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What is in Your Cosmetics?

October 7, 2020

Cosmetics are used multiple times a day, with the average woman using around 12 different products a day, and teens using as many as 17 (1). Many of the ingredients in cosmetics can be harmful to our health, exposing you to higher risks of cancer, birth defects, and endocrine disruption, to name a few. The FDA does not require cosmetic manufacturers to list their ingredients or to test their products before they are sold in stores. It is for these reasons that it is important to be aware of what harmful chemicals might be in your cosmetics and how to find safe alternatives. 

The Environmental Work Group (EWG), a nonprofit nonpartisan organization, can help you better understand what is in your cabinet and provide some safer options. States such as California have been a pioneer with recently passing the Toxic-Free Chemicals Act to ban the 12 most Toxic Ingredients found in cosmetics, all of which are banned in the European Union (EU) (2). This list includes: formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers (paraformaldehyde, methylene glycol, quaternium 15), mercury, phthalates, parabens, and long chain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) (1).

A further look at the ingredients that should be avoided:

Formaldehyde and its other forms are known as cancer-causing chemicals found in nail polish and conditioner that has also been linked to respiratory toxicity and skin irritation. 

Phthalates like Dibutyl and diethylhexyl phthalates (DBP) are used in fragrances and nail polish and are also known as Endocrine disrupting chemicals. These ingredients should also be avoided during pregnancy since even very small amounts are harmful. (3)

Isobutyl and isopropyl parabens are a fragrance and preservative ingredient found in a variety of cosmetics from eye liner to sunscreen. They are endocrine disruptors that can cause skin irritation and reproductive organ impairment and toxicity by raising estrogen. 

PFAS: Long chain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are linked to cancer and other health risks. A commonly used PFAS is Teflon, although there are thousands of others. Teflon has been found in several cosmetics like eyeshadows, bronzer, and blush. 

Toluene, (also referred to as benzene or methyl benzene) a solvent found in our nailpolish and hair dye products is a potent neurotoxicant which can disrupt fetal development (4). For these reasons, its use is restricted abroad by the EU.

Tips to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals in your cosmetics:


  • Read the labels and avoid products with the above ingredients including cosmetics, deodorants, hair products and even toothpaste. Look up safety and ingredients for your cosmetics, and switch to products with less contaminants as an alternative. Use the EWG Skin Deep database to search for a specific product or ingredient. 
  • BYOP- bring your own nail polish to the nail salon that is toluene, formaldehyde, formalin, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP) free.
  • Try to avoid products with “fragrance,” or with added colors which may have 200 or more undisclosed, proprietary chemicals that may pose allergy and cancer risk, but are considered to be trade secrets.
  • Many large stores (Target, Rite Aid, CVS and Whole Foods (5), (6),(7) and (8) are also taking steps to restrict and remove toxic ingredients from their own name products. Actions like these will hopefully encourage other major companies to do the same. 


1. Faber S. THE TOXIC TWELVE CHEMICALS AND CONTAMINANTS IN COSMETICS [Internet]. EWG.iorg. 2020 [cited 2020 Sep 27]. Available from: https://www.ewg.org/californiacosmetics/toxic12

2. Savić S, Paunović J. Safety of cosmetic products in the light of European legislation: Cosmetic Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009. Arh Farm (Belgr). 2018;68(5):911–33.

3. Shoaff JR, Coull B, Weuve J, Bellinger DC, Calafat AM, Schantz SL, et al. Association of Exposure to Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals During Adolescence With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder-Related Behaviors. JAMA Netw Open. 2020 Aug 3;3(8):e2015041.

4. Toxicological profile for toluene. Atsdr’s toxicological profiles: web version. CRC Press; 2002.

5. Target. Chemicals [Internet]. Corporate responsibility- Chemicals. [cited 2020 Sep 28]. Available from: https://corporate.target.com/corporate-responsibility/planet/chemicals

6. Rite Aid. Rite Aid 2020 Corporate Social Responsibility Report. RIte Aid; 2020.

7. CVS Health. CVS Store Brand Restricted Substances List [Internet]. [cited 2020 Sep 29]. Available from: https://www.cvshealth.com/sites/default/files/cvs-health-restricted-chemical-list-by-category.pdf

8. Whole Foods Market. 100+ Banned Ingredients and Counting [Internet]. Our Standard: Beyond Clean Beauty. [cited 2020 Sep 29]. Available from: https://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/quality-standards/beauty-body-care-standards