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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Cosmetics sold in Australia are regulated by the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), a division of the Department of Health and Ageing. Its role is to assess the safety of chemicals new to Australia and existing chemicals if reason for concern arises. Anyone importing or manufacturing cosmetic ingredients or products must be registered with NICNAS. Products must comply with certain legislative requirements, including labelling of ingredients, which is overseen by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (see below).

International bodies with a say in cosmetics formulation and regulation include:

  • The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), a US-based panel that reviews and assesses cosmetic ingredients and publishes the findings in peer-reviewed scientific literature. It’s supported by the Food and Drug Administration and funded by industry, but has no regulatory clout.
  • California has a law, Proposition 65, under which known carcinogens and other dangerous substances must be listed on products containing them, along with a warning label, making them rather unattractive for consumers.
  • Cosmetics in Europe must comply with the Cosmetics Directive, overseen by a panel of independent experts.
  • Health Canada publishes a hotlist of ingredients that are banned or restricted in cosmetics.
  • The Ministry of Health and Welfare in Japan has established the Standards for Cosmetics, which lists banned and restricted ingredients.

Australian labelling laws

All cosmetic products must be labelled with ingredients so consumers can check for allergens or other ingredients to which they may react.

The listing must appear either on the product packaging, or on pamphlets or display panels near the product at point of sale. Premium products often come with lots of packaging, so labelling is fairly straightforward. Cheaper products available in supermarkets are usually blister-packed on cardboard, which allows room for ingredient information.

In chain department stores such as Target, Kmart and Priceline, where products are sold without additional packaging, you’ll find pamphlets or cards listing ingredients near the products (it’s difficult, for example, to legibly print all the ingredients onto a tube of lipstick).

In bargain stores and two-dollar shops, you may not always find any sort of labelling at all.

Chemicals commonly found in cosmetic products

  • Some nail polishes contain toluene – considered unsafe for use in cosmetics by the International Fragrance Association, because of its liver toxicity risk and possible contamination with benzene. Short-term effects of inhaling toluene can cause dizziness, euphoria, hallucinations and headaches – it’s what gives a “high” from glue and petrol sniffing. Manicurists are most susceptible to exposure.
  • Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), found in some nail hardeners and nail polish, has been banned in Europe as an endocrine disrupting chemical.
  • Mineral make-up and sunscreen (containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) may contain nanoparticles. These are new chemicals, and their safety is unknown.
  • Some lipsticks contain BHA – on the banned and restricted fragrances list in Europe, and also classified as carcinogenic under California’s Proposition 65 law. It's presumed safety is based on estimates of typical consumption. While most of your intake is likely to come from food (it’s a permitted food additive in Australia), small amounts in lipsticks will add to the burden.
  • DMDM hydantoin has been banned in Japan for use in products that aren’t washed away, and isn't considered safe by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) for use in aerosol products. Yet we found it in baby wipes and hair products.
  • Hair colour restorers may contain lead acetate – banned in Europe and Canada. It appears to be safe when used as directed, as there's no evidence significant quantities of lead are absorbed into the blood stream.
  • Some anti-dandruff and anti-psoriasis shampoos contain coal tar, which has been banned in Europe and Canada. It’s a known carcinogen, but appears to be safe when use as directed in shampoos with no known cases of cancer arising from its use.
  • Iodopropynyl butylcarbamate has been banned in aerosols in Japan, and considered unsafe by the CIR. It’s subject to concentration restrictions when used in leave-on products in Europe and Japan. We found it in baby wipes and hair products.

Challenging assumptions in toxicity testing

In the field of toxicology it’s often held that the dose makes the poison – that is, larger doses 
have a stronger and/or faster effect than smaller ones. When scientists seek to find the dose at which a substance becomes toxic or lethal, they’ll often start with reasonably high doses and, if necessary, work backwards to find safe doses – where there’s no difference between the test and control animals.

