Everything You Need To Know to Choose Safe Cosmetic Products

Andrea Sun, MS, Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund

Do you know how to pick out the right makeup or skincare products for yourself? Cosmetic products are used by everyone of all ages. They include shampoo, shaving products, and moisturizing creams, as well as make-up, nail polish, and anti-aging products. Promotional videos for cosmetic products are popular among influencers on social media platforms like YouTube and Instagram. Some studies show that the revenue in the U.S. Beauty & Personal Care market will exceed an astonishing $92 billion by the end of 2023.[1]

U.S. consumers use an average of 6 to 12 cosmetic products daily, containing nearly 200 chemicals. With so many choices, and so many potentially risky chemicals, it’s essential to know what to look for when buying these products. Current regulations address some safety concerns for cosmetic products, but many gaps remain.

What are some of the regulations that protect us?

The U.S. has some regulations regarding the manufacturing and selling of cosmetics. Let’s look at what makes cosmetics different from drugs and what might be helpful information when you shop or read the label on a product.

The Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) defines cosmetics as articles intended to make the human body more attractive. Lipsticks, nail polishes, perfumes, skin moisturizers, toothpaste, deodorants, and shampoos are especially popular cosmetics. However, there are some topical products that are sold without prescriptions in drug stores that are not considered cosmetics – they are considered drugs. Drugs are defined as products that can cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent diseases or affect the body’s function. For example, products such as hair loss treatment shampoo and acne medications are considered over-the-counter drugs instead of cosmetics. They are regulated by the FDA to make sure that they are safe and effective.

If a product makes you look better and treats your disease or improves your body’s function, it is both a cosmetic and a drug. One example is anti-dandruff shampoos, since they clean your hair and treat dandruff. Other products, such as deodorants containing antiperspirants, moisturizers, and makeup with sun-protection claims, are also drugs and cosmetics. These are also regulated by the FDA to determine if they are safe and effective.

The Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022 (MoCRA) requires manufacturers to list products’ ingredients and manufacturing information, report serious adverse events such as life-threatening reactions, and renew registered facility information at FDA. This law will go into effect on December 29, 2023. Another law, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA), works with MoCRA to ensure consumers receive accurate information. It requires clear labeling of essential information, such as the product’s name and manufacturer and sets standards for quantities and measurements to enable easy comparison across different products. The law also protects consumers from misleading information by prohibiting deceptive packaging or labeling and gives various government agencies the authority to enforce these rules.

The effect of cosmetics on environmental pollution is also limited through regulation. The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 prohibits the manufacturing, packaging, and distributing of rinse-off cosmetics containing plastic microbeads. These tiny plastic particles usually appear in personal care products like facial scrubs, toothpaste, and body washes for their exfoliating properties. However, they pose significant environmental problems, since they could easily pass through water treatment facilities and end up in rivers and oceans. Marine animals could mistake them for food, which would endanger the food chain.

Cosmetic substances that cause health concerns

U.S. regulations require the disclosure of ingredients, but do not set limits on what chemicals can be included in these products. That means that ingredients known or suspected to cause cancer could be in cosmetics that are legally sold in the U.S. This includes chemicals like formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasers, parabens, phthalates, fragrance, diethanolamine (DEA), and other heavy metals.

● Formaldehyde
Formaldehyde is added to many personal care products to prevent bacteria from growing. Customers sometimes find it in nail polish, shampoo, and body washes. Exposure to low levels can irritate people’s eyes, nose, and throat. However, hair stylists and manicurists who are regularly exposed are more likely to eventually develop nose and throat cancers. A 2019 study in Brazil looked at 23 beauty salons to understand the exposure of hairdressers to formaldehyde and its effects. The result shows that 17% of salons had exceeded the formaldehyde level that is considered safe. Over 65% of the hairdressers reported work-related health issues like eye irritation, skin problems, headaches, limb pain, and breathing difficulties. [8]

● Parabens
Parabens are preservatives commonly used in water-based products. Shampoos, conditioners, face washes, toothpaste, and other cosmetics contain low levels of parabens. Studies on animals indicate that parabens can imitate the actions of the hormone estrogen.[3] that paraben exposure may increase the chances of developing breast cancer in women and disturbances in male reproductive systems. [2]

● Phthalates
Phthalates are chemicals that mimic hormones and are linked to birth defects in animals, especially in the male reproductive system, and are also considered a potential cause for early puberty in boys and girls. They also can increase obesity in children. Personal care product manufacturers started to phase out the direct use of phthalates in 2018 when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission restricted six types of phthalates in children’s toys and child care products after learning about its risks in hormone function and fertility impairment. However, phthalates are still in many products, especially those that smell good.

● Fragrances
Fragrance ingredients are common in self-care products such as shower gels, shampoos, body lotions, and shaving creams. They sometimes are even in products labeled “unscented.” This is because manufacturers are not obligated to label the fragrance in the ingredient list if the amount added is just enough to cover the unpleasant smell of other ingredients versus giving the product a noticeable scent. In the U.S., manufacturers can list fragrance and flavor ingredients as “Fragrance” or “Flavor.” The fragrance is usually a company’s “trade secret,” so they do not need to disclose it. Diethyl phthalate, or DEP, is the phthalate commonly used in fragrance products and is not proven to harm people’s health.

● Diethanolamine
Diethanolamine, also called DEA, is an emulsifier in creamy or foamy products like shampoos and shaving creams. Its reaction with other preservatives in personal care products will form nitrosamines, a human carcinogen according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the U.S. National Toxicology Program. Europe and Canada prohibit DEA in cosmetics. Why doesn’t the U.S. FDA?

