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Are Your Skincare Products Toxic? Makeup and Cosmetics


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Is your makeup increasing your toxic burden? Find out which common chemicals found in cosmetics you might want to avoid.

toxic makeup
Could the toxins in your makeup adversely affect your health? istock.com/MrLonelyWalker

Last month, we talked about why you might want to rethink some of the soaps, shampoos, and lotions you use, and I gave you a rundown of some of the most frequently used chemicals in those products that might be harmful.

Many of those ingredients, including phthalates, parabens, and triclosan, are also found in makeup and other beauty products, along with a whole host of additional chemicals. In this article, I’ll cover some of the major ingredients in cosmetics to try and avoid, and of course, some more natural products that you can use instead.

PEG Compounds

Polyethylene glycol (PEG) compounds are almost always found on lists of “cosmetic chemicals to avoid,” but most research indicates that they don’t penetrate the skin and they’re actually quite safe. The problem is that, like SLS and other cosmetic additives, they’re frequently contaminated with chemicals that are harmful, such as ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. (1)

The FDA does not regulate the level of 1,4-dioxane in consumer products, and although they recommend that companies perform a manufacturing step to remove the dioxane from their products, it’s not required by law. (2) Studies have shown that dioxane can penetrate the skin (albeit in small amounts), and toxicity studies have branded it as a potential carcinogen.

Are the ingredients in your makeup making you sick?

Additionally, some PEG compounds can enhance the penetration of other chemicals through the skin, which is problematic considering how many other chemicals are found in personal care products.

Heavy Metals

Speaking of contaminants, make-up and cosmetic products are also frequently contaminated with heavy metals. One study conducted in Helsinki tested 88 eyeshadows for heavy metals, and 75% of the colors tested contained at least 5ppm of one or more heavy metals. (3) The highest levels of cobalt and nickel they found were 41 and 49 ppm, respectively, and the highest level of chromium was nearly 5500ppm, with two other products near 2500 ppm. The highest value for lead was 16.8ppm, but luckily most values were much lower.

Lipsticks also frequently contain lead, which is concerning because although inorganic lead is not readily absorbed by the skin, you’ll probably swallow small amounts of it. (4, 5) Lead exposure from lipstick is considered below the “safe limit,” but I believe the less lead you ingest, the better.

Some metals, such as chromium VI (as opposed to chromium III, which is a vital trace mineral), are purposefully added as colorants in cosmetics. Unfortunately, Cr(VI) is more absorbable by the skin than Cr(III), and it’s often found in eye shadow, where it’s in contact with the extremely thin skin around the eye. (6) It has also been detected in eye shadow in toy make-up kits, where potential for harm is much greater because it’s being used on children.

A recent survey of a variety of cosmetic products by the USDA found low median values for the heavy metals tested (arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, mercury, and nickel), but the wide variation seen between brands and products and overall lack of regulation is concerning, because you can never quite be sure what you’re being exposed to. (7)

Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are another class of potentially harmful chemicals found in many cosmetics. There’s no data on the dermal absorption of formaldehyde from cosmetics, but one small study suggests that exposure due to inhalation – the primary mode of exposure for formaldehyde – from personal care products is low. (8) Even so, formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen, and formaldehyde in cosmetics is a common cause of contact dermatitis. (9) In the US, about 20% of all cosmetics and personal care products contain some type of formaldehyde-releasing preservative. (10)


Some evidence indicates that siloxanes can mimic estrogen and otherwise interfere with reproduction and the endocrine system, and large amounts administered to mice cause fatal liver and lung damage. (11) Studies have generally found the skin absorption to be low, but the study authors point out that given the interactions between siloxanes and other chemicals found in personal care products, actual absorption might be higher than predicted. (12)

Siloxanes are also very volatile, so inhalation is another relevant route of exposure. Additionally, they have relatively long half-lives in humans, so the small amounts that are absorbed might not be degraded or eliminated right away. (13)

What you put on your skin is critical—but don’t forget what you put in your mouth!

The skin needs over 20 micronutrients to thrive–but most people aren’t getting enough of these essential vitamins and minerals.

The Core Plus bundle from Adapt Naturals was designed to close the modern nutrient gap and provide the nutrients you need for optimal skin (and overall) health.

