“Baddies” – Overview Of Unwanted Chemicals In Cosmetics

by Dr. Irene Reyzis






“Baddies” – Overview Of Unwanted Chemicals In Cosmetics

Can chemicals in cosmetics affect your health?

You may be wondering, if a chemical is bad for your health, why would it be used in cosmetics? The FDA does not usually ban ingredients even if they are known to be hazardous to human health. There is a reason for this. When it comes to harmful chemicals, negative health effects that may be associated with them are usually dose-dependent.

What does dose-dependent mean? It means the amount of a chemical you are exposed to determines how much harm it does. Being exposed to either a large amount all at once or small amounts over a period of time could potentially cause harm. Think about cancer-causing chemicals in cigarette smoke. Smoking one pack of cigarettes by itself will not cause cancer. But smoking one pack a day for several decades will put someone at a very high risk for various types of cancer and a lot of other medical issues.

In summary, these are some important factors to consider when determining if a substance is harmful:


  • Frequency of exposure – how often do you come into contact with the chemical? Once or many times?
  • Level of exposure – how much of the chemical are you exposed to at once? Is the chemical present in the product in high amounts? – sometimes referred to as the “concentration” in a product.
  • Route of exposure – what body part is interacting with the chemical? Are you putting it on your skin, hair, lips, eyelashes? Are you ingesting or inhaling any of it when you use products containing the chemical? How much of the chemical is actually absorbed through the skin?


Long-term exposure to chemicals in cosmetics

It is a federal law that all cosmetics and personal care products be safe for consumers when used as directed. As a result, any not-so-healthy chemicals are present in low amounts so they won’t have immediate impacts on health. However, if you think about how often cosmetics and personal care products come into contact with skin, the frequency of exposure is on the high side of the scale.


Most people use products in their bathroom on a daily basis. So even though levels of bad chemicals are low, the number of times they come into contact with your body on a long-term basis is high. Consider this and the fact that people use multiple products every day in their personal care routine. Each product used contributes to a larger total dose of bad chemicals your body sees everyday.



Many products = many chemicals

Would you expect the average woman to only use one product in her beauty regimen? She’s more likely to use a handful of different products, usually somewhere in the ballpark of 15 or more. If you tally up a typical day’s worth of cleansers, soaps, scrubs, shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers, toners, lotions, masks, shaving products and make-up… pretty soon the total chemical exposure isn’t quite so miniscule.


This even applies to men, who usually don’t just wash themselves with soap and go. Men tend to use things like shaving products, toothpaste, mouthwash, hair gels, deodorant, cologne, maybe lotion or hand sanitizers on occasion. Beyond the bathroom, even more chemicals come into contact with skin through products used in everyday activities like household maintenance and childcare. Diaper creams, baby wipes, dish soap, countertop spray… all these products make contact with the skin for a path of bodily exposure to the chemicals they contain.



You say how many chemicals?

It is estimated that the average woman puts anywhere from 160 to over 500 different chemicals on her body everyday. Some cosmetic companies, industry groups and chemical manufacturers make the argument that skin is “dead tissue” and negligible amounts of unhealthy chemicals actually penetrate it. However, there is plenty of research out there suggesting otherwise. Health agencies like OSHA report that many chemicals are readily absorbed through skin and can cause health effects without being noticed by the user. If substances like nicotine can get through the skin to the bloodstream from a nicotine patch, rest assured certain chemicals can get into the body from cosmetics rubbed into the skin.



The take-home message: 

Industry groups and the FDA find many potentially harmful chemicals to be safe in low doses as when they are present in cosmetic products. However concern still exists about damage they might cause from repeated exposure over time and cumulatively with each other, because there isn’t a lot of research or data for this. Even if bad chemicals are allowed because the FDA believes low levels are acceptably safe for consumers, exposure is still happening, and there is still some level of risk involved. Given the multiplicity of products people put on their bodies everyday, it’s almost impossible to tell just how big that risk is for any one person.


So the question you need to ask yourself is – how comfortable are you with unknown risk regarding your body? Are you willing to take that risk just to use certain brands of cosmetics? It might not make sense if there are viable alternatives out there, alternatives that stay away from use of controversial, potentially bad-for-you chemicals. Here at BodiSafe we call those chemicals “baddies”.









The “Baddies”

Below is a review of the top baddies we avoid using in our products as part of our philosophy to keep your body safe:

Phthalates are a group of chemicals found in a wide variety of consumer goods. They are mostly used to soften plastic, but they can also be used in cosmetic ingredients. Phthalates may be added to products directly, you might find them as ingredients in hair spray, conditioners, deodorants, makeup and perfumes. Dibutyl phthalate is sometimes used as an additive in nail polish to increase its flexibility. The chunky glitter found in eyeshadows, eyeliner and nail polish is usually made from polyethylene terephthalate.


