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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. Great article… The more information that’s out there the better it is for people to understand that the lack of regulation is a problem. I have a friend who son was diagnosed with stage 4AML leukemia it was completely environmental. To become informed is the best. I became involved with beautycounter because of cancer & Alzheimer’s in my family- I lost my father 10 months ago & my mother last week to these diseases. I’m going to try to do everything possible to prevent them from happening to my family. Beautycounter is taking on Washington DC to change regulations and they refuse to use 1500 ingredients in their products. They are one of the only beauty companies that is taking this action- proud to be a part of the mission!

  2. Please take a look at POOFY ORGANICS. This company is USDA certified organic and makes all products by hand. Many many vegan options. They are AMAZING and the ingredients are absolutely the safest. They have a complete cosmetic line personal care line and home products. I know others blame to be, but…read labels research INDIVIDUAL ingredients and compare yourself. If you want to recommend a safe company…this is it.

    • I am a presenter, yuppie had a detailed list of all the ingredients available for anyone to look at. They are natural based products, even vegan would you like to browse and find it more ?

    • You have to look at the ingredients. And they still use mineral oils in some products which is a derivative of gasoline. Yum. 🙁 But I guess they count petroleum as “all natural”. Just toxic. I bought the cream eye shadow before I realized it had garbage in it 🙁

      • I can appreciate your concern. I am so happy that you took the time to look at my website. I’m very proud to say that any harmful substances are few and far between and very limited to certain products for reasons I can’t explain but trust, which only some colors contain mineral oil and it’s a small amount, it’s hard to find actual harmful substances in Younique products. I will say that there are a TON of companies that the majority of the makeup obsessed populous flock to, that are chalk full of nasty stuff. In my VERY humble opinion, the few products we have that contain ingredients that are minuscule, in chemical content, compared to the disgusting big box brands that you can’t even find the ingredients on even with extensive research, are far more harmful even if they LOOK pretty. For now I’ll say that I’m still 100% proud that we are still naturally based and cruelty free. Some things can’t be gotten around for the sake of the quality of color or consistency and time (even though we exceed the highest standard in the world no matter what market in which we are distributed) but you can bet that you’ll find a complete list DIRECTLY under each product. Nothing will ever be hidden and the company is doing a damn good job just starting out their 5th year by housing thousands and thousands of women at the retreat that the makeup was created for in the first place. Knock it if you want but I can tell you and anyone else interested that my skin has never been more clear and my scars from childhood acne have never been so small as they have been since I started wearing Younique makeup last March 2016. To this date the actual only complaint I’ve had was the second formula mascara, but that has been a full year in the re-making and it’s now even better than the first and second formula combined. It’s now available for purchase with any presenter.

          • My skincare products are non toxic, I’m very proud to be a Younique presenter. I’ve had cystic acne and huge pores and scars my whole life but the last year that I’ve been using Younique products, even inconsistently sometimes, my skin has naturally improved to the point I don’t even need to wear my foundation all the time. If you’d like to get in contact with me personally I can show you my results. All of my Ysister’s have had the same outcome. Our modules are, nature, love, science, and uplift validate and empower. I’ll never go back to another product. Even if I don’t sell it anymore. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been able to consistently trust.

          • And phenoxyethanol and dimethicone and other not so great ingredients. ? In defense of the mentioned company, they don’t advertise as all natural/chemical/toxin-free, they are “naturally based” which makes a big difference if you are looking for toxin-free.

            • I will also say since using Younique products I have never had such a bad reaction on my face as I have wish this makeup line. I won’t be using any of the foundation/skincare again because of the dryness, burning and breakouts I’ve been experiencing since starting it. Nontoxic…seems anything but.

  3. Hi Chris,
    I’m crossing my fingers that you’ll find this and throw me a ray of hope. I’ve been following you for a long time. I used Interfase Plus at 2 caps a day for 3-4 days, and on one day took 4 caps. I was clearing up a sinus infection. I then found out I was just 4 weeks pregnant. Should I be worried about the EDTA in the interfase plus at that dose having any effects on the baby?
    I am trying to put my mind at ease.
    Thanks, even if you have time for just a sentence, it would make a big difference.

  4. I’m allergic to nickel, gold, formaldehyde, ragweed, and fragrance. I need new make up including moisturizer and cleanser. I need to wear makeup to hide facial hair issues. Please help. I need some names so I can try them.

    • Brautycounter has the strictest testing standards for heavy metals and toxins in the country and quite possibly the world. We ban the 11 toxins banned in the US as well as the 1400+ toxins banned in Europe and then we also ban a few hundred more that have never been tasted for human use. I would love to help you please feel free to call me at 303-518-2151 or email me at [email protected]. My website is beautycounter.com/karenpearl

    • Pure Haven Essentials is a fabulous company with a brand new make up line, beauty spa line, childrens products, cleaning products, and more! They just added essential oils to their line. 100% of their products are made in house, in small batches to gaurantee freshness. All orders go out within two days! Excellent customer service! Check them out!

  5. black chicken remedies does some natural non toxic skincare cleansers etc…pricey but definitely notice a difference…I also like Weleda. 100% pure does a black tea mascara.

    A website called the nourished life look into and sell non toxic vegan ethical skincare products-worthy of a look

  6. Beautycounter! Beautiful Products. Made Safe. Beautycounter’s goal is not necessarily all-organic or all-natural (although they try when they can!) but instead they strive for all-safe! Over 1500 ingredients (and growing!) they will not use. All color products tested for heavy metals before and after manufacturing. See their NeverList to get an idea of what they consider the worst offenders.

    • I second that!! Beautycounter products are not only safe but perform wonderfully! No need to sacrifice health for beauty!

