Are cosmetic chemicals dangerous?

Though I’ve been horrified by the chemicals contaminating food for quite a while, I really had not thought much about cosmetic chemicals before reading the book Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry by Stacy Malkan. However, because of my interest in chemical-free living in general, I was intrigued by the book and requested a copy to review from the publisher. The book was published in 2007 and now I really wish I had known about it then and could have read it earlier. It’s a must read.

How did harmful chemicals get into cosmetics?

Malkan explains how due to a weak regulatory environment and loopholes in U.S. federal law related to cosmetics, Americans are put at risk of exposure to carcinogens and other toxic chemicals in cosmetics. Although various legislators have tried in recent years (since the book’s publication) to create legislation, the FDA still has no authority or resources to regulate cosmetics and relies on the cosmetics industry to regulate itself. As the book details, this method of regulation has proven to be very ineffective and many of the cosmetics sold in the U.S. have been found to contain harmful chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, infertility, and learning disabilities.

Malkan covers the history of how chemicals found their way into so many cosmetics. To me, it’s easy to see the parallels, which Malkan draws, between the fight against chemicals in cosmetics with those against tobacco and pollution. She also says that cosmetics in the U.S. are often less safe compared to cosmetics produced for Europeans (even when they’re made by the same company!), and how several chemicals, which have been banned in Europe are still being used in the U.S. Also particularly interesting is her discussion of “pinkwashing” whereby cosmetic (and other) companies heavily promote their support of the fight against breast cancer while simultaneously lacing their products with carcinogens.

Though the primary reason that cosmetic companies put these chemicals into their products is to save on costs, Malkan assures us that there are safer and cost effective alternatives, which companies could use instead.

Toxic cosmetic chemicals

Malkan describes several studies, which have found human beings, as young as newborn babies, to be “contaminated with hundreds of industrial chemical compounds, including pesticides, stain repellents, flame retardants, plasticizers, even PCBs.” According to Malkan, “…the average woman uses a dozen personal care products containing 168 chemical ingredients every day. Men use about six products a day containing 85 chemicals.” Even though cosmetic companies often argue that the levels of these chemicals are very low, they accumulate over repeated exposures to cosmetics as well as to other exposures (in food, water, air, toys, furniture, etc.).

Some of the top offender chemicals discussed in the book include phthalates (pronounced THA-lates), parabens, petroleum-derived substances, sodium lauryl sulfate, formaldehyde, bisphenol A, and perhaps the scariest – “fragrance” (which it turns out could really include most anything!). However, this just chips the surface of the many chemicals, which have been found in cosmetics – the book discusses many more.

Here are just a few of the cosmetic products I threw away after reading this book. Ordinarily, I am so focused on finding ways to use what I have and not waste money, but after reading this book, I felt that keeping these harmful products is certainly not worth their expense. Besides, these came from my sisters’ and my collection of cosmetics mostly acquired during middle school (over 15 years ago!) so they really needed to be tossed anyway. I was also surprised to see how many of the travel-sized products I’ve picked up from hotels, listed no ingredient information at all. I will warn you, if you read this book, you’ll likely be inspired to do a similar cleanout. And I hope you will – it’s really such a relief!

Endocrine Disruptors and Infertility

I was particularly interested in Malkan’s discussion of endocrine disruptors (synthetic chemicals which interfere with the endocrine system) in cosmetics. Perhaps because I’m at an age when many of my friends are starting to have children, but I’m also hearing more and more about fertility issues. After reading about endocrine disrupters in cosmetics, it makes sense to me that chemicals, which mimic hormones, could very likely impact fertility.

Chemical Sensitivity

One case study in the book discusses a woman with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). Now that I know about the many toxic chemicals in cosmetics, I’m not surprised that some people experience adverse reactions when exposed to them even in very low doses. In fact, I recently saw an event invitation asking attendees to “please come scent-free to help make this event accessible to everyone.”

Disparities in Exposures to Toxic Cosmetics

I learned that one of the most toxic types of cosmetics is nail polish. It was really troubling to read how nail salon workers who are frequently exposed to these products experience health problems such as skin and respiratory issues.

Skin whitening/lightening products, which are very popular in Asian countries, are also among the most harmful cosmetics, containing toxic heavy metals. Unfortunately, they are also big money makers for the cosmetics industry.

Along with nail polish and skin whitening products, the third most toxic group of products includes relaxers, dyes, and perms, which are most frequently used by black women. These products often contain placenta and estrogenic hormones, which have been connected to breast cancer and early sexual maturity. Though I have worked on several public health projects related to cancer disparities among black women, I hate to say I never knew about the connection with harmful cosmetics until reading this book.

So, what can you do?

Are you outraged, yet? There is some good news. Malkan talks about the work of The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (and their Compact pledge) as well as several other organizations, which you can follow and support. You can also use the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database to view toxicity rankings and information for different cosmetics. However, I would still recommend that you read the book in full to learn lots more about specific chemicals to avoid, healthy cosmetics companies to support (some of which are making food-grade cosmetics), and other ways you can get involved. Also, as I mentioned earlier, this book was published in 2007 so hopefully there have also been other improvements in regulating and cleaning up cosmetics since then. Please comment below if you know of any.

Want to win a copy of the book?

The publisher of Not Just a Pretty Face has agreed to give away a copy of the book to one of our blog readers in the US or Canada. So, check out the giveaway instructions below. Be sure to use your real name when leaving a comment so that we can match it up with your entry in case you win.

a Rafflecopter giveaway
Janie Hynson, MPH lives in North Carolina and works in public health and sustainable agriculture. She is particularly interested in how health can be enhanced by improving our food system and environment.

This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you purchase something after clicking on a link, Healthier Paths will make a small percentage while you still pay exactly the same amount as you otherwise would. Thanks for your support.

Get our latest newsletter by email!

Subscribe and receive a free download of Healthier Path's Life Tracker. You can't change what you don't measure, so tracking what you do is the first step on a healthier path!

Powered by ConvertKit


  1. Anne Veselik

    I wish I had known all this earlier, too. I’m happy I know now and can quickly and easily do something about it. I even started working for a company that put’s people and healthy first, Poofy Organics. Thanks for your article!

Leave a Comment