Intoxicating Beauty: Toxic Chemicals in Cosmetics


Professor Pamela Lein discusses the toxic chemicals in our cosmetic products that are not as readily recognised by consumers as potentially harmful

Humans have a long history of using products that contain toxic chemicals to enhance our personal appearance and well-being. During the Renaissance period, women used eye drops containing extracts from the Atropa belladonna plant to dilate the pupils of their eyes in the hopes of appearing seductive. The active ingredients (atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine) are extremely toxic when ingested, interfering with signaling in the nervous system to cause delirium, hallucinations and even death. In Victorian England, pale skin was the fashion rage, and to achieve this look, women applied opium to their faces at night or coated their faces during the day with bright white lead-based paints. Opium and lead are neurotoxic chemicals. While times have changed, we are still using beauty and personal care products that contain potentially harmful chemicals. Many of today’s products contain chemical additives to enhance cosmetic properties (lead in lipsticks and progressive hair dyes to brighten color), to improve the efficacy of the cosmetic (phthalates in nail products as a solvent for dyes and as a plasticizer to keep nail polish from becoming brittle) or to preserve the product (triclosan to inhibit microbial and fungal growth).

Established toxicants

Some chemicals found in cosmetics are well-established toxicants, for example, lead, phthalates, and formaldehyde. As indicated earlier, lead is neurotoxic and even very low levels of lead can interfere with human brain development. Phthalates are endocrine disrupting chemicals linked to altered development of the male reproductive tract, and their release into the environment via wastewater is of ecological concern because of their potent toxicity to aquatic organisms. Formaldehyde, or chemicals that slowly break down to release formaldehyde, are widely used as preservatives in diverse products, including shampoo, nail polishes, deodorants, toothpaste, the “Brazilian Blowout” hair smoothing treatment, and cosmetics. Formaldehyde is classified as a known human carcinogen; it is also an eye and nose irritant, and can aggravate allergies.

Other toxic chemicals

Beauty and personal care products contain other toxic chemicals that are not as readily recognized by consumers as potentially harmful. BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) can induce allergic reactions in the skin, and parabens applied to the skin react with UVB irradiation to increase skin aging and DNA damage. BHA is also considered a possible human carcinogen and there are rising concerns regarding the carcinogenic potential of talc. Many chemicals used in parfum are irritants and can trigger allergies, migraines and asthma symptoms. BHA, parabens, siloxanes and triclosan are endocrine disruptors. Many of these chemicals are also of concern from an ecological perspective: BHT, synthetic musk used in fragrances, and siloxanes have moderate to high potential for bioaccumulation in aquatic species, while triclosan likely contributes to antibiotic resistance.

However, of the tens of thousands of chemicals used in personal care products, many have not been tested for adverse health effects, and the regulations even for those chemicals that are known to be toxic vary wildly between countries. For example, the United States restricts or prohibits only 11 types of chemicals in beauty and personal care products compared to more than 1,300 regulated in Europe. Moreover, is often difficult for even the informed consumer to identify the presence of known toxic chemicals in beauty and personal care products because of inadequate product labeling. For example, even if formaldehyde-releasing chemicals are listed on the product label, the fact that they generate formaldehyde is typically not indicated. Phthalates used as fragrance ingredients are not listed on the product label because fragrances are considered trade secrets, and manufacturers are not required to disclose fragrance chemicals in the list of ingredients.

To overcome these regulatory lapses, in 2014, Walmart and Target brought together stakeholders from across the U.S. beauty and personal care industry to focus on developing safer, more sustainable products. In April 2019, a core group of eighteen organizations released the first science-based scorecard of 32 key performance indicators that characterizes product safety and sustainability based on four criteria. These include: (1) human health impact of ingredients and product formulations; (2) resource usage and emissions during sourcing, manufacturing and product use; (3) ingredient disclosure to consumers and (4) environmental and health impacts of packaging decisions. If adopted and implemented industry-wide, as intended, every retailer will apply uniform indicators of a product’s sustainability, which will enable the consumer to send a clear signal as to what product features are most desirable. With such initiatives, perhaps the phrase “intoxicating beauty” will come to reflect only the effect on the observer and not adverse effects of cosmetics on the observed.


Pamela J. Lein

Professor of Neurotoxicology

University of California, Davis/School of Veterinary Medicine

Tel: +1 530 752 1970


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here