The Potentially Cancer-Causing Chemicals That May Be Hiding in Your Beauty Products

Vague terms on ingredient lists can conceal real hazards.

A young Latina woman reads the labels on beauty products in the pharmacy to select a healthy product.

Updated on February 29, 2024.

Anyone who’s scanned the ingredients on a typical shampoo label knows beauty and personal care products can be full of mystery chemicals. Unless you have a degree in chemistry, it can be hard to decipher most ingredient names—let alone to know their health effects.

Meanwhile, consumer product regulations have generally not kept pace with the science on chemicals. That means the hard work of assessing product risk usually falls to everyday people. To make matters harder for consumers, regulation loopholes often mean that even harmless-sounding ingredients can pose serious health risks.

Case in point: the vague, catch-all, and often deceptive ingredient known as “fragrance.”

What to know about ‘fragrance’ in products

Styrene is a potential cancer-causing chemical, or carcinogen, found in cigarettes and car exhaust. Benzophenone has a sweet, floral smell—and is also a suspected carcinogen. Phthalates, which can alter how your hormones work, are so long-lasting and potentially toxic that they’re known as “forever chemicals.”

What do these substances—along with more than 3,000 other unregulated chemicals—have in common? They’re often found in personal care products under the guise of “fragrance.”  

“Your lotions, soaps, hair products, cleaning products, laundry detergents, and countless others may contain an ingredient called ‘fragrance,’” says Morgan Barnes, MPH, the Wellness Program Coordinator at the Center for Black Women’s Wellness in Atlanta, Georgia. “‘Fragrance’ is often used to disguise the toxins that you want to avoid. And it’s even found in products labeled ‘unscented’.”

That’s true for many products labeled “unscented,” “natural,” and “kid- and pet-safe.” Why? Because the term “fragrance” is a regulation loophole.

“Companies don’t have to tell you what the fragrance is, what’s in it, or what it’s derived from,” says Barnes. While not every fragrance chemical is a possible carcinogen, many of them are. And the tricky thing is, when it comes to fragrance, you don’t always know what you’re getting.

How to avoid ‘fragrance’ chemicals

Fragrance chemicals may be designed to provide a pleasant smell—or to mask the smell of other, less pleasant-smelling chemicals. They appear in thousands of personal care, household, and beauty products.

Note that “unscented” is not the same thing as “fragrance-free.” Products labeled “unscented” may not have any noticeable smell, but they can still contain chemicals used to mask or neutralize the smell of others.

To steer clear of “fragrance” (and the dangerous chemicals it can contain), look for products labeled “fragrance-free.” But don’t stop there. Front-of-product labels are covered by even fewer regulations than ingredient lists, so double check the ingredients for “fragrance.”

Pro tip: To make life simple—and to assess all of an item’s ingredients at a glance—you can search for your product using one of the databases listed below.

Beware of strong-smelling ingredients like formaldehyde

Not every scented ingredient is used to make things smell nice (or to hide things that don’t). Many chemical ingredients are just plain stinky—and formaldehyde is one of them.

Formaldehydes, and a related class of chemicals called paraformaldehydes, have their own strong odor. They may be used alongside masking fragrances in beauty products such as hair-straightening and hair-relaxing products. On labels, these ingredients may go by other names like formalin and methylene glycol. 

When hair-straightening products are heated, they may release formaldehyde as a gas. In the short term, this can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, and lead to headaches, nausea, and vomiting. Long-term exposure has been linked to cancers of the throat. It is also associated with leukemia, a form of blood cancer. Frequent exposure to hair-straightening products has been linked to breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers, as well.

“These items are often made for women and Black women in particular,” says Barnes. In fact, in 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) introduced a proposal to ban formaldehydes, which are often used in hair products marketed specifically to Black women.

In general, women, children, and people of color are disproportionately exposed to fragrance chemicals and formaldehydes, says Barnes. Reasons for this include manufacturing and marketing practices designed to directly reach them. These practices can contribute to serious health disparities, or differences in health outcomes according to factors such as race, sex, and gender.

Sourcing products you can trust  

What if you want a pleasant scent with your products or a healthier hair-care alternative? With the right tools you can find items made with safer ingredients.

