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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. I’m on the board of EWG, of a non-profit seeks to help consumers, lawmakers and corporations understand the intersection between the environment and our health. Our incredibly user friendly SKIN DEEP DATABASE rates over 70,000 personal care products based on their ingredients. You can use the database to search products you are already using to see how safe they are and you can also search by category to see a list of well-rated products (the lower the score the safer the product) in that category. We also have an ap that you can download and use to scan a barcode right in the store to see how a product rates. There really are a lot of companies out there working hard to make safe products.

    • Glad you posted. I was going to mention Environmental Working Group’s skin deep. It is such a valuable resource and essential for consumers.

      Chris, thank you for another thoughtful, relevant article.

    • I am so encouraged to know that the Skin Deep issue was shared. I am surprised that the author overlooked the extensive work by the Environmental Working Group, which I consider leaders in the area of cosmetics and toxins. As a nurse, I am aware of the bioaccumulation of toxins in our body. The body burden toxin load impacts each newborn, as evidenced on cord -blood sampling. Before life choices are made for an individuals, we are already polluted at the gestational phase of life. For more on cord-blood http://www.ewg.org/research/body-burden-pollution-newborns

  2. We do need to be careful about chemicals we put on our skin and I appreciate this article. Something not mentioned in your articles is some information about how to do yoga and stretching without damaging the joints. I was injured doing yoga over 20 years ago and as a bodyworker and yogi, I began to question many of the linear poses that require one to distort the natural functions of our joints. I created a new way to do yoga that actually improves your posture by balancing the tensional forces in your body. When posture is aligned, health improves dramatically. However many people who practice yoga are unaware that people are getting injured and some are even getting hip replacement surgeries from the laxity that occurs by passive stretching of the joints. Go to http://www.yogainjuries.com for more information and learn about YogAlign, a new way to do yoga with a focus on aligning, not contorting. Also here is an article from the New York Times concerning these injuries. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/sunday-review/womens-flexibility-is-a-liability-in-yoga.html?_r=0

    • Criss you are doing a great job of informing the public!
      I only use Longa Henna…mix it up with water…they have some neat colors and I use several…Let it sit for a few hours, while I work out!!! Prepare your hair. leave on for 3 hours or less, wrap in plastic….
      Suma G Nathan
      Certified Registered Holistic Nutritionist
      Certified Chinese Herbologist
      Holistic Health Practioneer, pioneering since the 1960″s

      • I wanted to alert those of you considering henna to be aware that some brands are made with toxic chemicals that have had serious health impacts. More information on brands that are safe is needed. Note the FDA warning says that black henna is potentially harmful. That’s because the black hair dye often contains p-phenylenediamine (PPD), an ingredient that can cause dangerous skin reactions in some people. For more on this topic, http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm343932.htm

  3. Hi everybody! thank you so much for all the valuable info Chris. I have a question for the readers. Have you used any of the line products Chris recommends? I recently trashed all my beauty make up, powder, mascara,etc since I was using commercial crappy brands and would like to hear from anybody that has already used any of the brands recommended above to start using them.
    Thank you,

    • Oops one more …
      Mountain Rose herbs for shea butter; tamanu oil; and an infinite cacophony of other natural organic beauty possibility —

    • 100% pure is great quality makeup and totally pure, as per it’s name-as in made of ingredients such a fruit dyes, natural oils and waxes.
      Aubrey organics is not great quality in my opinion.
      I do not know the other two brands Chris mentioned but I can mention some other all natural makeup brands that are great: Pacifica, ilia, rms and vapour. Lush makes great natural cosmetics as well and seem to be adding a lot of new makeup items to their collection lately. Also, you might want to check out a website called the detoxmarket.com, which carries a number of high-performance organic makeup brands.

    • I forgot to mention BITE cosmetics (sold at sephora believe it or not!) produces a wide array of beautiful lip products (lipsticks, glosses, lip liners) and their ingredients are totally pure; they are considered “food grade” lipsticks.

    • I like Real Purity and 100% Pure.

      You can also easily make some skincare products yourself.
      I use tamanu oil and rice bran to clean and exfoliate my face.
      Plant hydrosols make good toners.
      Various plant oils applied while your face is still moist from the toner make great moisturizers. My personal favorite is hemp oil.

    • I use the 100% pure body butters, nail polish, and shampoo/conditioner. Love it all. The nail polish is water based and free from the top 10 toxins in nail polish. It wears very well and there are many colors to choose from. My mascara I get from rms and I love, love Dr. Alkaitis for face wash, toner, moisturizer and eye cream. All organic. You could eat it. I am very happy with the switch I have made. Oh, and I order my lipstick and lipgloss from hemp organics.

