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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. AionaAlive.com skincare is 100% chemical free, 85% organic and 100% awesome. It was created by Lisa Strong, a professional film & tv makeup artist in Vancouver, BC. She created this skincare (which is 85% organic) to treat skin at the cellular level. It goes beyond most skincare to actually feed skin with super antioxidant plant based extracts. It is amazing skincare and affordable. All of the ingredients are avail on the website. But you can also look up Aiona Alive and other products on the Think Dirty app which is free in the app store (iOS). It includes a scanner so you can scan the barcode of your products and it will list out the toxins / irritants with a 1-10 warning (10 being most toxic). You’d be surprised at how many so called “healthy” products are dirty. Aiona Alive rates #1. Don’t be fooled by companies that greenwash their products.

    • Hi! Im in search of a face moisturizer, which one would you recommend? I had oily skin and even tough I still get pimples mostly due to stress ( neck area), my skin type is more dry now.
      Thank you!

  2. My sister introduced to me this brand a year ago. I was a little bit skeptical. Finally, I bought a set of Lumiere de vie skincare to try out. I noticed that my skin tone is brighter, the lines around my mouth and my eyes are fading after 2 weeks using these. What I heard about this company is they invest money in research the product and gives best to the customers.

  3. Great article, Chris! Good to hit on this after the skincare products one. I was especially intrigued to learn that the eyelid skin is so vulnerable. Another good reason not to overdo it on the eyeshadow every morning (aside from the aesthetic reasons). I noticed you didn’t mention microparticles, which may be another issue in cosmetics – modern technology can grind some of these mineral powders so fine that it’s much easier for the particles to enter cells. Have you heard of this? I believe this is an issue with some of the mineral powder foundations, though not all. If I recall correctly, microparticles are also used for some sunscreens. People have actually used mineral powders for beauty and/or sun protection for thousands of years, though, such as in Ancient Egypt and Rome. Even elephants put clay and muddy water on themselves as a natural sunscreen. Some of the ancient makeups contained lead, of course, but others may have been quite safe – they probably lacked the ability to grind it up so fine. I think historically they would have also been suspended in an oil for preservation, which could affect the absorption. Anyway, I agree that minimizing use is best, especially when it comes to foundation-type makeups that are intended to go on the whole face or neck area. If I am going to wear foundation I put on plain oil first to moisturize and form a barrier between the makeup and my skin. People who wear theatrical makeups on a semi-regular basis should probably be extra careful to let their skin rest in between.

    Also, let me say that I LOVE the Henna for Hair website. I’ve been hennaing my hair for a few years now and found that site some time before I started. It’s so informative and contains information on how to manipulate the colors of henna. Interestingly, unlike chemical hairdyes which break down the protein structure of hair, henna pigments actually bind the keratin portion of hair in a way that strengthens it. It’s true that the colors achieved with natural dying take more time to build, but I believe they give a nicer, more natural looking color effect even if the shade you are doing is unnatural, like using indigo to get blue or blue-black. There’s a variety of other plants that contain strong dyes as well, like beets. The biggest challenge in natural hair dying is lightening very dark hair. Any hair can be lightened slightly by sunlight, especially with the help of acid like lemon juice, but it doesn’t give a very strong effect for naturally black or dark brown hair. Chamomile may also be used to lighten hair in this way. It is necessary to make sure the plant extracts are of good quality and not adulterated, of course, but many health food stores have some of these henna based mixes now.

    I think it’s great to get this info out there because for many people who wear makeup, it’s a hobby they really enjoy and they like to express their personality through this form of dress-up. That’s a totally normal human urge and people are quite attached to it, so sometimes when they hear “Oh makeup is toxic” they feel insulted or think they can’t feel pretty and dressed up anymore if they want to avoid these threats. I wish people knew it didn’t have to be one way or the other! It’s possible to be made up and adorned without poisoning yourself. Just takes a little paradigm shift. 🙂

    • Sorry, but far from natural and non-harmful chemicals. Check these ingredients out, they rate 3 or higher at http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ : Propylene Glycol, Cyclopentasiloxane, Diazolidinyl Urea, Petrolatum, Dimethicone This was just quickly looking at a few products!

