Dangerous chemicals in cosmetics – An easy guide

We all use so many cosmetics products everyday on our bodies. How do we decide which ones to buy – big brand names? advertising campaigns? celebrity endorsements? pricing? family and friends’ recommendations? We probably never look at the ingredients do we? We assume companies would not be allowed to put dangerous chemicals in cosmetics would they?

Actually there is very little regulation around this, which when you dig into it is actually pretty scary. Every country has different rules some are much more regulated than others; Europe bans over 1400 substances whereas the US bans only 30. Asia has a wide variety of different regulations.

On top of this, there are many brands that claim to be “natural” “green” but who’s products still contain harmful ingredients. There is a lot of information out there so I have tried to make a clear overview here so you know what to avoid but the list is still pretty long!

The big nasties – avoid at all costs

Parabens are widely used in cosmetics as a preservative to stop bacteria growing but they do this by mimicking estrogen and have been proven to be associated with increased risk of breast cancer. They are found in make-up, body washes, deodorant, shampoos and cleansers. There has been quite a movement to ban Parabens (5 are banned in the EU), so they are much less common than they used to be!

Phthalates are widely used in cosmetics. They are most commonly found in nail polish, perfumes and hair spray. On the ingredients list they may not even be disclosed as they can be hidden under “fragrance”. These are endocrine distruptors (chemicals that play havoc with your hormones!) – linking them to breast cancer, early puberty and birth defects. They may also be labeled as DEP, DBP, DEHP – two of these have been banned in the EU.

BHA and BHT are used to extend the shelf life of a product. They are likely carcinogens and hormone disruptors and may cause liver damage. Many cosmetics products including lipsticks, moisturisers and nappy rash creams have these chemicals. The EU has banned them but many other countries have not including the US.

Coal tar is used as a colorant and anti dandruff agent, it is a byproduct of coal which is a known carcinogen. Found in shampoo and hair dye. It is banned in EU and Canada.

Formaldehyde is used to help stop bacteria growth. However, it has been linked to occupational related cancer for example: nasal and is not good for the immune system. It is often added to nail polish, body washes, conditioners, shampoos, cleansers, eye shadows. It is banned in EU.

Ethanolamines (MEA/DEA/TEA) is linked to allergies, hormone disruption, and impacts fetal brain development. It is found in some hair dyes, fragrances, mascara, foundation and sunscreens. DEA is banned in EU.

Polyethylene glycol (PEG compounds) are widely used as thickeners and softeners. They are known to cause dermatitis even in very low concentrations. They are found moisturizers, sunscreens, makeup products and hair care.

Triclosan is a skin irritant, endocrine distruptor especially linked to fertility and thyroid. It is found in soap, toothpaste and deodorants.

Toluene is a petrochemical, it is toxic to the immune system and can cause birth defects. Mainly found in nail polish but also hair products.

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) / Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are known to be skin, lung and eye irritants and when they react with other chemical in products have been linked to kidney and respiratory issues. They are found in A LOT of personal care products because they are what make things foam but also mascara.

Hidden Chemicals – you may find them in “natural products”

Fragrance is a blanket term that can include a lot of different chemicals and companies are not required to divulge the formulation. Fragrance is in so many of our personal care products but it is also in many products that are marketed as “green”, “natural” or for babies!

Phenoxyethanol is used as a preservative and a stabiliser in perfumes and soaps. It has been linked to reactions ranging from eczema to life-threatening allergic reactions. Infant oral exposure can acutely affect nervous system function. It is found in a surprising number of “natural” cosmetics.


There are some good resources you can use to help you to avoid dangerous chemicals in your cosmetics. I encourage you to dig deeper and learn more for yourself. Campaign for safe cosmetics site http://www.safecosmetics.org/g…has a filtering system for you to choose what area of your health you are most concerned about for example pregnancy, reproduction etc.

If you want to have resources easily and quickly available to you, try the environmental working group’s Skin deep database https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/#… they have over 70,000 products listed with their ingredients and a rating to assess the safety. Think dirty is a great app that you can use to actually scan the products in the supermarket to get their toxicity rating. And with both these tools if the product is not in the database you can always search the ingredients individually but that does take a lot of time! Stay tuned for my guides on effective and really safe cosmetics by product category in the coming weeks.


There are a lot of dangerous chemicals in cosmetics that most people are completely unaware of. I hope this article gives you some things to look out for. I will do some deep dives in the coming weeks into key product categories. There are some fabulous companies out there trying to do the right thing for the environment and your health, all whilst producing products that work well! The key thing to remember is not all companies and products that are branded as organic, natural or green are free from harmful chemicals so it is important to use trusted resources like those above or rely on someone like me who has done the research already!






  • Paul

    February 22, 2018

    Wow! That is one long list of dangerous chemicals that can be found in cosmetics. So many that are related different health disruptions or cancer. Then people wonder why the incidence of cancer is increasing. Not to mention all the chemicals added to our food and poured into our water and air. I thank you for sharing this list and that they can be hidden as the term fragrance. Do you have any suggestions or recipes to make all natural cosmetic products?

    • Allie

      February 23, 2018

      Hi Paul, I know it’s scary isn’t it! The good news is there are some great products out there now – you just need to know what you are looking for which is my aim with this blog to make it easier! You can check out this post which talks about some of the brands I trust & my favourite products: all natural makeup brands
      Let me know if there is something specific though & I will be happy to help.

  • Daniel

    February 28, 2018

    I knew there were some but I never thought the list was so extensive.
    Next time I buy something I will remind myself of this post! 😉
    If someone like me could find products that are as good as the ones i’m using but not harmful … You’re doing a hell of a job! Thank you for this information.

    • Allie

      February 28, 2018

      Thanks Daniel so glad it was helpful!

  • Angela

    March 1, 2018

    I am so glad more people are becoming aware of what the harmful chemicals do to our health! I have “environmental syndrome” which means I am allergic to perfumes, most chemicals, many food dyes and drug fillers. It can make your life very miserable. Thank God for people like you who are getting the word out there and making people wake up to what they are putting in their bodies and onto their skin.

    I have to use makeup and personal products that are chemical free and all natural. There are just a small handful of companies that cater to people like me, so I hope you do well….maybe you should sell some products of your own? Hint hint.

    • Allie

      March 1, 2018

      Thanks for visiting the site Angela. I will work on getting my favourite products up here very soon to make it easier for people to get their hands on them.

  • Sabrina

    March 21, 2018

    Allie, thanks for sharing those very useful and important information and sites. I would start to look for natural products from now on. Looking forward to your list of safe cosmetics!

  • Igor

    May 10, 2018

    Hi Allie,
    great work.

    Your article is a “goldmine” of healthy advice. Also, your post is very nicely done. The whole site is in my opinion
    I am not into chemicals and cosmetics but I am sure your article will be helpful for many people.

    Besides, I think that the cosmetic industry must use various chemicals because of their production purposes and, of course, making huge amounts of money, regardless if such products are really 100% safe o not. It is a huge industry and business.

    Did you consider also to take a look at alternative cosmetic? “Pure nature!!

    Overall, great article, and great site. Congrats!

    • Allie

      May 10, 2018

      Igor, thanks so much for your message, you are very kind.
      Absolutely a lot of products I use and recommend are 100% natural!
      Thanks again, Allie


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