TEA, Tetrasodium EDTA, and Other Preservatives

Triethanolamine (TEA) shows some carcinogenic potential in animal tests, and can react with other cosmetic ingredients to form nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens. (14) Manufacturers are advised to not use TEA compounds in conjunction with other reactants that can form nitrosamines, but we already know the regulation of cosmetics is loose. According to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel, 89% of the 10,500 ingredients used in personal care products have not been evaluated for safety. (15)

Tetrasodium EDTA is a preservative that is genotoxic and cytotoxic in animal studies using high oral dosing, but the main concern is probably its ability to increase dermal absorption of other chemicals. (16) Other cytotoxic and genotoxic preservatives found in cosmetics include phenoxyethanol, ethylhexyl glycerine, and benzoyl alcohol. (17)

Hair Dye

It can be easy to forget, but your scalp is part of your skin too. The potential link between hair dye and cancer has gotten a decent amount of media attention, and one review cites associations between hair dye use and various types of cancer, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, acute leukemia, and bladder cancer. (18)

On the other hand, a meta-analysis conducted in 2005 did not conclude that hair dye use is a strong risk factor for cancer, and anyway, we all know how harmful it can be to put too much stock in epidemiological associations. (19) Even so, animal studies have shown that certain components of hair dye, particularly those derived from coal tar, have mutagenic and carcinogenic potential. (20)

What Should I Use Instead?

One option is always to just forego cosmetics altogether. Many people find that emphasizing a nutrient-dense, whole-foods diet improves their skin quality and overall appearance, and might discover that they don’t want to use as much makeup as they used to.

But for those who still enjoy using makeup and other cosmetics, there are plenty of good resources. Some sources for non-toxic makeup and cosmetics include 100% Pure, Primal Life Organics, Alima Pure, and Aubrey Organics. A popular choice for natural hair dye is henna, which is a plant dye with a long history of use. Henna for Hair is a good resource to get started.

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Join the conversation

  1. Ava Anderson has the safest line of non-toxic products hands down. They carry everything from shampoo to cleaning products to makeup to a full skincare line. It is organic and you could eat the products they are so incredibly safe. Please contact if you want any more information.

  2. Ava Anderson Non Toxic products are the most TRULY natural and nontoxic ones I’ve found on the market! They have cosmetics but also personal care and home products- and their baby products are the best!!

  3. Fat face skin care has An amazing line or organic grass fed products. I use their cleanser toner and moisturizer and my skin is healing not just clearing. It’s literally paleo skincare.

  4. Beautycounter is a skin care and cosmetics company that is revolutionizing the industry with their unrivaled approach to product testing and safety. 100% non-toxic AND high-performing (and affordable!), which I had a hard time finding among other brands. Click on my link to read about them.

    • Just placed an order at BeautyCounter, so I am hoping it lives up to the hype! I don’t see very many selections for eyeshadow, so I am holding off on that for now.

    • Yes! I became a consultant for beauty counter because their products are safe and effective but more importantly because of their mission and message. check them out.

  5. * EWG’s Skin Deep Data Base ranks over 72,000 cosmetic & body care items for toxicity. Most of Chris’s readers probably know about this. For those that don’t, it is an invaluable resource.

    • Yes, I found Rejuva Minerals makeup this way. They top the EWG’s Skin Deep lists.

  6. Some great choices for natural makeup are Vapor Organic Beauty, Kjer Weiss, Ilia, RMS, W3LL People (mineral makeup) & Jane Iredale (mineral makeup and lots more)

    • My hyper-allergic aunt swears by Boscia. I use Skin of Gold to heal, and Jane Iredale for color.

  7. Ava Anderson non-toxic is the best! So glad you mentioned it Emelie! It’s non-toxic, organic, non-GMO and gluten free! Ava started the company to share the toxic message and I’m so glad she did! This is safest full line of products on the market. Not only does the makeup rock, there’s everything from shampoo, a baby line, and including cleaning products! I’m so glad I found this company. 🙂

  8. Chris, I am so glad you brought this up. It’s so important to be aware of what we put on our skin in addition to what we eat. I know so many people who eat healthy but “eat and drink” garbage through their skin.

    I am currently using 2 lines that I am very pleased with.

