Pick up a bottle of Old Spice, Dove, or any other body product, and try to decipher the list of ingredients — and then let us know if you succeeded, because we sure as heck weren’t able to. So Greatist decided to dive into the labels to find out just what we’re scrubbing, spraying, and painting onto our bodies, and whether it’s cause for concern.

Cosmetics Cover-up? — The Need-to-Know

More than 11 billion personal care products are sold annually in the U.S., and, as of 2007, 98 percent of these contain one or more ingredients never publicly assessed for safety (holy scary, Batman). With the exception of color additives, the FDA doesn’t have the authority to require companies to test their cosmetic products before they’re on the market (though the FDA can take action if there’s reliable scientific evidence that a cosmetic product or ingredient is unsafe — see examples later in this article). So it’s up to the cosmetics companies to verify the safety of their products prior to marketing them, and products that haven’t been tested need to carry a warning label stating as much. Not surprisingly, there’s some pretty hot controversy over the safety of cosmetics, in large part because there’s scant evidence regarding the extent to which ingredients in cosmetics can be absorbed by and built up in the body. So what are the major concerns?

The Suspects

This is by no means a comprehensive list, because a comprehensive list would be really, really long. Instead, we’ve rounded up a cheat sheet of some of the most common chemical ingredients, their potential health effects, where they’re lurking, and what we can do about it.

Perfumes and fragrances

Fragrances are considered a trade secret, so companies don’t disclose what their scents are made of — but it’s usually some combination of up to hundreds of synthetic chemical compounds. Even “unscented” products might contain chemical fragrances that mask the scent of other chemicals.

What’s the issue? Fragrances are a large source of allergic and skin reactions. They might also contain synthetic musks, which potentially mess with endocrine function, and phthalates and plasticizers (a class of chemicals that enhance the flexibility and longevity of products) that have been linked to hormone problems and issues with reproduction, infant development, and fertilityOccurrence of synthetic musk fragrances in effluent and non-effluent impacted environments. Chase, DA, Karnjanapiboonwong, A., Fang, Y., et al. Department of Environmental Toxicology, The Institute of Environmental and Human Health, Texas Tech University. The Science of the Total Environment, 2012 Feb 1;416:253-60. Due to consumer pressure, some phthalates are being phased out of cosmetics, but in 2010 diethyl phthalate (DEP) was found in 12 of 17 tested fragrance products.

What can we do about it? The tricky thing about phthalates is they’re often not listed on the label. Instead, they’re covered under the generic name of “fragrance,” so it can be difficult to avoid them. The best bet is to look for products (shampoos, lotions, and other beauty products, in addition to perfumes) that state they’re made without phthalates or DEP.

Antibacterial soaps and body washes, and some toothpastes and deodorants

What’s the issue? What these products have in common is triclosan, a common preservative that helps prevent bacteria from growing in cosmetic products. Studies suggest triclosan might disrupt thyroid and hormone function (though most studies thus far have been on animals)The effects of triclosan on puberty and thyroid hormones in male Wistar rats. Zorrilla, LM, Gibson, EK, Jeffay, SC, et al. Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences, North Carolina State University. Toxicology Science, 2009 Jan;107(1):56-64.

What can we do about it? If a product contains triclosan, it will be listed on the label. And since there’s no evidence that triclosan-enhanced antibacterial soaps and body washes actually provide extra health benefits, there’s no reason to use anything but regular (triclosan-free) soap and water.

Skin creams, soaps, and lotions

What’s the issue? The FDA has issued a warning stating that mercury (a toxic metal) has been found in skin lighteners, anti-aging treatments, and acne treatments (including products from the brands Diana, Stillman’s, Lusco, and Crema Aguamary) across the country.These products are rare, and typically enter the U.S. illegally from abroad.Mercury exposure can damage the kidneys and nervous system, and its adverse effects can even be experienced through second-hand exposure.

What can we do about it? Luckily, mercury should be labeled — usually as “mercurous chloride, calomel, mercuric, mercurio, or mercury.” If a product contains any mercury, stop using it immediately (also don’t use the product if it doesn’t have a label) and check with the local environmental, health, or solid waste agency for disposal instructions.


What’s the issue? Microbial organisms naturally occur on eyelashes. And because mascara wands are in frequent contact with the eyelashes, they can easily harbor nasty bacteria, which can lead to eye irritation or infection.

