When it comes to cosmetics, there seems to be two camps, broadly speaking. One camp believes that the majority of cosmetic ingredients are sufficiently safe to be used in cosmetics, the other believes that cosmetics are full of “toxins” and that most cosmetics manufacturers (and certainly the larger ones) do not care about the safety of their consumers, preferring to use “cheap fillers”, with an eye only for increased profits, etc, etc.

The second camp has a tendency towards the use of hyperbole (not always the case, but extremely common), using phrases such as “full of toxins”, “toxic soup” and similar.

The use of the words “toxin” and “toxic” are constantly repeated throughout the verbiage coming from this camp. The issue I would like to highlight here is that both words are being grossly misused in many cases, partly because most of the people using them don’t actually know what they mean. They often THINK they do, but that is very different.


A favourite word used often and, in almost every case, misused. It sounds good. It sounds dangerous, which is entirely the point of its use. The problem is that “toxin” doesn’t mean “toxic”; they are related, but are not interchangeable. A toxin is a naturally occurring substance that is produced by a plant or animal as part of its defence mechanism against attack by predators.

tox·in (tŏkˈsĭn)

A poisonous substance, especially a protein, that is produced by living cells or organisms and is capable of causing disease when introduced into the body tissues but is often also capable of inducing neutralizing antibodies or antitoxins.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition
Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Just for emphasis – toxins are natural. Toxins do not occur in cosmetic products. The word “toxin” should never be seen in any discussion on cosmetics (other than to say that it should not be seen in any discussion on cosmetics). Anyone campaigning for the removal of toxins from cosmetics can pack up and go home, with the satisfaction of having been successful (even though removal was not actually necessary, there having been none present in the first place).

I am aware that I could be accused of arguing pure semantics, and I know that these people mean “toxic chemicals”, but the use of the wrong word is indicative of the lack of knowledge and understanding, and throws some doubt over the capabilities of the person in question being in possession of sufficient science to be able to put forward a meaningful case. A classic case of this is a book written by Philip and Alice Shabecoff, the title of which is “Poisoned For Profit”, and the subtitle, ”How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill”.

Even leaving aside the somewhat apocalyptic title, this error doesn’t bode well for an informed, fully scientific case to be made.


The chemophobes other favourite word!

tox·ic (tŏkˈsĭk)


1. Of, relating to, or caused by a toxin or other poison: a toxic condition; toxic hepatitis.

2. Capable of causing injury or death, especially by chemical means; poisonous: food preservatives that are toxic in concentrated amounts; a dump for toxic industrial wastes. See Synonyms at poisonous.


A toxic chemical or other substance.

Origin: Late Latin toxicus, from Latin toxicum, poison, from Greek toxikon, poison for arrows, poison, from neuter of toxikos, of a bow, from toxon, bow, from Old Persian *taxša-, an arrow.

Related Forms:

toxˈi·cal·ly adverb
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition
Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
As with “toxin”, “toxic” is often misused, and even more frequently misunderstood. There are different types of “toxic”. The word itself refers to the ability to kill, and many substances have the ability to kill. In fact, it could be argued that most substances have the ability to kill, given a sufficiently high dose, and an appropriate (or inappropriate!) route of application. There are many cases where long distance runners have died from drinking too much water. Water is, therefore, toxic. This is NOT a trick, nor is it any kind of play on words – in the broadest meaning of the word, WATER IS TOXIC. Logically, therefore, those who would regulate all “toxic chemicals” out of cosmetics would also have to demand the removal of water (and virtually everything else – natural AND synthetic!).

There are 3 potential routes for a substance to be toxic:

1) By ingestion

2) By inhaling

3) By skin absorption

Some substances can be toxic by more than one route.

Given that the majority of substances may be toxic in some way, there needs to be some kind of guideline to determine relative toxicity. Some substances are more toxic than others, i.e. it takes a lower quantity to kill.

In the European Union, within the depths of the regulations governing the classification and labeling of substances, there are prescribed definitions of these 3 routes, in terms of what is considered toxic for labeling purposes, and what is not.

For oral toxicity (i.e. by ingestion), the classifications are thus:

Any substance with a figure of 400 – 2,000mg/kg bodyweight for the LD50 (rat, oral) – the dose that will kill 50% of the number of animals in the study – is designated “harmful by ingestion”.

An LD50 (rat, oral) – 50 – 400mg/kg is designated “toxic by ingestion”

An LD50 (rat, oral) – <50mg/kg is designated “very toxic by ingestion”.

The other 2 routes have different criteria, but are equally clear in terms of what constitutes “toxic” by each route. I do not intend to get bogged down in a discussion on the relevance of animal studies to humans; nor on the morality of animal testing (but I WILL stress that this classification applies to ALL substances in the EU and is not specific to any use in cosmetics), but I simply wish to make the point that there is a clear definition of what is “toxic” by any of the 2 routes, and that there are different levels of toxicity.

At this point, I would like to give a classic example of someone who doesn’t understand the meaning of “toxic”. It comes from a discussion about an article on cosmetics in the Huffington Post: (previously discussed in my earlier article on PCT.