  4. Suzanne Somers carries a great organic, nontoxic makeup, shampoo, etc. I have used them for several years. They are really great. She has a website.

  5. The Benedetta line of skin care products is absolutely wonderful, all organic 100% farm sourced botanical skin care http://www.benedetta.com/ I have been using their products for 5 years and wouldn’t consider switching! They are a small local company out of Sonoma County (Petaluma), Julia Faller the owner is great and if you have any questions or concerns just send her an email and she will get right back to you.

  6. I love “Juice Beauty” cosmetics, skin care, hair care products.Sold on their website, on Amazon and some of them at Whole Foods. All organic and natural. The Dr. Haushka products actually have some ingredients that I know ewg doesn’t approve of.

  7. Great read! Here in Alberta, Canada we have a great natural product line Rocky Mountain Soap Co. I have been using their soaps, body butters, and body wash for quite some time and have just recently started using their shampoo and conditioner products after reading the ingredient list of my salon product shampoo and conditioner. I couldn’t even pronounce most of the ingredients which couldn’t be good for me. My skin and hair feel great and I feel more confident that I am taking control of the load of toxins I had been putting on my body.
    Thanks for more insight!

  8. Going to natural cosmetic products has been a non-starter for me. They just don’t look as good, don’t stay on as long, and often feel tacky and sticky. (The Avalon Organics vitamin C face lotion with SPF is the WORST.)

    Hair dye is difficult, too. As one commenter said, if you have a lot of gray, henna can turn your hair a very weird, brassy red/orange. Also, henna doesn’t dye your hair blonde.

    I’ve tried the natural stuff from Whole Foods and my experience was that it didn’t cover the grays at all. So I just keep using my L’Oreal but try to go 8 weeks in between.

    Sorry to be negative — but in my opinion, the “natural” cosmetics market has a long way to go. Luckily, I work from home and so only wear makeup a couple of times a week.

    • I took have had trouble finding a good natural line of makeup. I work in an office so I need to look professional. The other issue is the cost, the natural foundations cost so much more which if they worked I wouldn’t have a problem with but after buying several at $40 a pop and find they just don’t work is frustrating.

  9. Chris, Perhaps everyone knows enough about Talc, but it was news to me when I Googled it nearly 10 years ago. I spent a lifetime using talc to keep feet dry and happy, and powdered nether regions to avert chafing. Then I came across a line of cosmetics promoted as Talc-free. I wondered why that seemed important. What I uncovered was research dating back decades.

    Retired early due to breathing issues, I wonder how much that damned baby powder affected me, and if the rise in asthma-like symptoms in children is linked to talc.

    Just Google talc.

    • You just said a mouthful…about talc…Gold Bond products
      is all over TV,,,advertising

  10. This is embarassing but don’t forget to get better lube. Even organic products often have EDTA. Yesyesyes is a good company in the UK 😛

    • For lubricant -I just use avocado oil in a little squeeze bottle. It doesn’t go rancid just sitting in your drawer either.

  11. Henna hair dye by Rainbow Research gives me beautiful results. The gray (I’m about 50%) covers like natural highlights since this hair is lighter than my brown hair.

  12. Can you tell me about the health
    effects of permanent makeup on eyelids – tattoo eyelids?

  13. Celadon Road has pure 100% organic skin care products. We also have bath and body, organic dog shampoo and organic pure cleaning products. In addition we have non-toxic deodorant. Our ingredients are fully spelled out on our site and on our products.

  14. Great article Chris and food for thought. But per-leeze don’t expect me to stop wearing make up – I love it too much 🙂

    Seriously though, I am based in the UK and buy the majority of my skincare from a natural cosmetic company : https://www.lovelula.com/

    Also I use organic virgin coconut oil as a moisturiser and this week used it to make my own toothpaste with baking soda, organic peppermint oil and stevia. It is great on the teeth but the taste isn’t wonderful!

  15. Just a note about henna for hair dying: I’ve read that henna products are often contaminated with heavy metals to boost the dying–pure henna can be too subtle for many people. Also, if you’re more than a certain percentage of gray, it can create some odd color combinations. I’ll never forget when I got my hair henna’ed in Paris and I came home with brassy orange hair. It was fun for awhile–a very short while! Now I buy my hair dyes from Whole Food–they are ammonia and paraben free.