitis.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, it is impossible to completely avoid chemicals, but you can help keep your family healthy by limiting your exposure to toxins. You can do this by consuming a diet of fresh whole foods and by drinking plenty of fresh, filtered water.

As for what you put on your body in the way of beauty products, select beauty products with simpler ingredient lists and fewer synthetic ingredients.

Simplify your beauty routine by using fewer products overall and choose the products you do use from companies that offer a toxin-free, “certified organic” line. If you choose to color your hair, look for non-toxic plant-based hair coloring products.

Here are a few cosmetic companies I recommend:

In addition, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database at http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/.