What can we do about it? This one’s easy: Throw out mascara tubes a minimum of every three months to decrease risk of infection, and (despite what you learned in Kindergarten) don’t share.


What’s the issue? Many lipsticks contain retinyl palmitate, a synthetic vitamin A substitute that breaks down upon exposure to light and might contribute to free radical formation (the same is true for its close relative, Retinol)Photodecomposition of retinyl palmitate in ethanol by UVA light-formation of photodecomposition products, reactive oxygen species, and lipid peroxides. Cherng, SH, Xia, Q, Blankenship, LR, et al. National Center for Toxicological Research, U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Chemical Research in Toxicology, 2005 Feb;18(2):129-38. In a 2009 and follow-up 2011 study, the FDA found lead in hundreds of lipsticks (Cover Girl, L’Oreal, Maybelline, and Revlon were some of the worst offenders). Most recently, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health detected lead (along with cadmium, chromium, aluminum, and five other metals) when they tested 32 common lip sticks and lip glosses. Lead exposure can cause damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, and other organs, so it seems like there’s big-time reason to be concerned. But the FDA maintains that, since lipstick is intended for topical use (as opposed to consumption), the amount of lead in lipstick shouldn’t raise brows.

What can we do about it? Despite the FDA’s reassurance, there’s still controversy over whether and how much trace amounts of lead can affect the body; it’s possible that any level of lead exposure is unsafe. In short, the only way to be sure lipstick isn’t hurting your body is (sorry folks) to not wear lipstick. For those dedicated to sprucing up their puckers, never fear: There are home-made alternatives to classic red, and most of them can be made with ingredients from the pantry.

Hair straighteners

What’s the issue? Hair-straightening products (such as keratin and Brazilian Blowout) in professional salons can expose hairdressers and their customers to formaldehyde, a common preservative that has been linked to eye, skin, and respiratory issues and is a known carcinogen.

What can we do about it? Unfortunately, this one’s tough. Even products labeled “formaldehyde free” can release formaldehyde at levels higher than the safety limits established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Still, it doesn’t hurt to read labels on products before a hairdresser applies them, and avoid products that explicitly contain formaldehyde (no- brainer: This is particularly important for anyone with a formaldehyde allergy).

Permanent hair dyes

What’s the issue? The active ingredient methylene bis (2-chloroaniline) found in hair dyes has been linked to bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and acute leukemia (though these results aren’t definitive)Bladder cancer, a review of the environmental risk factors. Letasiova, S., Medve’ova, A., Sovcikova, A., et al. Institute of Biochemistry, Nutrition and Health Protection, Faculty of Chemical and Food Technology, Slovak University of Technology. Environmental Health, 2012 Jun 28;11Personal hair dye use and cancer: a systemic literature review and evaluation of exposure assessment in studies published since 1992. Rollison, DE, Helzlsouer, KJ, Pinney, SM. Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, Florida. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, 2006 Sep-Oct;9(5):413-39.

What can we do about it? If you’re committed to dyeing, do a patch test first for allergic reactions. Follow directions carefully, wear gloves while applying dye, and rinse the scalp thoroughly with water after applying. Never mix different dye products (this could cause harmful reactions) and never dye the eyebrows or eyelashes. Still concerned? Consider using henna, which is mostly plant-based.

Mineral powders

What’s the issue? The tiny particulates in loose powders (from ingredients like talc and mica) can be inhaled into the lungs, possibly causing permanent lung damage.

What can we do about it? Switch out loose powders for liquid foundation and cream blush or bronzer — or at least stick to pressed powder.


Parabens are used as a preservative in so many cosmetic products — from shaving products to moisturizers to hair care and make up, among others — we thought they deserved a category all their own.

