If you have spent any time reading information about cosmetics on the Internet, you’ve no doubt come across scare stories about dangerous, “toxic” ingredients. It might be lead in lipstick, mercury in mascara, or some other outrageous headline but the message is always the same, cosmetics kill and cosmetic companies are more concerned about profit than producing safe products.
As a cosmetic chemist, this has always troubled me. I was a formulation chemist for years and I never used chemicals that I thought were unsafe. Also, I was never pressured by my company to use “less safe” ingredients because they were cheaper. This is complete nonsense and groups that propagate it are bad for society and for cosmetic chemists.
But if you’re going to be a formulator, it would be helpful for you to know which cosmetic ingredients get bad press, why and whether it is true or not. So here we present a look at the 12 most vilified cosmetic ingredients. The next time a friend or family member asks you about them, you’ll be in a better position to answer.
Top Vilified Cosmetic Ingredients
2. Diazolidiny Urea
4. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
6. Mineral Oil
7. Propylene Glycol
10. Color pigments
11. PEG – Polyethylene Glycol
Parabens include ingredients like Methylparaben, Propylparaben and Butylparaben. They are used in cosmetics to prevent microbial contamination. Their high temperature stability, high level of effectiveness, and long record of safety make them an excellent preservative choice.
Parabens have recently come under fire by certain consumer groups and all-natural companies. They claim that parabens are “…a strong hormone disrupting chemical. Has direct links to breast cancer and heart problems.” These claims are not true, not based on science and are complete exaggerations.
For a full account of parabens and their safety in cosmetics see these excellent articles.
Diazolidinyl Urea / DMDM Hydantoin
Like parabens, these cosmetic ingredients are preservatives added to combat disease-causing microbes. They are called “formaldehyde donors” because when placed in a solution they dissociate into ions, one of which is formaldehyde. The formaldehyde then quickly kills microbes.
Formaldehyde is a scary ingredient to people as it has been shown to cause irritation, gene mutations, and cancer. But formaldehyde donors are not the same thing as formaldehyde and the amount of exposure gotten from cosmetics is well within safe levels.
See this summary explanation for why formaldehyde donors are safe for cosmetics.
For a full review of formaldehyde, see this toxicology report from the CDC.
Triclosan is an anti-bacterial ingredient added to cosmetics to reduce or prevent bacterial contamination. It’s usually found in antibacterial soaps, handwashes, toothpaste and deodorants. The FDA has affirmed its effectiveness and regulates products that contain triclosan as over the counter (OTC) drugs.
Some groups object to triclosan for various reasons. They say that Triclosan can produce a toxic, hormone disrupting chemical. That it poses long term chronic health risks, alters genetic material, and causes birth defects. It also can damage kidneys, lungs, liver, etc.
Independent scientists who study Tricolsan come to different conclusions. The safety of triclosan has been established but recent studies have prompted the FDA to re-examine the data. But as of now, “FDA does not have sufficient safety evidence to recommend changing consumer use of products that contain triclosan at this time” You can learn more about the status of Triclosan (in the US) at this FDA triclosan web page.
One interesting concern about Triclosan is that it has the potential to create “super-bacteria” that is resistant to its effects. This has some scientists suggesting it shouldn’t be used in cosmetics. They might have a point.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
SLS, SLES are basic detergents used in everything from body washes, hand cleansers, shampoos and even toothpaste. They really are versatile cleansing surfactants.
They are also the most maligned surfactants in the entire cosmetic industry. Just do a Google search for sodium lauryl sulfate and you’ll find plenty of sites telling you how awful it is. Claims such as “may cause hair loss”, “causes cancer”, and “the most dangerous chemical found in hair and skin care products” are frequently repeated.
Of course, SLS can be irritating (many surfactants are) but the CIR has reviewed it and found
“Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate appear to be safe in formulations designed for discontinuous, brief use followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin. In products intended for prolonged contact with skin, concentrations should not exceed 1 percent”
SLS is used in cosmetic products because it is effective, inexpensive, and safe.
Speaking of maligned surfactants, Diethanolamine is right up there with SLS for its ability to receive bad press. It is a secondary surfactant added to cosmetic formulas to boost foam and improve lather feel. Typically, it is not added directly to formulas but rather added in the form of Cocamide DEA, Lauramide DEA or Stearamide MEA. The concern is over residual DEA not from the surfactants themselves.
Concern about DEA containing cosmetics was brought up when a 1998 National Toxicology Program (NTP) study found an association between the topical application of diethanolamine (DEA) and certain DEA-related ingredients and cancer in laboratory animals. Chemical fear groups ran with this and claimed that DEA is a “hormone disrupting chemicals that can form cancer-causing nitrates”. It actually caused most personal care companies to replace DEA materials with other options.
However, the fear is unfounded and the FDA reviewed all the latest data and concluded, “at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be alarmed based on the use of these substances in cosmetics.” Certainly, the FDA will continue to review DEA containing ingredients but at the moment, there is no established safety concern.
