The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act does not authorize FDA to approve cosmetic ingredients, with the exception of color additives that are not coal-tar hair dyes.   In general, cosmetic manufacturers may use any ingredient they choose, except for a few ingredients that are prohibited by regulation.   However, it is against the law to market a cosmetic in interstate commerce if it is adulterated.

So what chemicals are in these products?


Parabens are probably the most well-known, harmful ingredient.   There are several different parabens; the more common ones used in cosmetics are methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben.  All three of these parabens act as a preservative and kill bacteria.  They are often used together in cosmetics because the combination of parabens makes them more powerful, and therefore not as much is needed to do the trick.

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (an industry-sponsored organization that reviews cosmetic ingredient safety and publishes its results in open, peer-reviewed literature) reviewed the safety of methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben in 1984 and concluded they were safe for use in cosmetic products at levels up to 25%.  Parabens typically are used at levels ranging from 0.01 to 0.3%.   The topic was revisited in 2005 and the same conclusion was reached.

However, parabens act a lot like estrogen, and they have been found in breast tumors, according to a study published in 2004 in the Journal of Applied Toxicology.


Phthalates, or plasticizers, are used in cosmetics to hold color and scents, and have also been found in nail polish and treatments.  A significant loophole in the law allows phthalates (and other chemicals) to be added to fragrances without disclosure.

Phthalates are not naturally occurring compounds, yet they are now ubiquitous in human bodies.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the CDC separately studied close to 3000 people and found that close to 100% had metabolites of phthalates in their urine samples.  They speculated these high levels could come from personal care products and cosmetics, among other things.

Feminization of male babies has been linked to phthalate exposure.  Phthalates have also been linked to breast cancer.   Phthalate exposure has been linked to low sperm counts, infertility, and alterations in sex hormones resulting in fetal loss. Gray LE, et al. (2006)   Chronic di-n-butyl phthalate exposure in rats reduces fertility and alters ovarian function during pregnancy in female Long Evans hooded rats. Toxicological Science 93(1):189-95.

Other Chemicals

Fragrances may contain xylene or ketones. Use of musk xylene has declined sharply since the mid-1980s due to safety and environmental concerns.  It is a very persistent and very bio-accumulative pollutant.

Triclosans are antibacterial and used as preservatives.   The antibacterial nature may have a part in a part in the evolution of drug resistant bacteria.  Animal studies have shown that hormone alteration is a result of exposure to triclosans.

Although the amounts of these chemicals and compounds present in cosmetics may seem insignificant, these cosmetics are typically used every day over long periods of time.  The cumulative effect of this exposure can cause health problems; things like infertility, cancer, and autoimmunity disorders.

There are many toxins and pollutants present in the environment, and it is difficult to limit our exposure to all them.  This makes it even more important to be vigilant and avoid exposure to as many things as we can – particularly those things, like cosmetics, over which we do have control.

I think it is best to avoid those things which can cause a health problem. What do you think?

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