Face the Facts: Risks of Using Cosmetics

Face the Facts: Risks of Using Cosmetics

Make sure these harmful chemicals aren’t hiding in your make-up and beauty products.

Beauty before health—it’s an all-too-common human impulse seen throughout history. The ancient Egyptians used dyes laced with lead, arsenic and other toxins to draw flowing black accents on their eyelids. In England, Elizabethan women applied the neurological toxin mercury to their faces as a cleanser and to treat blemishes. Upper class women in Japan’s Edo period dosed themselves (and their children) with brain- and nerve-damaging, lead-based face powder.

We haven’t gotten a lot smarter. According to an Environmental Working Group (EWG) report, the US trails 40 other countries in its review of the safety of cosmetic ingredients. Worldwide, some 1,400 chemicals are restricted or banned from cosmetics—but not in the US. Only nine are kept out of cosmetics by the FDA.

Some of the ingredients that are in cosmetics here that are regulated elsewhere include:

  • Formaldehyde—a known carcinogen
  • Parabens—isobutyl and isopropyl parabens are hormone-disruptors
  • PFOA—a carcinogen the EWG found in 200 tested products
  • Toluene—It’s in nail polish products and is linked to reproductive and neurological harm  

Fortunately, CVS Health, Target, Rite Aid and Walgreens say they’ll restrict or ban many of these chemicals from their own cosmetic brands. And California is considering a cosmetics bill to ban 20 toxins, including phthalates, carbon black and lead. In the meantime—READ LABELS. Since many of these ingredients aren’t listed on labels, we think you should take a look at the EWGs Skin Deep data base ( of over 1,200 products they certify to be free of known toxins.

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

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