Many personal care products contain harmful chemicals, here’s what to do about it

Many personal care products contain harmful chemicals, here’s what to do about it

Written by Knvul Sheikh


Every day, we use soaps, lotions, deodorants, hair products and cosmetics on various parts of our bodies. But in recent years, an increasing number of reports have raised concerns about many of them.

Researchers have found dangerous levels of mercury in skin lightening and anti-aging creams; they’ve linked chemicals in hair dyes and straighteners to breast and uterine cancer; they’ve traced fragrances in soaps and shampoos to poor semen quality and fertility issues. Most American children are also exposed to toxic chemicals — from a wide variety of sources — that may be a cause of learning and developmental disorders, obesity and asthma.

To be sure, not all chemicals are bad for your health. And you’re just as likely to encounter unsafe chemicals in processed foods and drinks, home furnishings and even prescription medicines as you are in personal care products. But low doses of iffy chemicals can add up over time and with exposure to multiple products, said Dr. Shruthi Mahalingaiah, an assistant professor of environmental, reproductive and women’s health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Cosmetics and personal care products are notoriously under regulated. Companies often spruce up labels with words like “naturally derived,” “nontoxic” and “clean” — which sound good but are basically just marketing terms. How is the average consumer supposed to sort through which chemicals might do them harm?

Even experts do not always agree on how much exposure to a chemical is too much. And tests to check individual exposure levels are extremely limited. But researchers say that people should choose products that don’t increase overall exposure to toxins when and where they can. This is particularly important when the body is undergoing crucial cellular and hormonal changes, like during pregnancy, early childhood and puberty.

You do not have to overhaul your entire routine overnight. In fact, many researchers who study environmental toxins admit that they still hold on to a few favorite creams and sprays with dubious ingredients. Most think of the shift to safer personal care products as a slow, lifelong process, akin to eating healthier food: You can take stock of what you put on, or in, your body from time to time and update your shopping cart with better options whenever you purchase new items. Here’s where to start.


The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees cosmetics products in the United States, has banned about a dozen ingredients for safety reasons. (Canada, Japan and European Union countries have hundreds more chemicals that they have banned.) Chemicals must meet a high bar for causing harm in humans before they are regulated in the United States. For example, many studies in animals and some studies in humans have established a link between cancer later in life and exposure to many of the chemicals below, but they remain legal and ubiquitous because there isn’t strong enough evidence yet to prove a causal effect.

Chemicals must meet a high bar for causing harm in humans before they are regulated in the United States. (Pic source: Pexels)

Several states, such as California and Maryland, have enacted laws that will go into effect in January 2025, banning additional chemicals based on the growing observational evidence against them.

While this is not an exhaustive list, here are some common chemicals named in the recent state bans, as well as ones that are frequently flagged by researchers and consumer advocacy groups. These chemicals appear on the ingredients lists of products containing them.


WHAT IT IS: BHA is commonly used as a preservative in personal care products that contain oils or fats, such as lipsticks, eyeliners and moisturizers. WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Studies in rats (the findings of which do not always apply to humans but can suggest areas for human research) have linked BHA to stomach cancer, damage to kidney cells, and to the development of reproductive systems in males and females.

Several groups consider it a potential human carcinogen, including the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, the U.S. National Toxicology Program, and the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, which compiles the state’s Proposition 65 list of harmful chemicals that businesses must warn customers about. Its relative, butylated hydroxytoluene, or BHT, is considered slightly less toxic but has also been flagged for regulation in Europe and Japan.


WHAT IT IS: Coal tar is a thick brown-black liquid. M-phenylenediamine, o-phenylenediamine and p-phenylenediamine are compounds that were originally derived from coal tar and are now often produced synthetically. They are frequently found in hair dyes. The darker the dye, the more phenylenediamine it typically contains.

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Coal tar dyes may cause allergic reactions or skin irritation that can result in hair loss. Epidemiological data has also linked some coal tar dyes to an increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, acute leukemia and bladder cancer. Products containing more than trace amounts of m- and o -phenylenediamine will be banned in California and Maryland in 2025.


WHAT IT IS: DEA is part of a group of chemicals frequently used as emulsifiers in products that are creamy or foamy, like shampoos and shaving creams. Its relatives include monoethanolamine (MEA) and triethanolamine (TEA).

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: These compounds often react with other preservatives in personal care products to form nitrosamines, which are chemicals that the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the U.S. National Toxicology Program identify as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Because of the potential for this reaction, DEA is prohibited in cosmetics in Europe and Canada and consumer advocates recommend avoiding other ethanolamines as well.