Phthalates tend to slip in undercover in many cosmetics as part of the fragrance, or as an impurity. In synthetic fragrances they are used to carry other chemicals in the blend. When phthalates are present in ingredients like fragrance, this is usually NOT noted on product ingredient labels.


In the body phthalates are known to disturb hormone activity. Studies have linked phthalates to early puberty in girls, low sperm counts in men, and increased risk of breast cancer. Environmental and consumer health groups claim phthalates may contribute to the rising incidence of reproductive problems in women and testicular cancer in men, as well as infertility in both genders. Heavy, short-term exposure to phthalates may cause symptoms like nausea, vomiting, eye irritation, dizziness, and headache. Repeated, long-term exposure may cause damage to the kidneys and liver. Pregnant women should consider their level of exposure most of all, as phthalates can be harmful to the developing fetus and cause birth defects.



Barrett JR. Chemical Exposures: The Ugly Side of Beauty Products. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2005;113(1):A24.


López-Carrillo L, Hernández-Ramírez RU, Calafat AM, et al. Exposure to Phthalates and Breast Cancer Risk in Northern Mexico. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2010;118(4):539-544. doi:10.1289/ehp.0901091.


Martino‐Andrade, A., & Chahoud, I. (2010). Reproductive toxicity of phthalate esters. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, 54(1), 148-157.


Saillenfait, A., Sabaté, J., Robert, A., Rouiller‐Fabre, V., Roudot, A., Moison, D., & Denis, F. (2013). Dose‐dependent alterations in gene expression and testosterone production in fetal rat testis after exposure to di‐ n ‐hexyl phthalate. Journal of Applied Toxicology, 33(9), 1027-1035.


Singh, S., & Li, S. (2011). Phthalates: Toxicogenomics and inferred human diseases. Genomics, 97(3), 148-157.














Formaldehyde shows up in cosmetics and personal care products in different forms. According to the National Toxicology Program (NTP), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and other health authorities, formaldehyde is a human carcinogen based on evidence from human research studies and supporting lab data. There are other groups who classify formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen like the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the EPA through their Integrated Risk Information System. The types of cancers of highest concern when it comes to formaldehyde are those of the nasal cavity and upper airways, and bone marrow cancers like leukemia.


Exposure to formaldehyde fumes can cause a range of short-term health issues such as eye irritation, headache, burning in the throat, labored breathing, and asthma attacks in some individuals. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that formaldehyde is a sensitizing agent that can trigger various responses of the immune system including allergies. They say it is highly irritating to the eyes, nose and throat, and may lead to asthma-like respiratory problems and dermatitis with long-term exposure.


Formaldehyde can act as a skin allergen and has a high likelihood to cause skin reactions. Skin absorption of formaldehyde does occur, and according to the American Cancer Society (ACS) formaldehyde can cause an allergic skin rash (contact dermatitis) that is itchy, red, and may become raised or develop blisters.


Although formaldehyde can cause cancer and many other health issues, it is still allowed in consumer products, including cosmetics like nail polish and salon hair smoothing treatments. It is permitted to include formaldehyde in cosmetics as an ingredient, but it may also enter products through carrier ingredients like methylene glycol, formaldehyde resins and the formaldehyde-producing preservatives: DMDM hydantoin, Quaternium-15, Imidazolidinyl Urea, and Diazolidinyl Urea.


Most carrier ingredients do not have the word “formaldehyde” in their name, so most consumers would not recognize them as sources simply from reading the label. This is why it helps to be knowledgeable about the names of specific formaldehyde-producing ingredients.


The FDA places no restrictions on formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing ingredients in cosmetics or personal care products. Yet Japan and Sweden ban their use in such products, and use levels are limited in Europe. The state of Minnesota has banned in-state sales of children’s personal care products containing formaldehyde.



Arici, S., Karaman, S., Dogru, S., Cayli, S., Arici, A., Suren, M., Karaman, T., & Kaya, Z. (2014). Central nervous system toxicity after acute oral formaldehyde exposure in rabbits: An experimental study. Human & Experimental Toxicology, 33(11), 1141-1149.


Boyer, I., Heldreth, B., Bergfeld, W., Belsito, D., Hill, R., Klaassen, C., Liebler, D., Marks, J., Shank, R., Slaga, T., Snyder, P., & Andersen, F. (2013). Amended Safety Assessment of Formaldehyde and Methylene Glycol as Used in Cosmetics. International Journal of Toxicology, 32, 5S-32S.


