Personal care and beauty products can contribute to our overall well-being in many ways. From ensuring basic cleanliness to caring for our bodies to enhancing our aesthetic sense of who we are, and so much more, these products are part of the daily self-care routines of virtually everyone in our society. For some, just a few basic products will do, while others may use a dozen or more every day. Each individual product can consist of many ingredients, all of which come in direct daily contact with our bodies.
While it might seem reasonable to presume that the ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products have been thoroughly tested and are overseen by a regulatory agency, this is not the case. The federal law designed to ensure that personal care products are safe was enacted more than 80 years ago and has not been updated. Under current law, the FDA does not require safety testing of the ingredients in personal care products before they are sold.
Some of the ingredients in personal care products have been linked to concerns such as endocrine disruption, reproductive harm, and even cancer. For example:
Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, meaning they can interfere with or mimic the action of hormones in the body. A class of chemicals used to make plastics more durable, phthalates are a common ingredient in fragrances used in personal care products and cosmetics. Fragrance ingredients are considered trade secrets and, as such, are exempt from labeling requirements.
To avoid phthalates, choose fragrance-free products over those with fragrance on the ingredient list. (Note: “unscented” products are formulated to have no detectable scent, and may actually contain fragrance to achieve that end.)
PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, is a group of thousands of chemicals that can linger in the body for years and in the environment for centuries. These chemicals, which are also used in non-stick cookware, are sometimes added to cosmetics to increase their durability and water resistance. The health effects of only a few PFAS are known, but those compounds have been linked to high cholesterol, thyroid diseases, reduced vaccine effectiveness, lowered fertility and birth weight, as well as testicular and kidney cancer. In one study*, 52% of over 200 products tested contained PFAS, with mascaras and lip products topping that list.
To limit cosmetic-related exposures to PFAS, avoid waterproof and water-resistant products. Read ingredient labels, and don’t purchase products with PTFE or “fluoro-” listed.
Lead is a potential impurity in many cosmetic colorings, including lipstick. A known neurotoxin that is linked to learning and behavioral problems, there is no safe level of lead exposure. It is banned for use in cosmetics in Canada, Japan, and the European Union, and restricted in the U.S. Since lead is a contaminant in many cosmetic colorings, from high-end to affordable brands, and even natural brands, it is not often listed on ingredient labels.
The best strategy to avoid cosmetic-based lead exposure is to save colored products for special occasions, and to encourage young girls to wait to use lipstick.
Parabens, another class of chemicals, are commonly used as preservatives in cosmetic and body care products. Parabens are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that are absorbed through the skin into the body, where they act like estrogen. This can lead to the disruption of male and female reproductive systems, including reproductive development, fertility, and birth outcomes. EDCs are associated with the development of endocrine-related diseases, including breast cancer.
To avoid these chemicals, check ingredient labels for words ending in “paraben,” such as methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, and isopropylparaben.
Toluene, a substance found naturally in crude oil and in the tolu tree, is used in many products including paint thinners, adhesives, rubber, and hair dyes. It is also used in nail polish to suspend the color and form a smooth finish. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has set limits for worker exposure to toluene, many nail salon workers may be exposed to unacceptably high levels of the chemical during long shifts in salons that may lack proper ventilation and monitoring equipment. Without the right safety precautions, toluene can cause a number of symptoms ranging from skin irritation and headaches to neuromuscular changes and reproductive system damage.
Look for toluene-free brands of nail polish; bring your own polish to the salon; and limit polish use, especially for children. Or skip the polish altogether and buff your nails instead.
Finding Safer Alternatives
There are a number of websites and apps to help consumers choose personal care products and cosmetics that are safe, affordable, and work well. Here are a few to get you started:
- The Environmental Working Group offers Skin Deep, a searchable database and app: ewg.org/skindeep/ or search for EWG’s Healthy Living in your app store.
- The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, offered by Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP), offers an informative website for consumers interested in exploring safer options: safecosmetics.org.
- The Detox Me app was created by scientists at the Silent Spring Institute to help people make healthier choices in cosmetics and much more. Go to silentspring.org or search your app store.
- The Think Dirty – Shop Clean app is another searchable database to help consumers evaluate beauty products. It can be found in your app store.
Especially for People of Color
For Black and Brown people, to whom a disproportionate share of cosmetic and personal care products containing ingredients of concern are marketed, and who bear a greater burden of the consequences of chemical exposures, the Non-Toxic Black Beauty Project was created by BCPP’s Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. This database of non-toxic, Black-owned beauty products is one measure to address the environmental injustice of Black beauty. Learn more at safecosmetics.org/black-beauty-project.
Members of our Advocacy Committee are working with legislators to advance laws that will help safeguard the public when it comes to personal care and safety products. To learn more or join them in their work, email email@example.com.
- doi.org/10.1210/endocr/bqac034; Published: 23 March 2022
This story appeared in the Winter 2023 edition of Voices of the Ribbon newsletter.