WHAT IT IS: Formaldehyde is a strong-smelling chemical that is used to lengthen the shelf-life of some cosmetics, hair straighteners and nail polishes. Some companies have started moving away from formaldehyde use, but other preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria in water-based personal care products — like shampoos and liquid baby soaps — can still release formaldehyde gas over time. These include DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, glyoxal, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate and quaternium-15.

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Exposure to low levels of formaldehyde fumes is known to irritate the eyes, nose and throat, while higher exposures, particularly over longer periods of time, have been linked to nose and throat cancers as well as other ailments in certain workers, such as hair stylists and manicurists. Formaldehyde, paraformaldehyde and quaternium-15 are included in California and Maryland’s bans.


WHAT IT IS: Fragrance formulas are considered trade secrets, which means companies can hide any number of chemical ingredients under the umbrella terms “fragrance” or “parfum.” A product’s label can say “unscented” and still have one of these terms in the ingredient list because some fragrance compounds may be used as dyes, solvents or stabilizers for active ingredients or for masking other undesirable smells in a product.

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: According to the International Fragrance Association, there are more than 3,600 chemicals used in fragrance mixtures around the world. These include chemicals that environmental exposure researchers and toxicologists agree should be avoided, such as benzophenone, BHA, naphthalene and phthalates. Other ingredients in fragrances can trigger skin allergies, eczema, nasal irritation and asthma. Studies on some of the chemicals in fragrances, such as diethyl phthalate and musk ketones, have also suggested that they can interrupt normal hormone function, which has been linked to ovarian failure and sperm damage.


WHAT IT IS: Isobutane is a component of natural gas and crude oil that is commonly used as a propellant in aerosol sprays like many of the dry shampoos, sunscreens and deodorants that were recently recalled. Isobutane is not typically of concern on its own, but benzene, a known carcinogen that is also found in crude oil, has frequently been found to contaminate it and other petroleum-derived propellants like butane and propane.

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: According to the W.H.O., there is “no safe level of exposure” to benzene in the air we breathe. In the short term, high levels of benzene can cause headaches, dizziness, vomiting and a rapid heart rate. Chronic exposure can have more severe effects, slowing down the production of red blood cells and damaging white blood cells critical to the immune system. Studies have also shown that benzene exposure causes several types of leukemias.


WHAT THEY ARE: Compounds that have “paraben” in their name, such as methylparaben and propylparaben, are another group of preservatives used in water-based products. Low concentrations of parabens are found in shampoos and conditioners, face washes, toothpastes and other cosmetics.

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Animal studies have shown that parabens tend to mimic the effects of the hormone estrogen, and in human studies paraben exposure has been linked to increased incidence of breast cancer in females, as well as the disruption of reproductive systems in males. California and Maryland have banned isobutylparaben and isopropylparaben in cosmetics, effective January 2025, but other types, like methylparaben and ethylparaben, will remain unregulated.


WHAT THEY ARE: Phthalates are a class of chemicals that are commonly found in a variety of vinyl plastics. They are also used in eyelash glues, as well as some makeup and other personal care products with fragrance.

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: In 2008, after these chemicals were shown to disrupt hormone function and impair fertility, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission restricted six types of phthalates in children’s toys and child care products. Many personal care product manufacturers have since phased out the direct use of phthalates. Two types — dibutyl phthalate, DBP, and diethylhexyl phthalate, DEHP — will be banned in California and Maryland.


WHAT THEY ARE: PEGs are chemicals used to thicken liquid hand soaps, makeup foundations and creams. They are also used to enhance the absorption of other ingredients into the skin.

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Because of the way PEGs are manufactured, they are frequently contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, which have been linked to cancer over the long term.


WHAT IT IS: Talc is a naturally occurring mineral used to absorb moisture and make makeup opaque. It became notorious after thousands of lawsuits claimed that Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based baby powder caused cancer. The company discontinued North American sales of the product in 2020 and said that it would stop selling the powder globally in 2023. But several other manufacturers still use talc in powder foundations, eye shadows, blotting sheets and deodorants.

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Scientific literature going back to the 1960s and ’70s has suggested that talc use, particularly in the pelvic area, is linked to cancer. There are also concerns that talc can be contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen that is found near talc mines. The F.D.A. tests cosmetics that contain talc for asbestos every year, but the number of products the agency reviews is extremely limited — usually around 50 samples or fewer.

Several products with harsh chemicals are targeted to women of color in particular, Dr. Zota said. (Pic source: Pexels)


WHAT IT IS: Toluene is a colorless liquid found in crude oil. It is used to help formulate adhesives, nail products and hair dyes.

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Studies have linked chronic toluene exposure to nervous system damage that can affect hearing, color vision, concentration and memory. Some research suggests that toluene may also decrease immune responses. California’s Proposition 65 lists the chemical as one that causes potential human developmental damage.