Danièle, L., Annette, L., Denis, B., Paul, D., Michel, G., Ewa, O., Manolis, K., Stefano, B., Isabelle, B., Ulrich, B., Louise, B., Pietro, C., Lennart, H., Richard, H., Corrado, M., Enzo, M., Susan, P., Thomas, V., Wei, Z., & Paolo, B. (2002). Sinonasal cancer and occupational exposures: a pooled analysis of 12 case–control studies. Cancer Causes & Control, 13(2), 147-157.


Ke, Y., Qin, X., Zhang, Y., Li, H., Li, R., Yuan, J., Yang, X., & Ding, S. (2014). In vitro study on cytotoxicity and intracellular formaldehyde concentration changes after exposure to formaldehyde and its derivatives. Human & Experimental Toxicology, 33(8), 822-830.


Krakowiak, A., Górski, P., Pazdrak, K., & Ruta, U. (1998). Airway response to formaldehyde inhalation in asthmatic subjects with suspected respiratory formaldehyde sensitization. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 33(3), 274-281.


Lobo, F., Santos, T., Vieira, K., Osório, V., & Taylor, J. (2015). Determination of formaldehyde in hair creams by gas chromatography‐mass spectrometry. Drug Testing and Analysis, 7(9), 848-852.

Luce, D., Gérin, M., Leclerc, A., Morcet, J., Brugère, J., & Goldberg, M. (1993). Sinonasal cancer and occupational exposure to formaldehyde and other substances. International Journal of Cancer, 53(2), 224-231.


Luce, D., Gérin, M., Leclerc, A., Morcet, J., Brugère, J., & Goldberg, M. (1993). Sinonasal cancer and occupational exposure to formaldehyde and other substances. International Journal of Cancer, 53(2), 224-231.


NTP (National Toxicology Program). 2014. Report on Carcinogens, Thirteenth Edition. Research Triangle Park, NC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.  http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/pubhealth/roc/roc13/


Sandvik, A., Klingen, T., & Langård, S. (2014). Sinonasal adenoid cystic carcinoma following formaldehyde exposure in the operating theatre. Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology (London, England), 9(1).
Wang, F., Li, C., Liu, W., Jin, Y., & Guo, L. (2014). Effects of subchronic exposure to low‐dose volatile organic compounds on lung inflammation in mice. Environmental Toxicology, 29(9), 1089-1097.


Zhang, L., Freeman, L., Nakamura, J., Hecht, S., Vandenberg, J., Smith, M., & Sonawane, B. (2010). Formaldehyde and leukemia: Epidemiology, potential mechanisms, and implications for risk assessment. Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis, 51(3), 181-191.





Triclosan is an antibacterial ingredient used in many soaps, cleansers, hand washes, deodorants and dental products. In recent years a lot of scientific data has emerged pointing to both negative health effects and environmental toxicity. Studies suggest triclosan may be linked to a variety of health issues, including hormone disruption, weakened muscle function, heart problems, cancer, liver toxicity, birth defects and developmental problems in children. The widespread use of triclosan also promotes drug-resistant strains of super bacteria.


Triclosan is not easily cleared by the body and tends to accumulate in the fat cells of humans and animals. In the majority of people triclosan can be detected in body fluids like blood, urine and breast milk. Triclosan also accumulates in the environment and is harmful to many types of aquatic life. It shows up in tap water and reacts with the chlorine present to form toxic byproducts such as chloroform.


There are a lot of legal issues surrounding the use of triclosan. One is its status as a “Category III” active ingredient in the FDA’s proposed set of rules for antibacterial personal care products. This means the FDA has not yet determined whether triclosan is actually safe and effective for killing bacteria or not. They need more scientific data in order to do so. A final rule on whether this chemical is acceptable for everyday use in personal care products is pending, as it has been for 17 years.


Triclosan continues to appear in many products because this is permitted while an active ingredient is in pending status. Companies can make the claim “antibacterial” when using this ingredient, although in reality it may not be an effective germ killer, or may be causing health and safety issues where the risks outweigh the benefits to be gained from using the ingredient.


In places like Minnesota action has already been taken against triclosan due to its questionable effects on human health and bacterial drug resistance. In 2014 the state passed a law banning triclosan-containing personal care products that will go into effect January 1st, 2017. The law says “In order to prevent the spread of infectious disease and avoidable infections and to promote best practices in sanitation, no person shall offer for retail sale in Minnesota any cleaning product that contains triclosan and is used by consumers for sanitizing or hand and body cleansing.”