    One is Beautycounter. They are the new kid on the block and their mission is really compelling — trying to raise awareness of toxins. They refuse to use all of the ingredients banned in Europe (over 1000) in addition to the paltry 11 (yes, only ELEVEN) banned in the US. Here is a link to their mission: https://wholenewmom.beautycounter.com/our-story Their products are all 0-2 on EWG’s Skin Deep.

    The other is Miessence. Their products are so clean – almost all organic. https://www.miessence.com/wholenewmom/en/category/1/skincare

    Hope that helps someone clean up their beauty regimen.

  9. Great Skin Care: Evan Healy Sea Algae Serum and Blue Lavender facial cleanser.
    Cosmetics: RMS Beauty Cosmetics.

  10. As a recent convert to Beautycounter products, I have been WOW-ed by this 2 year old company’s commitment to safety as well as beautiful products. They have a long “Never list” of toxic ingredients commonly used in skin care and makeup that do not show up in their products. Ever. https://cecily.beautycounter.com/Home

  11. I love pure, hexane-free jojoba oil for the skin. It won’t clog your drains like coconut oil will. I find that many non-toxic, natural lotions and potions contain corn, wheat, and/or soy.

  12. Arbonne is another company that is very conscious of the ingredients put in their products. We have a very strict ingredient policy and test all of our products. We are botanically-based and follow European Union standards, which are much, much more strict than US standards by far! We offer skincare, makeup, daily use products, and nutritional supplements.

    I used the products long before becoming a consultant because I fell in love with the ingredient policy and the focus on educating others about the harm that ingredients mentioned in your article can do. I will be sharing this article! Thank you for bringing these harmful ingredients to light!

    • Did you manage to get the ingredient list for the cosmetic products? Apparently Arbonne won’t disclose the information. Check the EWG skin deep website and see the ingredients for their baby line. Toxic!

      • Hi Sheena 🙂 Just an overall FYI, Arbonne is the safest combination of botanicals and science combined and we follow the European Union Cosmetics Directive which is one of the highest quality of standards in the world. It is our #1 mission to provide Pure, Safe, and Beneficial products, and we are continuing to do our best to improve our formulations, quality, etc..We are certified gluten-free, Vegan, non-GMO, and low glycemic index (in regards to our nutrition line) And in regards to Arbonne’s baby line, it is not toxic and the listing on the EWG website is from a formulation Arbonne used previously. The one ingredient that people were worried about, while according to numerous clinical tests and extremely strict standards was safe, was removed by Arbonne. They reformulated the baby line to be safer than ever and the website has finally been updated where the ingredients list is easy to find. Feel free to ask any other questions regarding our products, I’d be happy to answer 🙂 Have a great day!

    • Arbonne still has some toxins in question including in the baby line…..there are safer products. I like some of their products but have been researching even safer ones since cancer became a word in our family.

  13. EWG has an awesome database for many body care products that shows ingredients and their researched levels of health harzard.
    If you google Skin Deep you can find the site and search for just about anything.

  14. Ava Anderson Non-Toxic is also an amazing brand with both skin care and make up, where all ingredients are non-toxic and with good pricing too! Sadly they are not in Europe yet but I have lots of friends in the States who use Ava’s products and love them all! They also have a home range with non-toxic cleaning products!

  15. Hi,
    I have heard Dr Haushka products are ethically produced, in terms of harmful chemicals.

  16. Hi, does anyone know if Dr Haushka makeup and skincare products are a good option?

    • Hi Helen,
      I use Dr. Hauschka make-up for a couple of years and I love it! When I lived in Europ I used also the scincare and it was great!

  17. Hi Chris
    Love your work, excellent info.
    My tip isn’t about makeup, its about hair wax/gel. I got concerned about the chemicals in hair product some time ago, so I looked on the bottom of the container I had been using for the ingredients. I believe the second ingredient listed (after water) was lanolin. So I thought, ‘hey, lets try straight lanolin and see how it works.’ I bought a tub of pure lanolin from iherb and it works great, and its so much cheaper than buying fancy hair wax products! Although it has a bit of an odd smell which dissipates a few minutes after running it through your hair.

  18. Thanks Chris for sharing the great information about skincare and the harmful ingredients that are hidden in the beautiful bottles. Your readers can enjoy 20% off their Primal Life Organics order with coupon code KRESSER20. I pride myself in making skincare that heals, nourishes and protects the skin and body!