Stop poisoning yourself with beauty!

in That Makes Sense by

Men and women have used cosmetics since 10,000 BC, for health, hygiene and aesthetic reasons. Although the types and styles of cosmetics have undergone intense changes over time, it has always been a part of our culture. FDA defines cosmetics as “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body…for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance” [FD&C Act, sec. 201(i)]. In recent times, with changing social dynamics and thanks to social media, we judge people based on their appearance more than ever. The huge boom in the global cosmetic market, which is estimated to reach $675 billion by 2020, is a testament of this fact. According to a survey, women use 16 products every day on an average in the US, which contain hundreds of different chemicals, some of which are extremely hazardous.

Since the cosmetic industry is not as highly regulated as the food or drug industry, these products don’t need to be approved by the FDA before being marketed, unless they use color additives and/or any of the banned chemicals. Consequently, the onus is onto us to educate ourselves on the risk of chemical toxicity and possible health hazards of using different cosmetics and make an informed decision.

Commonly used murky chemicals and possible risks attached

  1. Phthalates: Apart from being used in packaging, household products and pharmaceuticals, phthalates are widely used in makeup and cosmetics like shampoo, soap, hair spray, nail polish, perfumes, lotions etc. in the form of dibutyl, dimethyl or diethyl phthalate. The latter work as a plasticizer, making the products such as nail polish or hair spray less brittle or more flexible.

Although risk of potential health problem due to low level of phthalate exposure in humans are still under investigation, some phthalates like di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate are believed to be human carcinogens. Di-n-butyl phthalate, for example, when consumed in high amounts show an adverse effect on animal reproduction in the laboratory.

  1. Parabens: Various parabens (methyl, ethyl, propyl and butyl paraben) are most commonly used in cosmetics as preservative to protect them against microorganisms, thus prolonging shelf life. We can easily find parabens in shaving creams, makeup, hair gel, deodorant, moisturizing creams. At present, FDA gives a clean chit to parabens, but some studies have raised concerns. Paraben being biologically active, can mimic estrogen and androgen. It can inhibit the sulfotransferase enzyme, hence increasing chances of breast cancer as well as affecting male reproductive functions.
  1. Dioxane: Though dioxane is not added to cosmetics intentionally for any purpose, it’s a byproduct of foaming agents, emulsifiers or some solvents, and could be present as a contaminant.

Limited data available show that 1,4-dioxane targets liver and kidneys. Long-term exposures to high doses of dioxane through drinking water, showed elevated chance of liver tumors in rats. Exposure to dioxane has also been related to fatal hemorrhage in kidney and lesions. Unlike phthalates and parabens, FDA does monitor the levels of 1,4-dioxane in personal care products.

  1. Coal tar: Initially, coal tar was introduced by the cosmetic industry in the form of permanent hair dyes. Color additives used in hair dyes nowadays are derived from petroleum. As the colors derived from both petroleum and coal tar can be chemically identical, all of these colors fall under the category of “coal tar dyes”.

Coal tar has been proven to be carcinogenic. Increased risk of bladder cancer has been found in women who frequently dyed their hair. Occupational exposure to coal tar dyes in case of hairstylist, barbers, beauticians also pose risk of a higher incidence of cancer.

Although most color additives need FDA approval, coal tar dye is somehow an exception. If a product label shows a special caution statement about allergic reaction and other possible harmful side effects, and includes an instruction about proper usage of the product, FDA cannot use its authority to take action against a coal-tar hair dye!

  1. Hydroquinone: Skin bleaching has always been a part of some cultures, mostly in Asia, which leads to the risks of exposure to hydroquinone, an ingredient for skin lightening. Hydroquinone reduces production of melanin causing the skin to fade. It is commonly used to treat hyperpigmentation due to sun exposure, acne marks and age spots.

Exposure to higher level of hydroquinone has some acute effects like skin irritation, eye injury, headache, dyspnea, convulsion, nausea, edema of organs etc. Though the EPA has not identified hydroquinone as a carcinogen, studies done on female mice have shown carcinogenic activity via escalation of hepatocellular neoplasms and risk of skin tumors.

  1. Formaldehyde: This is a well-known preservative. FDA identifies formaldehyde as a skin allergen and irritant. It has also been linked to nose and lung cancer. Various cosmetic companies nowadays don’t use formaldehyde directly in their products, instead formaldehyde releasing chemicals like DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) and glyoxal, quaternium-15, methenamine, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate and diazolidinyl urea are used
  1. Lead: This heavy metal has found its way into makeup (as eye makeup and lead white) since the time of ancient Egyptians, and the modern time is no different. A recent study showed that about 400 lipsticks including popular brands contain lead. Although the amount of lead in any given product might be around the acceptable limit, the major concern is that lead levels can build up in our body and cause damage to brain, nervous system and kidneys. Pregnant women have increased risk of miscarriage, malformations, stillbirth and premature delivery with low birthweight, when exposed to high level of lead.
  1. Nanoparticles (NPs) of TiO2 and ZnO: In recent times, the use of TiO2 and ZnO NPs have increased quite a lot. Nanoparticles are used in sunscreen as they protect skin from UVA and UVB radiations without affecting endocrine system like other UV reflecting chemicals. Also use of NPs makes the products aesthetically more pleasing assuring smooth application without the ashy trace of most sunscreen, making it perfect to be termed as “revolutionary” by the cosmetic industry.

Many studies have shown cytotoxic effects of TiO2 NP. Though TiO2 is chemically inert, nano-sized TiO2 has been linked with oxidative stress, DNA strand breakage and chromosomal damage.

  1. Fragrance: According to FDA, fragrance and flavor ingredients can be listed simply as “fragrance” or “flavor” – therefore cosmetic companies do not need to reveal the actual chemical composition of the “Fragrance”. This is where it gets tricky – a lot of chemicals that are included in this concoction of fragrance are skin allergens, irritants, have hormonal and reproductive toxicity and are carcinogens.

Look fabulous, but be safe

Lack of studies on long term effects of various chemicals used in cosmetics is a major concern. Also, the market is highly unregulated and rules behind the use of certain chemicals vary across countries, because of which, composition of a particular product made by a certain company may get altered in different countries. As we don’t know a lot about all the harmful ingredients and their effects just yet, the only approach we may have is to be “safe than sorry”.  While getting rid of all grooming products and going back to primitive ways might be a little cynical, when studies show that cosmetics most certainly can cause hormonal disbalance in teenage girls, it definitely demands our attention as consumers. The best we can do, is to read product labels, become knowledgeable about the ingredients, keep companies and government accountable and probably switch to more natural options.

About Sanchita:

Sanchita completed her PhD from Jadavpur University (Kolkata, India) in Chemistry, followed by a Postdoctoral position at University of Texas at El Paso. Currently she is freelancing in technology scouting and market research and aims to transition into a position where her transferable skills would be put to use. Apart from science she enjoys travelling, writing and reading a lot!


Editor: Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


  1. Wow!!! It’s unbelievable. Nicely written article. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks and all the best, Mohan

  2. This is so important. Most of us (regardless of scientific knowledge) do not bother to check composition labels for skincare and other cosmetic products. For me, the widely reported case of a lady succumbing to cervical cancer because of her prolonged use of Johnson & Johnson talcum powder was a real eye-opener. Kudos to Sanchita and the sciwri team for bringing this issue to light.

  3. Excellent! So informative and such a nice read. Well written too. I hope it gets widely read. All the best!

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