BzzzE 03:06 AM on 2/24/2011

There’s a reason they’re [cosmetics] shipped as Toxic Chemicals.

Dene62 02:57 AM on 2/28/2011

There is not one single cosmetic product shipped as a “toxic chemical”. This comment just goes to show the danger of free speech without constraint – anyone can say any old rubbish and pass it off as fact. Where DO you get your informatio­n from, BzzzE? This one certainly needs some proof – that is not possible to provide.

BzzzE 12:27 PM on 2/28/2011

For someone who has worked at UPS and seen cosmetic boxes pilled (sic) high with the “hazardous material in a limited quantity” label. Unpossible (sic) you say? You might be wrong.


Dene62 12:44 PM on 2/28/2011

This is a different type of classifica­tion. You clearly stated that you had seen cosmetics shipped as a “toxic chemicals” – this ORM-D classifica­tion is NOT toxic, but is described as hazardous – very different. “Toxic” means it will KILL! No cosmetic product is classified (either legally, or scientific­ally) as “toxic”.

I am NOT wrong – you have misquoted, or simply misunderst­ood what “toxic” actually means..

I will also point out the BEER is also on the list of ORM-D classified materials. Are you also suggesting that beer is toxic?

Dene62 6 minutes ago (4:19 AM)

I am still waiting for some sort of response – either an admission that it was YOU that got it wrong, or statement that you believe beer is toxic.
If you cannot distinguis­h between “toxic” and “hazardous material in a limited quantity”, you should confine your comments to things you actually understand­, as others will read your comments and think that you know what you are talking about.

My last comment was actually posted over a week later (7 March); I have still received no response at the time of writing. I make no apologies for the terse tone of my comments in that thread because, as I said above, people should confine their comments to things they actually understand (or have the civility to apologise if they have been proved wrong). Yes, I am a little intolerant at times, but “toxin” and “toxic” are words that are tossed around carelessly and without regard for the true meanings. I have said elsewhere that the more times either of these words are used, the less informed the user, and the less credible the information on offer.

“Toxic” describes a hazard. Similarly “corrosive”, “irritant” etc are hazards. As I have made clear in other posts, ‘Skin Deep – Scratching Below The Surface‘, the hazard is only part of the picture. Exposure completes the picture and enables the risk to be assessed. RISK is the real issue, NOT HAZARD. Out of the 17,000+ cosmetic ingredients listed in the INCI Dictionary, there may be several hundred, or even thousands of ingredients that are classified (in regulatory terms) as “toxic” (I have not, and nor do I intend to actually count the number – this is for illustrative purposes only), but the point is whether or not they are used at concentrations in cosmetics that are high enough to be truly toxic to the consumer (i.e. KILL!). To the best of my knowledge, there are no documented cases of a consumer being killed due to the use of cosmetics.

I appreciate that this piece is a fairly simplistic approach to the toxicity of cosmetics and cosmetic ingredients – it does not consider any possible cumulative or environmental effects (and these are often mooted by chemophobes). The environmental angle is not directly relevant to this discussion, but on the subject of accumulation, I am not aware of any studies showing true accumulation of any cosmetic ingredient, with the possible exception of triclosan and, in this specific case, there is no evidence that it is actually harmful to humans at the concentrations apparently detected (in human breast milk). It is typical of the Environmental Working Group that they make much capital out of almost 200 different substances having been detected in a study of umbilical cords, without any consideration of the risk posed by these substances. They are, of course, all “toxic”.

If the water doesn’t get you, try breathing pure oxygen – it will kill you – oxygen is toxic.


Dene Godfrey has been involved with preservatives for cosmetics since 1981, from both technical and commercial angles and has a degree in chemistry. Dene worked for one of the largest manufacturers of parabens from 1992 – 2002, and currently works for a UK company involved in the distribution of ingredients for cosmetics, health care and food. The Boots Company, 1973 – 92, Dene spent 11 years working with bronopol, although he was also involved in the initial development of Myavert C, now known as Biovert – a well-known “non-preservative”. Latterly was responsible (as Technical Manager) for the operation of the Formulation Laboratory and the Microbiology Laboratory. As Technical Manager when at Nipa Laboratories, Dene was responsible for development and sales of new preservative products, mainly into personal care. Developed the Nipaguard range of preservatives and co-patented a preservative system based on phenoxyethanol and IPBC. In 2002, Dene founded MGS MicroPure (as Technical & Sales Director) to compete with the giants of preservation, establishing the Paratexin brand name in the UK and several other markets (EU/ global). MGS MicroPure ceased trading in 2005. Since 2005, Dene has been employed by a major UK distributor of personal care ingredients, with his focus primarily on preservation systems. Dene’s articles are based solely on his personal opinions, observations and research, and are not intended to represent any official position of the part of his employer. Dene obtained a BSc (Hons) in Chemistry from the Open University in 1996. He also obtained the Professional Certificate in Management from the Open University in 1997. He has been an active member of the UK Society of Cosmetic Scientists since 1992, and has served 4 terms on the SCS Council, and is involved with the SCS Social Committee from 1993 to date; from 2004 – 7 as Social Secretary. Dene has presented papers at many SCS meetings and was President of the SCS (2009/10)

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