  4. I have been using Keys Soap products for years. Gluten Free, vegan and chemical free sun block, shampoo, lotions and cosmetics. Products for pets too. Keys-Soap.com

  5. Beautycounter is another fabulous company that is fairly new. All of their final samples are sent to a third party testing facility to search for any background contaminates. Products are sent out for testing twice a year. You can find their products ranked low on the EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Guide. Check them out!

    • Beautycounter is the only USA company to screen for Heavy Metals. Our number one mission is pushing Lawmakers to put in place legislation governing the transparency of chemicals in ALL personal care products that are produced and sold to the consumer. We believe everyone has the right to know Everything that is in their products.

    • Environmental working group (e w g) is a great source for finding out how skin care products rate for toxicity. They rate over 70,000 products.

  6. Chris,

    Great article… We live in a sea of chemicals today…

    I just featured an excellent documentary called Unacceptable Levels in a recent post called The Toxic Assault of Modern Life…

    Important voices like yours help educate people to make changes by replacing one product, then another, then another… and with each small step they’ll be changing the small world they live in, and doing their part to the change the big world we live in.

    Thank you!!

  7. I am so happy with the Mindful Minerals skin care products! They are made with all organic ingredients and do not include any of the dirty dozen toxins. Not only do they not have the toxins, they are packed with 35 minerals from the Dead Sea that actually pull bio accumulated chemicals and toxins from the body. They are Mindful of your health and body and Mindful of your budget, this line is affordable. They are safe from baby to grandma! Check out http://www.mindfulminerals.com and use the coupon code save10 and get 10$ off of your order. Cheers to being Mindful!

    • Sorry, Aveda is no longer organic. The company was purchased by Estee Lauder a number of years ago and now are full of the same chemicals found in Estee Lauder cosmetics and skincare. They only kept the Aveda scent. Check out the ingredients list on the hair and skin products.

    • Sanotint light has ppd. very allergic to it. Beware. Do a patch test. And read outside label for indrdients

  8. I would love to go the route of safer cosmetics, but they’re unfortunately very expensive. I’d love to see an article about the top 5 or 10 safest commercial cosmetics.

  9. Many of the so called organic products still unfortunately have junk ingredients. It’s great Chris mentioned Primal Life Oragnics as their products are not filled with water (as many of the others are) plus all the ingredients are actually stuff so healthy you can eat it. All of PLO products on EWG are 0-1 rated so make the best decision for you and your family!

    • Hi! I checked out the website and products. They are lovely and healthy, but the prices are pretty high. Is there any samples, discounts, codes to use to buy their products for the 1st time? I don’t mind paying a bit more than commercial brands if I like the product and is healthy for my skin , just for the 1st time I try them, id like it more affordable.
      Thank you 🙂

  10. I love Marie Veronique skin care products and tinted sunscreen instead of make-up. I also really like Vapour Organics & Alima Pure for make-up options.

  11. The goal of Beautycounter, a Santa Monica based skincare company is to change the safety standards of the cosmetics industry in the United States. Beautycounter is focused on creating products that will make you feel perfectly primed for your day, but it’s mission is to educate first!

  12. For 100% grassfed tallow based skincare visit http://www.BuffaloGalGrassfed.com. The tallow is from our own animals and we lovingly handcraft a variety of products just for you. All ingredients are organic, wild-crafted, and therapeutic grade. I primarily use tallow from our water buffalo — very clean smelling and wonderfully nourishing.

  13. Hi everyone! I would encourage you to check out Ava Anderson Non Toxic – it is a fairly new company and is a line of truly non-toxic personal care products. I am a consultant and would be happy to answer any questions. Please don’t be turned off if you are not a fan of direct sales companies. I’d encourage you to really take a look at the ingredients – I think you will be very pleasantly surprised!

    Here is a recent radio interview with Ava Anderson (and her Mom, Kim, who helps run the company) that is worth the listen.


    Please feel free to visit my website at http://www.avaandersonnontoxic.com/kelleywilliams