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Doesn’t the government regulate toxic chemicals in cosmetics?

Cosmetics are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but compared to food and drugs, cosmetic products receive little government scrutiny. Except for nine chemicals that are prohibited or highly restricted, as well as color additives, which are strictly regulated, virtually anything can be put in a cosmetic product. No safety testing is required. FDA, in its own words, “is only able to regulate cosmetics after products are released to the marketplace. Neither cosmetic products nor cosmetic ingredients are reviewed or approved by FDA before they are sold to the public. FDA cannot require companies to do safety testing of their cosmetic products before marketing.” In contrast, the European Union prohibits the use in cosmetics of more than 1,100 chemicals that are known or suspected carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxicants.

I don’t wear makeup or perfume. So, this doesn’t apply to me, right?

Not necessarily. Legally, the term cosmetics includes any products you apply to your body that are not drugs. Hair color, shampoo and conditioner, soap, deodorant, and skin lotions are all cosmetics, along with lipstick, nail polish, and makeup. A recent survey found that the average adult uses nine cosmetic products every day, with a total of 126 chemical ingredients.

Are chemicals in cosmetics absorbed through the skin?

Yes, though individual chemicals vary widely in their ability to be absorbed by skin. Some areas of the body absorb chemicals much more readily than others, including the lips, and the skin under the arms and around the eyes. In addition, many products contain penetration enhancers, chemicals that allow other ingredients to penetrate skin more deeply and quickly.

Also, some chemicals in cosmetics are inhaled or ingested during use. Fragrances contain volatile chemicals that are meant to be inhaled, and nail polish and remover contain solvents that are inhaled (nail polish is essentially a solvent-based paint, and nail polish remover is like paint remover). Baby powder and other powders, as well as aerosol products such as deodorants and hair sprays, may also be inhaled during use. Products applied on or around the lips can be ingested during application or afterwards.

What is the scoop on phthalates? How can I avoid them?

Phthalates are plasticizing chemicals that have been called “the everywhere chemicals” because they are used in so many types of products. Birth defects have been observed in human and animal tests, raising concerns especially for women of reproductive age. Phthalates are also linked with asthma, and kidney and liver damage. Phthalates are common ingredients in fragrances (perfumes, colognes, etc.) and many products containing fragrance, as well as nail polishes and treatments.

Avoid fragrances and products listing ‘fragrance’ as an ingredient (this can include a wide variety of products such as deodorant, soap, hair products, skin care products, and makeup). Products that claim to be ‘fragrance free’ on packaging may contain masking fragrances to cover the odor of other ingredients; make sure that the ingredient list doesn’t include ‘fragrance’. Also avoid products that list phthalates in the ingredients: look out for nail polishes and treatments in particular, which often contain dibutyl phthalate (DBP). Finally, consider products from companies that have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, an agreement to phase out ingredients linked with long-term health effects within three years.

Is it true that some hair dyes contain lead?

Yes. Some gradual hair colors contain lead acetate. Lead is an extremely toxic chemical that harms children’s intelligence, and no safe level of exposure has been found. Although the FDA has specifically stated that lead-based hair dyes are safe if used as directed, we recommend avoiding them, especially if you will have contact with children.

Hair coloring products are among the most hazardous cosmetics. Least dangerous are probably the temporary dyes. Permanent dyes contain a mixture of potent chemicals that can cause skin, eye, or respiratory irritation at the least and more serious effects such as cancer are possible. Coal-tar colors are used in some hair dyes; many coal-tar colors are carcinogenic and products containing them should be avoided.

Is there a list of specific chemical ingredients that I should avoid? How do I find safe products?

We recommend avoiding products containing the ingredients listed below. You can research products that you are using, or considering using, in the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database. This database ranks thousands of products based on their safety, and also provides information on chemical ingredients. Try to choose products from companies that have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, an agreement to phase out ingredients linked with long-term health effects within three years (see our FastFacts below, Are there non-toxic brands of cosmetics?). Click here for tips on choosing safer cosmetics from the EWG website.

Here are several ingredients of concern:

  • Phthalates: common ingredients in fragrances (perfumes, colognes, etc.), fragranced products, and nail polishes and treatments. See the FactFacts above for more.
  • Lead acetate and coal-tar colors: read more in our FastFacts about hair dyes, above.
  • PFAS: found in some nail polishes and treatments and various other cosmetics. PFAS are extremely persistent in the environment. Learn more about PFAS (perfluorinated compounds) here.
  • Mercury: potent neurotoxin found in some pain/wound treatments and eye drops. You can locate specific products to avoid in the Skin Deep database.
  • Triclosan: antibacterial ingredient found in hand soaps and various other cosmetics. See the FastFacts about hand soaps below.

Additional lists of ingredients of concern include:

Are there non-toxic brands of cosmetics?

Over 300 companies have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, an agreement to phase out ingredients linked with long-term health effects within three years. Bear in mind that people differ in their reactions (such as allergic responses or irritation) to ingredients in cosmetics, even those that are not linked with long-term health effects.

Are antimicrobial hand soaps better than ordinary hand soaps?

No. Scrubbing hands with hot water and plain soap is just as effective. Antibacterial soaps have little effect against viruses and therefore don’t protect against colds or the flu any more than ordinary soap. Also, the overuse of antibacterial products could lead to germs that are harder to kill. For information on the hazards posed by antimicrobial products, read our fact sheet, Antimicrobial Products: Who Needs Them? (67kb PDF file).