Parabens are among the most popular and concerning chemicals in modern cosmetics. It is a classification of several distinct chemicals used to extend the shelf life of many cosmetic and skin care products. Parabens have been linked to health issues like cancer, hormone disruption, reproductive toxicity, immune and neuro toxicity, and skin irritation. Parabens are a particularly concerning risk because, when applied to the human skin, they are absorbed and bypass the metabolic process. This allows the chemicals to stay intact in organ tissue and the human blood stream (1). In a 2004 study, traces of 5 different parabens were found in the breast cancer tumors of 19 out of 20 women (2).
Despite being known toxins, these chemicals are extremely common. It’s believed that 75-90 percent of cosmetics and personal care products contain at least one type of paraben (3). Women are estimated to be exposed to 50 mgs of parabens per day, simply through their cosmetic routines. To minimize exposure, check your ingredient lists and avoid products that include chemicals with the word “paraben” at the end. Methylparaben is one of the most common strains, but be sure to pay close attention to the long-chained varieties—propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutylparaben (4).
Phthalates are a common chemical used to keep plastics flexible and cosmetics vibrant, fragrant, and moist. These chemicals are linked to endocrine system (hormone) disruptions. Early exposure to these chemicals may be tied to abnormalities in newborn males, reduced testosterone and sperm quality in men, and developmental defects (5). Phthalates are rarely listed on ingredient lists due to a loophole that doesn’t require companies to disclose the ingredients in their “fragrance,” as it’s regarded as an industry secret. Since the law doesn’t require full disclosure, there’s no precise way of measuring the chemical’s popularity. If you’re trying to limit your exposure to phthalates, it’s best to purchase unscented or fragrance-free products, or products that are “phthalate free.” You can also check your products’ ingredient lists for Diethyl phthalate (DEP), Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), benzylbutyl phthalate (BzBP), or dimethyl phthalate (DMP) (6).
Triclosan is used in cosmetics as a bacteria-killing agent and preservative to prevent the formation of unwanted microorganisms. Like many other anti-bacterials, triclosan has undesirable side-effects, and has been strongly linked to abnormal thyroid signaling and reproductive abnormalities in test animals (7). Not only can this chemical do harm to your body, but it can harm your environment as well. Triclosan is a potent marine ecotoxin, and according to the European Union, it may cause long-term damage to sea life. The FDA recently announced that triclosan should not be considered a safe or effective ingredient in antibacterial soaps or body washes, but be sure to also check the ingredients of all of your cosmetic purchases to avoid other potential exposure to this chemical.
Vitamin A was frequently used in sunscreens and cosmetics because it’s an antioxidant, and often thought to slow the process of aging. Retinyl palmitate and retinoic acid are the most common forms of vitamin A, and based on studies conducted by the FDA, also the most unsafe. Scientists commissioned by the U.S. government found that retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate actually speed the development of cancerous lesions and tumors when skin is exposed to sunlight (8). Large industries continue to fight these claims, but the FDA suggests being leery of products including vitamin A (especially manufactured vitamin A) when you’re in the sun. Ensure you’re safe from sun damage by avoiding products that contain vitamin a, retinoic acid, retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate, and retinyl acetate.
Aluminum is used in cosmetics and personal care products, and is possibly linked to a number of health issues such as breast cancer and Alzheimer’s. Often leveraged as an anti-sweat agent, aluminum is known to function like a temporary plug, stopping the flow of sweat to the surface of your skin. It seems convenient, but we sweat to rid our bodies of toxins. Aluminum’s temporary sweat blockage forces toxins back into our bloodstream, increasing the concern for neurotoxicity (9).
Many of us are familiar with formaldehyde as the chemical used to preserve dead bodies, and yes, that formaldehyde has found its way into your cosmetics. Formaldehyde releasers are agents are used in makeup to keep bacteria from forming in water. Over time, these chemicals begin to release a small amount of formaldehyde (10). According to the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, formaldehyde is a strong, carcinogenic allergen, but sadly, this doesn’t limit its popularity. A 2010 study found that nearly one fifth of all cosmetics contained a formaldehyde releaser (11). Since then, large companies like Johnson & Johnson have promised to phase out these ingredients, but according to their website, they’re still used in a handful of new products. Be sure to check your labels for DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, and quaternium-15 to ensure you and your family are protected.
(2) Darbre PD, et al., Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumors. Journal of Applied Toxicology, vol. 24, pp 5-13, 2004.(3)
(7) Veldhoen N, Skirrow RC, Osachoff H, Wigmore H, Clapson DJ, Gunderson MP, et al. 2006. The bactericidal agent triclosan modulates thyroid hormone-associated gene expression and disrupts postembryonic anuran development. Aquatic toxicology (Amsterdam, Netherlands) 80(3): 217-227.