Stoker TE, Gibson EK, Zorrilla LM. Triclosan exposure modulates estrogen-dependent responses in the female wistar rat. Toxicol Sci. 2010 Sep;117(1):45-53. doi: 10.1093/toxsci/kfq180. Epub 2010 Jun 18. PubMed PMID: 20562219.

Yazdankhah SP, Scheie AA, Høiby EA, Lunestad BT, Heir E, Fotland TØ, Naterstad K, Kruse H. Triclosan and antimicrobial resistance in bacteria: an overview. Microb Drug Resist. 2006;12(2):83-90. PubMed PMID: 16922622.















BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) and BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene) are related chemicals used to extend the shelf life of products with oil ingredients, including moisturizers, lotions, body oils, shaving creams, perfumes, fragrances and lipsticks. They are added in low amounts with typical use levels ranging from 0.0002% to 0.5%. Both BHA and BHT have been linked to hormone disruption and cancer, according agencies like the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Toxicology experts say these chemicals can penetrate skin, but are absorbed by the body at a slow rate, with most of the applied ingredient accumulating in the living skin layers.


Many health authorities find the scientific evidence concerning enough that restrictions have been passed on use of these chemicals. Europe prohibits their use in fragrances, and California requires a warning label on all products that contain BHA about its possible negative health effects. In addition to being a human health concern, BHA negatively impacts the environment because of its tendency to accumulate in water and cause harm to aquatic wildlife. While many products with oily ingredients require protection from oxidation, this can also be accomplished with alternative ingredients, like certain forms of Vitamin E (tocopherol or mixed tocopherols) often used in cosmetics.











Parabens are a group of chemicals commonly used as preservatives that stop bacteria, mold and fungi from growing in cosmetic products. They are found in a variety of products including cleansers, body washes, hair products, moisturizers, lotions and skin care products.


Parabens are known to mimic the activity of hormones like estrogen in the body. Parabens are easily absorbed through skin and research studies have found evidence of parabens in breast tumors. However, the scientific evidence does not clearly demonstrate that parabens can actually cause breast cancer.


Many scientists and most governing bodies consider the hormone effects of common parabens too weak to cause any real harm, particularly with low doses applied to the skin as is typical with cosmetics. However, some newer research points to the conclusion that parabens interact with breast cancer cells in ways that are not yet fully understood. A study published in October 2015 in Environmental Health Perspectives found that for certain types of breast cancer cells, parabens stimulate their growth and be more potent at lower concentrations than previously thought. At the end of the day, there is still a lot of scientific uncertainty about whether parabens have the ability to contribute to breast cancer development and to what extent.


Parabens can also cause skin irritation, contact dermatitis and/or rosacea in individuals with a paraben sensitivity or paraben allergy, albeit this is a small percentage of the general population. There is also a small number of research studies indicating that parabens applied to the skin may interact with UV light in ways that accelerate skin aging and DNA damage.


The use of parabens in cosmetics is regulated in Europe, with five different parabens being banned completely, and others being allowed only in levels of 0.4% or less. Typical use levels of individual parabens range from 0.1 to 0.3%. In the US there is no limit on the amount of parabens permitted in cosmetics and personal care products.














Propylene Glycol comes from petroleum and has very widespread use in cosmetics. It can perform multiple functions in products, including stabilizing other ingredients, controlling bacteria inside the product, and binding water to act like a moisturizer. In many ways it is kind of like a synthetic version of glycerin. It can be found in moisturizers, lotions, toners, makeup, sunscreens, makeup, cleansers and hair products.


For years the dermatology community has known about propylene glycol’s ability to cause irritation and skin reactions in some individuals. In cases of sensitivity propylene glycol can cause rashes that resemble eczema on skin areas where products have been applied. It has been associated with causing dermatitis as well as hives at concentrations as low as 2 percent, which is not uncommon in cosmetics. Also a skin penetrator, propylene glycol can enhance bodily absorption of other baddies present in a product.








Synthetic Fragrance is a type of ingredient used to impart scent to cosmetic formulas. It is not just one chemical, but a mixture of many different chemicals and compounds. The entire mixture is listed as one ingredient – “Fragrance” or “Parfum” – on labels because cosmetic fragrances are given trade secret status by the FDA. It is not a legal requirement for the multiple chemicals that constitute a fragrance to be disclosed on the label. Typical cosmetic fragrances are composed of about 20 to 100 different chemicals. Also there are about 2,600 different chemicals currently in use for making synthetic fragrances, and about 95% of these are synthetic meaning they are derived from petroleum.


