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Toxic beauty ingredients that could harm your health

That some beauty products contain toxic ingredients acting as endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and skin irritants is not news anymore. But that the FDA experts have so little control over what we apply every day on our skin is always an unpleasant surprise. Now, cosmetic and personal care industry is regulated by the two-page act enacted 76 years ago. In April last year, a new act was introduced seeking greater authority for the FDA.

The increasing public awareness of organic products has led many celebrities to promote beauty without harmful ingredients. Gisele Bundchen, Jessica Alba, Miranda Kerr, Olivia Wilde and Cameron Diaz are some of the big names supporting the so-called green beauty movement. And they are not alone in their battle. Green make-up artists, including Louise Dartford, Jessica Belknap, Kristen Arnett, Katy Denno and Paige Padgett benefit the community while fighting for safer cosmetics.


The chemical usually found in nail treatments, nail polishes and hair dyes is restricted in Europe, but not in the USA. Toluene can result in minor health problems, including cracked skin, dizziness and headache. Exposure to high levels of this chemical can lead to kidney, heart, liver, brain and nervous system health issues making nail salon workers the vulnerable population.

Titanium dioxide

Experts from Ultraceuticals warn that titanium dioxide is an effective UVA filter in creams, but when found in loose powders, aerosolized sunscreens, blushes and when inhalable, it is a possible human carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer claim that the chemical can cause cancer, since various studies confirmed increased lung cancers in animals.


Commonly found in sunscreens as UVB filters, PABA and PABA derivatives can negatively affect thyroid activity as well as other endocrine glands. PABA was first used in the 1970s. Soon, due to photosensitivity and allergic dermatitis, cosmetic companies decreased the use of PABA and introduced PABA derivatives, which can also pose health risks. Avoid any sun lotion containing PABA, OD-PABA, p-aminobenzoic acid, para-aminobenzoic acid, padimate O, or 4-aminobenzoic acid.


According to the Skin Deep database, 22% of around 25,000 products contain 1,4-dioxane, a human carcinogen. The chemical is created when other ingredients in cosmetic products react, meaning that 1,4-dioxane can never be found on any ingredient label. Consumers should pay attention to hair relaxers, liquid soaps, shampoos and bubble baths with the following chemicals: oleth, sodium laureth sulfate, xynol, PEG compounds and ceteareth.


Used in order to prevent bacteria growth in products, parabens are hormone-disrupting ingredients absorbed through the skin, digestive system and blood. Propylparaben, ethylparaben, methylparaben, butylparaben, isopropylparaben and isobutylparaben are found in products which contain water in large amounts. Avoid the lotions, cleansers, shampoos and conditioners with any type of the ingredients ending in –paraben.


Another preservative preventing microbe growth in water-based personal care products is formaldehyde. Most commonly found in liquid baby soaps and shampoos, but also in nail treatment and hair care products, formaldehyde is linked to cancer and allergic skin reactions. Some of the formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are: 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bronopol), quaternium-15, polyoxymethylene urea, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, glyoxal and DMDM hydantoin.


Phthalates are common ingredients in a large number of personal and cosmetic products, from fragranced lotions and color cosmetics to hair care products, soaps, body washes and skin moisturizers down to nail treatments. The Thirteenth Report on Carcinogens labeled phthalates as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”. In addition, they are listed as endocrine disruption ingredients and associated with developmental and reproductive toxicity. Breastfeeding and pregnant women are the most vulnerable population.

Even though the future may seem bleak, at least when it comes to personal care and cosmetic industry related health issues, we as consumers can take action and fight for products free of toxicity. We can carefully read the ingredient label and consult the Skin Deep database for any ingredient we are not sure of. We can also use the Think Dirty application, which allows us to scan the product’s barcode, or input the product’s name in order to discover potentially toxic chemicals. Finally, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics made letter templates consumers can send to the FDA, cosmetic companies and other officials demanding safe products.

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