Chemicals in Your Cosmetics: Questionable Ingredients, Rampant Unaccountability

Many Americans are unaware that our country’s cosmetics industry is minimally policed, and that beauty product companies—almost entirely self-regulated—have been making hundreds of millions of dollars in profit at the risk of consumers’ health. Known carcinogens like formaldehyde are found in nail polishes and hair treatments. Phthalates—possible carcinogens and definite endocrine disruptors (dudes, prepare to be less…dudely)—are not only in soft plastics but most shampoos, deodorants, and fragrances.

How is this possible? While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has “rules,” there is practically no enforcement, and its list of banned chemicals is so short it should be sent home from school for indecency. Of the thousands of chemicals used in body and beauty products, less than 15 percent have been tested for safety. Moreover, that testing is done by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an industry-funded organization. The mainstream beauty product world is not only ugly, but corrupt.

Key problems: The FDA isn’t really into banning chemicals if a product is not medicinal or therapeutic. Instead, the FDA is more focused on tampering and labeling than the actual contents of beauty products. The FDA does almost nothing whatsoever to enforce the regulations in place, and the organization’s Cosmetic Registry Program—where products’ ingredient lists are provided—is voluntary. Almost any ingredient is on the table for beauty products—companies do not need to prove them “safe” to use them. And, perhaps most important of all, few companies bother to concern themselves with the safety of their ingredients, or the health of their customers.

The beauty product industry is such a massive hellstorm of questionable ingredients and rampant unaccountability that when California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control tested 25 nail polishes for the “toxic trio” (that would be toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate—chemicals associated with asthma and birth defects and which are, it should be noted, totally legal to use if they’re just labeled correctly), it found that five of the seven polishes labeled as free of all three chemicals actually contained at least one in significant quantities. Twelve products claimed to be free of toluene; only two actually were. It’s not just shocking that these toxic chemicals are allowed to be used in products that are top-notch candidates for transdermal dispersion—what’s more shocking is that the manufacturers themselves aren’t even keeping track of what is going into their products.

When it comes to the vast selection of beauty and body products, caveat emptor is the law of the land, and keeping track of what is and isn’t safe to use is an almost Sisyphean effort for any individual to undertake. Thankfully, concerned consumers are already on the case, investigating, collecting, and publishing their findings in books and on websites. Others are initiating political campaigns aiming to impose stricter state standards. Washington’s Children’s Safe Products Act, which bans certain phthalates from kids’ products, was helped along by a grassroots campaign effort by the Washington Toxics Coalition. Oregon’s chemical safety organization is Beyond Toxics, based out of Eugene (

Visit the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database ( to learn about the health effects of different chemicals and smart shopping for the safest products. Unfortunately, reading ingredient labels on products isn’t really helpful. Not only is the industry rife with mislabeling, but the federal government allows many ingredients to be excluded from labels. The ingredient “fragrance,” for instance, could mean any one of more than 3,000 chemicals. The best defense is investigating products before committing to a purchase. Or, make your own products at home. When the consumer is also the producer, there is no question of honesty.

Books on the subject:

No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products—and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics – Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt

The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-Being Nena Baker

Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry – Stacy Malkan

The Hundred-Year Lie: How to Protect Yourself from the Chemicals That Are Destroying Your Health – Randall Fitzgerald

Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power – Mark Schapiro


EU Bans Animal Testing for Cosmetics—Does America Care?

In 2003, the European Union updated its Cosmetic Directive to ban more than 1,300 chemicals from cosmetics. Since then, it has slowly been tightening its regulation of the cosmetics industry; in 2004 it banned animal testing on finished cosmetic products; then, in 2009, a ban on animal-tested ingredients was authorized. Products that were animal-tested before the ban are still allowed to be sold, and ingredients animal-tested for pharmaceutical or chemical use can still be used in cosmetics, too. However, no new animal testing can be done for cosmetic products. The 2009 ban had exemptions for certain ingredients that did not yet have appropriate “cruelty free” substitutes. In March, those exemptions expired.

For America, this means products will have to be made entirely cruelty free to be sold on the European market. Will these new regulations compel American companies to change their ways? Considering the surfeit of mislabeling in the American beauty products industry, it would be but a small step to also brand products as “Cruelty Free.” While the

ban effectively eradicates China from the European market (China requires animal testing on all of its cosmetics), the American cosmetics industry—with its jumble of nefarious beauty product conglomerates and eco-friendly mom-and-pop manufacturers—could offer Europe more of a challenge. But word on the street is that, with the EU the largest beauty product market worldwide, reluctantly or not, American cosmetics companies are listening.

by Mica Habarad