There are a lot of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances that don’t contribute to scent but are meant to carry aroma chemicals into products. These are not shown on the label either, and might be thought of as incidental ingredients. In 2002 the Environmental Working Group tested 72 off-the-shelf beauty products and found about three-quarters of them to contain phthalates. Due to the fragrance labeling loophole, none of the products tested (which included many from leading brands) had the word “phthalate” listed on the ingredient label.


Fragrances are also not the best thing for people who have sensitive skin, allergies or asthma. Some of the compounds used in fragrance are among the top known skin allergens, and inhaling fragrance could possibly trigger respiratory allergies or asthma attacks in some individuals. Also fragrance chemicals tend to be smaller on the molecular scale and tend to easily penetrate skin for bodily absorption.










Similar red lists: 








Baddie Label ingredient name(s) IngredientCategory/Function Used in Concern Bans and regulations
Phthalates DibutylPhthalate, Butyl Benzyl Phthalate


Solvents, plasticizers, fragrance carriers Perfumes,some synthetic fragrances, nail polishes, hairsprays Linked to hormone disruption, possibly leading to fertility issues, premature puberty in girls and/or irregular reproductive development in boys prior to birth. May also cause allergies,asthma, liver and kidney damage. Banned from children’s toys in the US, similar ban in Europe.
Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde-producers DMDMHydantoin,Quaternium-15,ImidazolidinylUrea,DiazolidinylUrea, Methylene Glycol, Formaldehyde Resin Preservatives, hair-straightening, nail hardening, disinfectants Cosmetics and personal care products that contain water, salon hair treatments, nail products A humancarcinogen according to theNational Toxicology Program(NTP) and other health authorities.Fumes can causeeye irritation, headache,throat irritation, labored breathing, andasthma attacks. Can act as an allergen and skin irritant with the potential to cause contact dermatitis (itchy, red skin rash with or without blisters). Absorption through the skin does occur.


Formaldehyde-releasingingredientsare banned fromcosmetics and personal care products in Japan and Sweden. Europe hasrestrictionson use levels.Minnesota has a ban onchildren’s personal care products containing formaldehyde.
Triclosan Triclosan Antibacterial agents, preservatives Antibacterialsoaps, cleansers, hand washes, deodorants, dental and oral care products Linked tohormone disruption, muscledysfunction, heart problems, cancer, liver toxicity, birthdefects, childhood development problems. Persists in the body and in the environment, can promote formation ofdrug-resistantbacteria strains. Minnesotapassed law prohibitinguse oftriclosanin retail consumerhygiene productsthatwill go into effect Jan1, 2017. Europe has restrictions onlevelsoftriclosanin cosmeticsand toiletriessince2014.
BHA & BHT BHA, BHT Anti-oxidation Products that have natural oils, perfumes, synthetic fragrances Linked to hormone disruption and cancer, according tothe National Toxicology Program (NTP),the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and other health authorities.Bothpenetrateskinbut are absorbed by the bodyat a slow rate,accumulatingin living skin layers. Europeprohibitsuse ofBHAin cosmetic fragrances.California requires warningson productscontainingBHA, notifying consumers thatthis ingredientmay cause cancer.
Parabens Methylparaben,Propylparaben,Ethylparaben,Butylparaben,Isobutylparaben Preservatives Cosmetics and personal care products that contain water Mimic estrogen inside the body and can react with breast cancer cells. They have been shown to be present in breast tumors. It is unclear if they can play a role in the development of breast cancer. For someindividualsparabens can cause skin irritation or allergic reactions.


Europe has a ban on 5 different parabens (not listed here) andlimitsthe use levels of others.
Propylene Glycol Propylene Glycol


Solvents, ingredient carriers, humectants All sorts of cosmetic and personal care products Can cause skin irritation and dermatitis in some individuals, enhances penetration of other ingredients and chemicals None
Synthetic Fragrance Fragrance/Parfum Scent All sorts of cosmetic and personal care products Often containsphthalates which do not appear on the label; Common source of skin allergens and irritants, alsomaycause breathing difficulties and trigger respiratory allergies; typical fragrancesarecomposed ofabout 20-100 different chemicals Europe has a law for26 fragrance allergensthatif any are above certain levels inaproduct they must be listed as ingredients on the label

NOTE: In addition to the concerns listed in the table, all of these baddies are derived from petrochemicals. A petrochemical is a chemical, material or substance that is made from chemicals present in petroleum. Petroleum is basically the market version of crude oil, a non-renewable fossil fuel used to make gasoline and many consumer goods like plastics, synthetic fibers, polyester fabric, and the list goes on.


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