Skin Deep: Chemicals in Cosmetics

Skin Deep: Chemicals in Cosmetics

We live in a world filled with all kinds of modern conveniences that make our lives more efficient, more comfortable—and more toxic. In this day and age, it’s almost impossible to avoid being exposed to the insidious chemicals found in our air, water, and food. But did you know that conventional cosmetics and personal care products are an even greater problem for women? The toxins these products contain contribute to our chemical body burden, the total amount of toxins present in the bloodstream. Creams, lotions, perfumes, and make-up are particularly problematic because they remain on the skin. And the skin absorbs and transports chemicals with more speed and efficiency than any other system of the body.  

The ‘dirty dozen’ chemicals are the twelve most commonly identified toxins used in the formulation of women’s cosmetics and personal care products. According to recent research, one in eight of the 82,000 ingredients used in these products are industrial chemicals. Some of these are plasticizers (chemicals that keep hard materials soft); others are degreasers; and the rest are typically surfactants (they reduce surface tension in water). The dirty dozen specifically include:

  1. BHA and BHT—synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives in lipsticks, moisturizers, and other cosmetics. They are also widely used as food preservatives.

  2. Coal tar dyes—which are typically listed in the U.S. as FD&C or D&C followed by a color name and number. P-phenylenediamine is a particular coal tar used in many hair dyes. Darker hair dyes tend to contain more of it.

  3. Diethanolamine or DEA—used to make personal care products creamy or sudsy. DEA also acts as a pH adjuster, counteracting the acidity of other ingredients. It has been banned in Europe as a known carcinogen.

  4. Dibutyl Phthalate—or DBP is used mainly in nail products as a solvent for dyes and as a plasticizer that prevents nail polishes from becoming brittle. DBP is also commonly-used in polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC) to make it flexible

  5. Formaldehyde-releasing agents—used preservatives in a wide range of cosmetics. Other industrial applications of formaldehyde include production of resins used in wood products, vinyl flooring and other plastics, permanent-press fabric, and toilet bowl cleaners

  6. Parabens—the most commonly-used preservative in the personal care industry.

  7. Parfum or fragrance—usually a complex mixture of dozens of chemicals. Some 3,000 different chemicals are used as fragrances. 

  8. PEG compounds—petroleum-based compounds that are widely used in cosmetics as thickeners or cream bases. They also used in pharmaceuticals as laxatives.

  9. Petrolatum—petroleum jelly. Used as a barrier to lock moisture in the skin in a variety of moisturizers and in hair care products to make your hair shine

  10. Siloxanes—endocrine-disrupting, silicone-based compounds used to soften and moisten creams and lotions.

  11. Sodium Laureth Sulfate—an inexpensive detergent and foaming agent.

  12. Triclosan—a pesticide used as a preservative and anti-bacterial agent.


Lessening your toxic load is one of the most important things you can do to increase your body’s capacity for optimal health, performance, and recovery. And reducing your exposure to the toxic chemicals found in cosmetics and personal care products can be as effortless as changing where you reach on the shelf when you’re shopping.

Brands like Earth Science, Desert Essence, and Avalon Organics (skin care); MyChelle, Juice Beauty, and Andalou Naturals (beauty care) are all widely available. The hunt for clean cosmetics can be a bit more elusive, but Vapour Beauty, Josie Maran, and Tarte are all highly rated brands. The dish soaps, laundry detergents, and fabric softeners you’re using matter, too (because clothes are in constant contact with the skin). I have found that Seventh Generation and Biokleen products work consistently well—all around the house. And don’t forget to prioritize the purchase chlorine-free tampons and sanitary pads (available from companies like Organyx, Natracare, and Maxim).  

Have you taken any specific steps to reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals? Are you eating more organic foods or have you switched to any natural cosmetic and/or personal care brands? What has your experience been? Do you have any specific recommendations to share? Please let me know in the comments section below.