WHAT THEY ARE: Triclosan and triclocarban are antimicrobial agents that were formerly in hand soaps and body washes and are still found in many toothpastes, deodorants and personal care items.

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: In a ruling that went into effect in 2017, the F.D.A. banned the use of triclosan, triclocarban and several other antimicrobial agents in soaps but not other products. According to the agency, the addition of these chemicals to soap was not shown to be effective and the safety of their long-term use was not clear. Animal studies, for example, have suggested that triclosan is associated with a decrease in some thyroid hormones. There is also evidence suggesting that overuse of antimicrobial products like triclosan induces bacterial resistance to important antibiotic medicines.


Remember that in most cases, the size of the dose determines whether something is harmful to your health. You don’t need to throw out all of your soaps and serums immediately.

“It is easy to demonize a product or one source of exposure, but the goal is really to reduce your overall body burden,” Dr. Mahalingaiah said. Instead of trying to completely eliminate a chemical from your life, count how many products with dubious ingredients are in your routine and start cutting out items. You can repeat the process every month or so to continue reducing your exposure as much as possible.

“One approach is to reduce the things that you’re putting directly on your skin and that stay there for long periods of time,” said Ami Zota, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. So you might want to scrutinize the ingredients in a lipstick or a moisturizer more closely than in a product that goes on your hair, or that you rinse off immediately.

You might also cut back on harsh products you’ve been using for years or decades, Dr. Zota said, while giving yourself a break on a newer product that you use to get glammed up only once in a while.

Several products with harsh chemicals are targeted to women of color in particular, Dr. Zota said. Her studies and other research have consistently shown that women of color have higher levels of potentially harmful chemicals in their bodies and a higher risk of developing cancer and reproductive health issues compared with white women.

Surveys show that many Black women begin using chemical hair straighteners before the age of 10. And skin-lightening products are particularly popular among women of African, Indian, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian descent. “Racialized beauty standards play an important role in what products we use and how frequently we use them,” Dr. Zota said.

Many researchers and advocates now argue for accepting natural hair and eliminating unnecessary skin care steps.


You can search for a product by name or bar code on apps by the Environmental Working Group and Think Dirty to find ingredients of concern. They also provide a score based on the number of hazards linked to various chemicals. Clearya’s browser extension and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ Non-Toxic Black Beauty Database have similar offerings.

While these databases indicate the presence of some health hazards, the scores do not account for how, or how frequently, you use a product, which means they can’t give you a bigger-picture sense of the possible risk.

“Often the answer is not black or white,” said Amit Rosner, the chief executive and co-founder of Clearya. “It’s somewhere in between, and different people can make different decisions around what they perceive as their personal risk.” You may decide to pay more attention to the chemical risks of products you use every day, but give yourself a break on products you use once a week or less. Other people may only replace items that have caused skin irritations or other reactions in the past.


Some third-party certifications and seals of approval are intended to help consumers narrow down better alternatives amid aisles full of competing products. For example, “U.S.D.A. Organic” can denote products made with organic ingredients, while “COSMOS Natural” products are audited not only based on ingredients but also their manufacturing processes and eco-friendly packaging. There are also labels like “E.W.G. Verified” and “Made Safe,” as well as in-store programs like “Target Clean” or “Clean at Sephora” that signify products have met certain safety standards.

All of these labels are a little different from each other, said Gloria Lu, a chemist who consults for cosmetics companies and is a co-founder of the skin care science blog Chemist Confessions. “The definition of what is ‘clean’ is evolving rapidly,” Ms. Lu said. “Each retailer or certifying organization may have their own definition of what clean means.”

If a product or brand does not have one of these seals of approval, that doesn’t automatically mean it is toxic, Ms. Lu said. In some cases companies have to pay a fee to get approved for a label like “E.W.G. Verified.” And small beauty and personal care companies may choose not to get certified because of the cost.


Some experts say supporting companies that are more transparent about fragrance mixtures and choosing “cleaner” ingredients over traditional ones will help bring about wider change. Consumers can also report bad reactions to products by contacting manufacturers, calling an F.D.A. consumer complaint coordinator or filling out an F.D.A. Voluntary MedWatch form.

You can ask companies to clearly post results of tests that find contaminants and which products or batches they are in. You can also reach out to independent labs to suggest products or ingredients that should be tested more rigorously.

But many experts say that strengthening F.D.A. oversight is the only way to ensure the safety of products before we come into intimate contact with them. Some large personal care companies, like Beautycounter, the Estee Lauder Companies, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and Unilever have supported recent bills calling for more regulation.

“It has to be emphasized that consumers are put in this difficult position,” Dr. Zota said, “because this huge industry is severely under regulated.”

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