    • I was not impressed with Beautycounter. For all their hype about safety, they still use some questionable ingredients and are really overpriced. You are better off using coconut oil or just making your own.

  7. A while back, you mentioned in a podcast that some facility has been doing cancer research using ALA/Low-dose Naltrexone for treatment of a few types of cancers. In the podcast, it was not clear which institute you referenced (not entirely clear on the name), but it may have been the New Mexico Institute of Integrated Health. Now I can find neither the original podcast, nor information on finding an institution that is using this therapy for treatment of cancer, but I would love to. Can you provide further information on this topic?

  8. Hi just wondering if anyone has tried teva skin care, I can’t seem to find any rating on it as to whether it’s safe.hoping someone can help.

  9. I recently discovered just pure minerals cosmetics (www.justpureminerals.com) and I love their products. The best part is you can get samples of everything before you buy the full size products. For skin care, I just started using Arbonne and I really like it. I have dabbled with making my own stuff too. I have also used Fatface skin care and their deodorant and I have been very happy with that line also (pricey though). The downside of Fatface is that it is made in small batches so it takes a while to get your order (of course I ordered on black Friday so that may be why).

  10. Can anyone tell me how to go about getting the FDA to stop allowing these products to destroy our skin and environment??? This is ridiculous

    • Start by voting with your dollars and only buying safe products from a B Corp Co like Beautycounter-a B Corp means the company is not just for profit but for the people and the Environment. Also write to your Congress. Don’t buy shampoo, body wash, sunscreen, make up etc that has not been tested for safer including heavy metal testing which is often not done. Hope this helps

      • Beautycounter execs are lobbying to get all harmful chemicals out of ALL products, including toothpastes, laundry detergents, cosmetics, diapers, baby oil…etc…

  11. I confess I don’t worry too much about make-up ingredients since I only use makeup about 1-2 times a year. A year when I wear makeup 3-4 times would be a *big* makeup year for me. 🙂

    I confess that I did dye my hair for years when I started noticing gray coming in in my early 30s. But I’m in my early 60s now and have gotten less worried, and in fact feeling that hair without gray at my age is too “fake” looking! I finally dyed my hair for the last time about a year ago. I’m surprised it’ s still about the same shade of blonde it was when I dyed it, but with white around the temples. My natural color is light enough that the blonde and the white sort of blend in together. So far I like how it looks. 🙂

  12. thanks for all of this info Doc and reader! I am trying to find new organic products for my hard to control skin. Great timing!

    • 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!

  13. VersaCleanse is the absolute best cleanser for acne, aging and normal to dry skin. It has AHA/BHA acids, Witch Hazel, Aloe and Green Tea. It has the acids to do the job but it also hydrates the skin and smells amazing. This facewash is my absolute favorite! I would recommend to apply HylaSilk, an HA serum to your skin that will help hydrate, reduce inflammation, reduce TEWL and plump your skin. My two favorite products from this natural, paraben free, medical grade skincare line. You can purchase it at select physician offices or online at http://www.priyanamd.com.

    • Hi Sandra, I would recommend looking into the ingredients in Arbonne. I don’t know about current ingredients, but I know when a friend started selling it 5 years ago I looked into using it and the ingredients were no better than Clinique, Estee Lauder, etc which they advertise to be superior to.

    • Please research Arbonne. Until recently they would not provide ingredient lists. They do have toxins even in their baby products. The skin is the largest organ of the body. You should try and only put on your skin what is safe to ingest by mouth.

    • I use Skin Medica, but I don’t think it falls under the “natural” category! I used their Lytera product for skin lightening. I think it helped a little, and it doesn’t have that hydro-something ingredient that causes cancer.

      I currently use their retinol complex every night. It has made my skin softer and brighter. Natural, though? Probably not.

      • Hi Jen, thx for comment. It may not qualify as “natural” but Ive heard is an amazing brand and right now I’m down to go and try their skin line since I have tried many others, from expensive brands to homemade products, coconut oil, holistic brands and haven’t ha much luck. I was only into natal ingredients which is good if your skin works with that.My naturopath told me that your skin tends to be more acidic when only using natural products, it is ok for science and nature to blend, to not be to extreme on using only once side or the other.

          • Beautycounter contains ingredients that are also harmful to the skin. There is no such thing as “perfect” skin care!

  14. I can understand people using moisturiser etc, but WHY makeup? A bare face is beautiful, but a layer of paint on top of it? Nu-uh. And don’t think that just a little makeup isn’t obvious – it is. Except to those that are not very observant I suppose. I just feel it is such a shame how so many have been so influenced by media and peers to think that they need to wear makeup. Naked faces are so much more attractive than those wearing a mask.

    • Not everybody has a beautiful naked face. I have a condition called melasma, which is basically symmetrical brown patches on my cheekbones. I can’t tell you how many people used to tell me, “I think you have dirt on your face” — until I went to Sephora and learned how to use foundation. Now I don’t get those comments.

      And who appointed you arbiter of what is and isn’t attractive, anyway? Live and let live.

      • I have melasma too due to hormone inbalance, Im working To balance them and even tough I don’t like to wear foundation sometimes I do to ” hide” it a little bit, I understand it can be embarrassing when people stare at your skin when talking to you- at the same time I want a light tinted sunscreen as natural as possible cos adding up foundation on my skin won’t fix the problem either.

        • I use Elta MD SPF 41. It has a slight tint. It’s pretty light and is mineral-based, which is what you should be using (zinc and titanium oxide). I actually don’t like the tint, so I’m going to try another one of their products next time.

    • Cosmetics did not just spring up over the past 100 years thanks to media. Cosmetics has been used going back all the way to ancient Egypt. And there is nothing wrong with wanting to throw on some eye shadow. It is just another way to express yourself and your personality.