Ah, one of my favorite ingredients, petrolatum. It is an excellent material for moisturizing skin and also for creating slick hairdos. Unfortunately, this petroleum-derived hydrocarbon blend is also a favorite ingredient for all-natural and chemical fear-mongerers to bash.
What’s the complaint? There are lots of claims but basically the knock on petrolatum is that it causes cancer and the fact that it’s banned in the EU.
The FDA has reviewed the safety of Petrolatum and determined that it is a safe ingredient to use. In fact, it’s even safe for use in food products. And as far as the EU goes, it is not banned in cosmetics. Petrolatum can and is used in cosmetics as long as it’s a cosmetic grade of the material.
Mineral oil is another skin moisturizing ingredient that gets a bad wrap from natural product producers and other chemical scare groups. I never understood this because Mineral Oil is a natural ingredient that comes right from the Earth. No matter, here are some of the claims about mineral oil.
Mineral oil is contaminated with carcinogens
Mineral oil dries the skin and causes premature aging
It robs the skin of vitamins
It clogs pores and prevents collagen absorption
It causes acne
None of these claims are true as reviewed in this mineral oil article.
Propylene glycol is a humectant and diluent frequently used in cosmetic formulations. It is a useful material as it’s compatible with numerous materials and provides benefits itself.
Regrettably, it’s also claimed to penetrate and weaken skin proteins and to cause brain, live and kidney abnormalities. Of course, it’s claimed to have a cancer link too. And did you know it is used in anti-freeze?
I’ve never understood why PG is so feared but according to scientists at the FDA, CIR, and National Toxicology Program, there is negligible concern related to its use. In fact, PG is so safe it has earned the designation as GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) from the FDA. It’s safe enough to eat.
Fragrances are added to cosmetics to make products smell better or reinforce a marketing story. Cosmetics without fragrance just don’t sell as well so that’s why cosmetic chemists add them.
But some groups will lead you to believe that all fragrances are awful. They “…cause headaches, dizziness, allergic rashes, skin discoloration, violent coughing, vomiting and skin irritations. Fragrances affect the nervous system, cause depression, hyper activity, irritability, inability to cope and other behavioral changes”
Indeed there are chemicals in fragrances that can cause problems at high enough levels. There are even ingredients that the EU requires companies to label because they are known allergens. However, fragrances are thoroughly screened for safety by independent scientists at the IFRA. There is a safe level of use and fragrance houses follow these guidelines.
Without colorants most cosmetic formulas would be yellow or brown. Color cosmetics would not exist.
The complaint is that artificial colorants are carcinogenic. As usual, this claim is not supported by science.
Of all the ingredients in cosmetics, colorants are the most highly regulated. Each batch of colorant must be approved by the FDA prior to use. The FDA also monitors the safety of colorants. Any color additive that is found to cause cancer in animals (or humans) may not be used in cosmetics.
PEGs (polyethylene glycols) are used in cosmetics for a variety of reasons including moisturizing, thickening, emulsification, solvency, etc. It would be difficult to produce many modern cosmetics without them.
However, the chemical scare mongers fear that PEG is a carcinogenic material that will dry out and make your skin age faster. It’s the typical claims you find related to any petroleum derived ingredient.
According to an article in the Journal Toxicology from 2005, scientists conclude that “Taking into consideration all available information from related compounds, as well as the mode and mechanism of action, no safety concern with regard to these endpoints could be identified.” Chemical fear-mongers are not basing their concerns on science.
Talc is a powdered ingredient used is cosmetics to absorb moisture and as a filler. It is powdered hydrous magnesium silicate.
The primary concern about talc is that it is linked to ovarian cancer. This is based on a study published during the 1990s.
Subsequent review of all the available data has demonstrated that talc is safe when used as directed. The most recent talc data supports this position. The push to avoid Talc is not based on science.
What can cosmetic chemists do?
As a cosmetic chemist you are the one who ultimately makes the decision to use a certain ingredient or not. It is up to you to see what the best SCIENTIFIC data has to say about ingredients before making any choice to use them or not. Forget what consumers tell you, or fear-mongering groups say, or even what your marketing people believe. Cosmetic ingredients are tested and answers about safety are available for people curious enough to look beyond a Google search of the latest blogs.
Sure, your marketing group might want to remove some of these ingredients because of bad PR but that doesn’t change the fact that none of these materials pose a significant risk to consumers when used in cosmetics.
Did we miss any maligned ingredients? What do you think about the safety of cosmetic ingredients? Leave a comment below.
Perry Romanowski has over 18 years experience formulating products to solve consumer problems in the personal care and cosmetic industry. His primary focus has been on hair & hair related products. He is also an author who has published extensively about the field of cosmetic science. He is currently Vice President of Brains Publishing which specializes in science education.
Perry received his B.S. in Chemistry from DePaul University. He has written and edited numerous articles and books, teaches SCC continuing education classes in cosmetic science, and is the primary author at ChemistsCorner.com a website dedicated to training current and future cosmetic scientists. His latest book project is the third edition of Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry published by Allured. Perry can be reached thorough his website ChemistsCorner where he is available for consulting about cosmetic formulating, testing, and Internet solutions.