“The good news is, many products are becoming available to meet the demand for safer choices,” says Barnes. “In the past, you would only see truly non-toxic products in expensive, specialty stores. Today, you can find them in major retailers, online, and in discount stores, with many at affordable prices.”

Here are some nationally available, science-based tools to help simplify your search for healthy personal care products:

The Healthy Living app from the Environmental Working Group (EWG): The EWG is a nonprofit organization that researches toxic chemicals in food, water, and consumer products. Open the EWG’s Healthy Living app on your smartphone to scan or look up items while shopping.

“We know not everyone has access to a smartphone,” says Barnes. “But if you can connect to a computer at home or your local library, the website search function works great, too.”

The EWG offers a simple, color-coded safety rating for products. It tells you the ingredients in a product, its level of risk, the health problems it’s linked to, and more. “Products marked ‘green’ are considered safer choices, while ‘red’ products may contain known carcinogens and other chemicals,” explains Barnes.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC): This website is home to a searchable database of chemicals in beauty and personal care products that covers a range of populations, categories, and health issues.

The site also features the Non-Toxic Black Beauty Database. According to the CSC, this is a searchable database of products that are Black-owned and free of chemicals on the CSC’s “Red List.” (The Red List is a catalog of chemicals linked to health concerns that disproportionately affect Black women.)

The Safer Choice List from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): This list was created to help people easily recognize safer, fragrance-free products. Search products online through the Safer Choice registry or look for the Safer Choice label in stores. Some healthier products will be more expensive than the bargain brands you love, says Barnes, but you don’t have to replace everything in your home all at once.

“Even if you just swap one or two items per pay period or shopping cycle—or if you wait until a product runs out to replace it—little changes can add up to make a big difference over time,” she says.

Harnessing consumer power

It can feel unfair that the burden of researching safe products often falls to consumers. New laws and regulations are needed to reflect what science is increasingly showing about chemical risks. In the meantime, companies do respond to customers’ spending habits. What you buy and say can affect manufacturing practices over time.

Share this information with loved ones so they can avoid harmful chemicals, too. If you have the time and means, send companies feedback about their practices through surveys, reviews, and customer service channels. Ultimately, if people make enough noise about the chemicals in their products, companies will have to listen (if they want to stay in business).  

This article has been written in collaboration with the Center for Black Women’s Wellness (CBWW), a community-based, family service center committed to improving the health and well-being of underserved Black women and their families.

For expert tips on how to avoid other cancer-causing chemicals, read 3 Cancer-Causing Chemicals That May Be Hiding in Your Home. To learn about additional risk categories like nonstick pans, candles, and plastic baby teethers, visit our Shopping Guide for Safe, Non-Toxic Gifts. For tips on how to eliminate household contaminants and select safer cleaning supplies, visit 10 Simple Ways to Breather Better at Home.

Article sources open article sources

American Cancer Society. Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk. Last Revised: October 24, 2022.
American Society of Clinical Oncology. Cancer.Net. Can Using Hair Dyes or Hair Relaxers Impact Your Cancer Risk? July 13, 2023.
California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Benzophenone. Updated April 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Formaldehyde. Page last reviewed: June 21, 2019.
Johnson PI, Favela K, Jarin J, et al. Chemicals of concern in personal care products used by women of color in three communities of California. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2022;32(6):864-876.
Kazemi Z, Aboutaleb E, Shahsavani A, Kermani M, Kazemi Z. Evaluation of pollutants in perfumes, colognes and health effects on the consumer: a systematic review. J Environ Health Sci Eng. 2022;20(1):589-598. Published 2022 Feb 3.
National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services. Report on Carcinogens, Fifteenth Edition. Styrene. December 2023.
Rádis-Baptista G. Do Synthetic Fragrances in Personal Care and Household Products Impact Indoor Air Quality and Pose Health Risks?. J Xenobiot. 2023;13(1):121-131. Published 2023 Mar 1.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. Facts About Formaldehyde. Last updated March  28, 2023.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Fragrances in Cosmetics. Content current as of: February 28, 2022.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Hair Smoothing Products That Release Formaldehyde When Heated. Content current as of: February 25, 2022.

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