However, over the last decade we’ve seen increasing evidence that very low doses of certain chemicals have an equally potent effect as high doses – much more so than a “medium” dose. The effect may be the same as the high-dose effect, where an intermediate dose shows no effect. Or, the effect may be different but equally problematic: for example, pregnant mice given large doses of an oestrogenic drug called diethylstilbestrol have extremely skinny offspring, while very low doses produce obese offspring.

Chemicals already found to have a low-dose effect include phthalates (banned in European toys and cosmetics), bisphenol A (being phased out or banned in North America) and pesticides such as endosulfan (banned in Europe, NZ and many other countries). These chemicals are still considered safe by Australian authorities, yet it’s becoming increasingly apparent substances assumed safe should be going back to the test lab for review.

Almost all cancers can be attributed to known carcinogens and carcinogenic lifestyles, such as tobacco, alcohol, sun, excessive red and processed meats, lack of fruit and vegetables, obesity, bacteria, viruses and lack of exercise.

Yet with so many people getting cancer these days, not to mention the apparent increase in fertility problems, allergies, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome and other modern-day maladies, you can’t help but wonder about man-made chemicals in our food, homes and the environment. Given the ubiquity of their use, it’s easy to blame ingredients in cosmetics. Many substances haven’t been well studied, and there are vested interests on both sides ensuring the message about the safety or danger of chemicals gets maximum – and credible – airplay.

The US-based health and environment advocacy coalition, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, is lobbying to get the personal care products industry to phase out use of chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and other serious health concerns, and replace them with safer alternatives – already with some successes.

Should you be worried?

Many chemicals used in personal care products are dangerous in high concentrations, high dose (when administered to laboratory animals) and industrial quantities. Some people may also suffer an allergic reaction to the smaller quantities, such as you’d find in personal care products.

The various websites that warn about chemicals in cosmetics often refer to hazards and warnings in the chemicals’ material safety data sheets (MSDS). Each chemical’s MSDS provides information about its properties, how to handle it, all possible hazards (accidents, prolonged exposure and so on) and how to deal with them. They can be easily found by googling both the chemical name and MSDS online. However, MSDSs aren’t targeted at consumers; they’re relevant for people who work with industrial quantities of concentrated chemicals, not those who use them in diluted and very small quantities.

Many warnings also relate to the effects of large doses of chemicals on lab animals, typically rats and mice, which aren’t a reliable prediction of the effects small doses will have on humans. For example, substances that cause cancer in mice don’t necessarily cause it in rats and vice versa. Human beings also live more complex lives, exposing ourselves to food, lifestyle and environmental factors that may increase or decrease the carcinogenic potential of a given substance. Conversely, however, substances safe for lab animals may be dangerous for humans.

Many of the websites providing this information have a vested interest in scaring consumers. They’re often selling so-called “natural” products that claim not to contain dangerous chemicals, or books highlighting the dangers of common cosmetics. Some scientists seeking more funding have also been accused of disseminating doubt, essentially scaring money out 
of people for further research.

Dermatology and toxicology experts CHOICE spoke to agreed that based on current knowledge, cosmetics ingredients in the marketplace are safe to use as directed. “These chemicals are used in very small quantities and some, like shampoos and so on, for only a very short period of time,” says Dr Rosemary Nixon, from the Australasian College of Dermatologists. “Cosmetic products are defined by their temporary effects and inability to change our body’s physiology. Very little, if any, of the product would be able to penetrate the outer layer of the skin.”

In the future, when these chemicals have been in use for many decades and/or more rigorous studies have been conducted, some long-term detrimental effects may be discovered for ingredients currently accepted as safe (see Challenging Assumptions in Toxicology Testing).

For now, in the absence of good evidence of harm, consumers need to decide for themselves whether the benefits of using products containing these ingredients outweigh any potential risks and whether these risks are greater than the known lifestyle-related risks mentioned above. Buying major international brands or at least steering clear of products without an ingredients list is your best bet if you 
are concerned.

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