What’s the issue? Parabens can act like estrogen in the body, though there’s no final word yet as to whether — or how much — they harm humansParabens inhibit human skin estrogen sulfotransferase activity: possible link to paraben estrogenic effects. Prusakiewicz, JJ, Harville, HM, Zhang, Y., et al. Department of Pharmacokinetics, Dynamics and Metabolism, Pfizer Global Research and Development. Toxicology, 2007 Apr 11;232(3):248-56. Research suggests parabens can stick around in the body, and they might affect skin on a cellular level while they’re at itEffects of methyl paraben on skin keratinocytes. Ishiwatari, S., Suzuki, T., Hitomi, T., et al. Fancl Corporation, Japan. Journal of Applied Toxicology, 2007 Jan-Feb;27(1):1-9. Studies have also detected parabens in human breast tumors, and some researchers contend parabens can actually cause breast cancerConcentrationso of parabens in human breast tumours. Darbre, PD, Aljarrah, A., Miller, WR, et al. Division of Cell and Molecular Biology, School of Animal and Microbial Sciences, University of Reading, UK. Journal of Applied Toxicology, 2004 Jan-Feb;24(1):5-13Significance of the detection of esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (parabens) in human breast tumours. Harvey, PW, Everett, DJ. Journal of Applied Toxicology, 2004 Jan-Feb;24(1):1-4Oestrogenic activity of parabens in MCF7 human breast cancer cells. Byford, JR, Shaw, LE, Drew, MG, et al. Division of Cell and Molecular Biology, School of Animal and Microbial Sciences, University of Reading, UK. The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 2002 Jan;80(1):49-60. Allergic reactions are also commonSafety assessment of propyl paraben: a review of the published literature. Soni, MG, Burdock, GA, Taylor, SL, et al. Burdock and Associates, Inc. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 2001 Jun;39(6):513-32.

What can we do about it? Check the label for anything ending in “paraben” (methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and isopropyparaben are the most common) and avoid them if you so choose. These days, a lot of products, such as shampoos and moisturizers, emphasize that they’re “paraben free”, making choices a little easier.

Apply Safe — Your Action Plan

Don’t panic. Many experts argue that cosmetics are, for the most part, safe. A lot of research concludes that the small amounts of these chemicals found in cosmetics don’t pose a risk — though others argue that small amounts used often build up over timeFinal report on the safety assessment of sodium cetearyl sulfate and related alkyl sulfates as used in cosmetics. Fiume, M., Bergfeld, WF, Belsito, DV, et al. Cosmetic Ingredient Review. International Journal of Toxicology, 2010 May;29(3 Suppl):115S-32S.Final report on the safety assessment of Glycyrrhetinic Acid, Potassium Glycyrrhetinate, Disodium Succinoyl Glycyrrhetinate, Glyceryl Glycyrrhetinate, Glycyrrhetinyl Stearate, Stearyl Glycyrrhetinate, Glycyrrhizic Acid, Ammonium Glycyrrhizate, Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate, Disodium Glycyrrhizate, Trisodium Glycyrrhizate, Methyl Glycyrrhizate, and Potassium Glycyrrhizinate. Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, International Journal of Toxicology. 2007;26 Suppl 2:79-112Final amended report on the safety assessment of Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, Isopropylparaben, Butylparaben, Isobutylparaben, and Benzylparaben as used in cosmetic products. International Journal of Toxicology, Suppl 4:1-82. The good news: In addition to the action plans outlined above, there are simple steps we can take to limit the chances of cosmetics making us sick.

  • Read labels. Run a specific product through this database or check out this pocket guide during a shopping trip for quick reference to what not to buy — and don’t use a product if it doesn’t have a label.
  • Practice good hygiene. Wash hands before using makeup, don’t share products or brushes, and don’t use saliva to wet brushes.
  • Rinse, then sleep. Remove all makeup before going to bed, especially eye makeup — if mascara flakes into the eyes while a person sleeps, it can cause itching, bloodshot eyes, infections, and eye scratches.
  • Keep it shut. Keep make-up containers closed tight when they’re not in use, and store them out of the sun and heat, which can kill the preservatives that help fight bacteria. If possible, store cosmetics outside the bathroom, since its warm, moist environment enables bacteria to grow.
  • Don’t add water. Adding water to cosmetics can up the risk of bacterial contamination.
  • If it changes, toss it. Immediately throw away makeup if the color changes or it starts to smell. Even if makeup looks normal, it’s not a good idea to keep using that lipstick from seventh grade: Follow these guidelines for what to throw away when.
All statements about the FDA were confirmed by representatives from the FDA. Thanks to Sonya Lunder , Senior Analyst at the Environmental Working Group, for help with this article.

Have you had any troubles with cosmetics? Share in comments, or tweet the author @LauraNewc.