Chemicals in cosmetics - are they safe?

Are personal care products full of carcinogens and other toxic chemicals?
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  • Updated:24 Jun 2009

01.Chemicals in cosmetics


In brief

  • CHOICE looks at some of the chemicals found in cosmetics sold in Australia that have been banned or restricted in other countries, or otherwise give cause for concern.
  • Based on current knowledge, most cosmetics and toiletries are safe when used as directed.
  • The safety of some chemicals are less certain, and it may be prudent to avoid them.
  • Buying well-known international brands is your best bet for getting safe cosmetics.

There is a plethora of websites listing chemicals to avoid in cosmetics, some with convincing reasons for doing so, such as cancer, infertility and general toxicity. The sheer number of these lists, littered with references to professors, government departments and scientific papers, makes the warnings all the more plausible.

Yet all these chemicals are lurking in our personal care products, apparently considered safe by the authorities that regulate such things – even though many haven’t been thoroughly tested.

With certain medical conditions inexplicably on the increase, and emerging research finding dangerous effects from chemicals at previously untested low levels, it’s not surprising people are worried.

Please note: this information was current as of June 2009 but is still a useful guide today.

Focus chemicals and where you'll find them

As a starting point in our investigation, we used a database compiled by the US-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) which uses government databases and peer-reviewed literature to assess more than 8000 ingredients and 40,000 products for safety.

Ingredients are rated from one to 10, where one is low hazard and 10 is high hazard. Most of the substances we looked at are rated 10 out of 10. Others are included because they have been banned in certain countries, even if the risk was questionable. After identifying brands and products known to contain these chemicals, we hit the shops.

On the upside, we found many of the major international brands no longer contain any of the more dubious ingredients – formulations have changed since the EWG database was last updated. In the globalised marketplace, there’s little sense in producing different formulations such that a banned or restricted chemical is used in products to be sold in countries that allow it, but not others. As a result, the once-common dibutyl phthalate, toluene, butylated hydroxyanisole and petroleum distillates have all but disappeared from big brand nail polishes, lipsticks and mascaras.

However, beyond these international brands the findings were less reassuring. As well as supermarkets, department stores and chemists, we looked in ethnic grocers and two-dollar shops and found examples of cosmetics made in Australia, Asia and the Middle East that contain chemicals banned or restricted elsewhere.

Of concern, too, was the number of products without ingredients listed, particularly skin whiteners, henna for tattoos and certain eye make-up products that are sometimes found to contain heavy metals (lead and mercury) or other problem chemicals.



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