● Heavy metals
Personal care products such as lipstick, whitening toothpaste, eyeliner, and nail polish often contain heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, mercury, aluminum, zinc, chromium, and iron. Exposure to some of these metals can raise health concerns, particularly affecting the reproductive, immune, and nervous systems. Though “plant-source derived” might sound safe to many customers, several ingredients, such as cottonseed oils and rice derivatives, may contain heavy metals such as lead and mercury, which can harm fertility, cause brain damage, and harm breathing. Sometimes metals are deliberately added to cosmetics; for example chromium is commonly found in eye shadows, blushes, and concealers.

Cosmetics and the Environment

Ingredients from cosmetics can harm our environment. Products such as makeup remover wipes, exfoliating scrubs with microbeads, face sheet masks, skin-whitening creams, and sprays and mists contain non-biodegradable ingredients and chemicals that can harm the environment, waterways, marine life, and even the ozone layer. A 2023 study suggested that microplastics, tiny plastic particles between 100 nm and 5 mm, can move up the food chain from small sea creatures to larger ones, carrying harmful pollutants that could end up in humans.[4]

Additionally, triclosan (TCS), an antimicrobial substance that is often in shampoos, detergents, hand soaps, toothpaste, sunscreen, and deodorants, can also damage the environment. A 2020 study shows that people are more likely to have TCS in their blood, urine, and breast milk if they apply personal care products containing TCS.[5] This can harm human health and our environment, causing an itchy rash, decreased sperm production, and tumors. If TCS is in the environment, it becomes highly poisonous during wastewater treatment, accumulating in animals, plants, and algae, disrupting the ecosystem.

Does consistent exposure to cosmetics harm beauticians’ health?

Hair stylists, manicurists, aestheticians, and other beauticians are constantly exposed to chemicals and heat in their working environments. Do they have a higher risk of some diseases due to these exposures? What can they do to protect themselves from these exposures during work?

A 2021 study examined the chemical and physical conditions in hair salons and assessed the health risks of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for hairdressers.[6] VOCs are organic chemical components in hair spray that carry substances that can cause heart disease, irritation, insomnia, and nerve damage. This exposure also increases the chances of developing cancer. Installing exhaust ventilation is one of the most effective methods to lower the VOC concentration in the salon. Nail professionals in U.S. salons are also frequently exposed to dangerous chemicals in adhesives, lacquers, removers, moisturizers, and other salon items that can cause breathing problems, rashes, liver complications, reproductive issues, and even cancer. Chemicals found in nail products, such as acetone in nail polish remover, formaldehyde in nail polish and nail hardener, and toluene fingernail glue, can cause headaches, dizziness, allergic reactions, and harm the fetus during pregnancy. For that reason, nail salons should be required to make sure products are 3-free (free from toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate) and free from acid. Nail professionals should always review product labels and instructions when using nail products. [7]

So, what can you do to protect yourself while enjoying personal care products?

1. Read ingredient labels and remember that Ingredients appear in order from highest to lowest concentration. Pay attention to ingredients with higher concentration and avoid those you are allergic to or that can cause environmental problems. See ingredients you want to avoid in cosmetics.
2. When it comes to self-care routine, more is not necessarily better. Skin irritation can occur when layering products. Applying daily makeup without adequately removing it might also disrupt the skin’s protective barrier and cause eye infections and premature aging. Therefore, it is important to build a simple yet effective routine that works well for you and stick with it. Read here for more skin care tips.
3. Choose traditional nail polish over gel polish. Acetone is used to remove gel polish. Traditional nail polish is strong and doesn’t require remover made with acetone. If you use a remover made with acetone, soak a cotton ball in it to remove the polish. Read more here.
4. Cosmetic products that are less dangerous are usually better for the environment as well. Products with sustainable packaging such as refillable and reusable cosmetics can reduce plastic pollution.

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

1. Beauty & Personal Care – United States. Statista. https://www.statista.com/outlook/cmo/beauty-personal-care/united-states
2. Sheikh, Knvul. Many Personal Care Products Contain Harmful Chemicals. Here’s What to Do About It. New York Times. 2023.
3. Hager, E., Chen, J., & Zhao, L. Minireview: Parabens Exposure and Breast Cancer. International journal of environmental research and public health, 19(3), 1873. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19031873
4. Zhou, Yuwen., Ashokkumar, Veeramuthu., & Amobonye, Ayodeji. Current Research Trends on Cosmetic Microplastic Pollution and Its Impacts on the Ecosystem: A Review. Environmental Pollution. Vol. 320. 2023. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2023.121106
5. Bilal, Muhammad., Mehmood, Shahid., & Lqbal, Hafiz. The Beast of Beauty: Environmental and Health Concerns of Toxic Components in Cosmetics. Cosmetics. 2020, 7(1), 13. https://doi.org/10.3390/cosmetics7010013
6. Senthong, P., & Wittayasilp, S. Working Conditions and Health Risk Assessment in Hair Salons. Environmental health insights, 15, 11786302211026772. 2021. https://doi.org/10.1177/11786302211026772
7. Health Hazards in Nail Salons. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. n.d. https://www.osha.gov/nail-salons/chemical-hazards
8. Pexe, M. E., Marcante, A., Luz, M. S., Fernandes, P. H. M., Neto, F. C., Sato, A. P. S., & Olympio, K. P. K. Hairdressers are exposed to high concentrations of formaldehyde during the hair straightening procedure. Environmental science and pollution research international, 2019; 26(26), 27319–27329. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-019-05402-9