Your favorite skin and makeup products may make you look good but are they safe?

Five Figures to Consider

12 average number of personal care products women use each day
168 different chemicals women put on their bodies each day
11 chemicals prohibited or restricted from use in cosmetics in U.S.
1,328 chemicals banned from use in cosmetics in the European Union
98% of U.S. women ages 16-49 had detectable levels of phthalates in their bloodstream

The average American woman puts 12 products containing 168 chemicals on her body each day when she moisturizes, shampoos, conditions and applies cosmetics. Among the chemicals are carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and allergens. (In Europe 1,328 of these chemicals are banned from cosmetic products, compared to just 11 that are prohibited or restricted in the U.S.) But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can do little about it. It is not that the FDA isn’t doing its job. It turns out, with the exception of color additives, the FDA is not tasked with guaranteeing that chemicals used in cosmetic products are safe. Nor does the FDA have the authority to recall products. Is it time to update the 80-year old legislation that allows the $62-billion-a-year cosmetic industry to police itself? Industry leaders, environmental groups and at least two influential senators think so.

With the aim of strengthening the FDA’s ability to regulate cosmetic ingredients and protect consumers, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act. The bill would establish an independent review process for ingredients used in personal care products and give the FDA the authority to order mandatory recalls. It would also require the FDA to evaluate a minimum of five personal care product ingredients per year to determine their safety and appropriate labeling. The funds to finance this expanded FDA effort would come from the cosmetics manufacturers themselves, who would be assessed an annual fee. Manufacturers including L’Oréal, Estee Lauder, Johnson & Johnson, Procter and Gamble and Unilever support the legislation as do many environmental and health care groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Endocrine Society, the American Cancer Society and the Environmental Watch Group.

The first set of chemicals for review, linked to everything from reproductive issues to blood cancers, includes diazolidinyl urea, diethyl phthalate, methylene glycol/formaldehyde, propyl paraben and quaternium-1. In the meantime, the FDA is conducting its first-ever survey to better understand the current safety and manufacturing practices used in the cosmetics industry.

Several recent studies indicate there is a lot to learn. Researchers have found asbestos (a known cause of lung cancer and mesothelioma) in children’s glittery makeup products; linked nail polish to respiratory problems among nail technicians; and recorded allergic reactions in 50% of hairdressers exposed to paraphenylenediamine (PPD.) Reports from University of California-Berkeley and Harvard found that when people refrained from using their personal care products for three days, urine tests showed significant decreases in parabens, an oft-used preservative linked to cancer and reproductive issues. Another UC Berkeley report found prenatal exposure to phthalates, a common stabilizer in perfume, cosmetics and toothpaste may lead to early onset puberty in girls. To note, 98% of U.S. women ages 16-49 have detectable levels of phthalates in their bloodstream.

What can you do to protect yourself in the absence of effective regulation? Read the ingredient list on the back of personal care products in the same way you read food labels. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep Database and the Environmental Defense Fund’s guide to ingredient safety. In addition to parabens and phthalates, here are three ingredients to avoid:

Formaldehyde Often found in hair straightening treatments, nail polish, and eyelash glue, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and can cause headaches and shortness of breath. On labels, you may see it listed as methylene glycol.

Triclosan Recently the U.S. banned triclosan in soaps, but still allows it in cosmetics, toothpaste and other personal care products. Even low levels of triclosan may disrupt thyroid function. It will often be identified on labels as anti-bacterial.

Toluene A frequent ingredient in nail products, toluene has been linked to developmental fetal damage when exposure occurs during pregnancy. It also may be associated blood cancers.

If you don’t want to spend time reading ingredient labels, look for products marked EWG VERIFIED™, which signifies that the product meets the Environmental Working Group’s criteria for non-toxicity. Another option? Switch to products made by companies such as BeautyCounter and Juice Beauty whose mission is to create and distribute products free from toxic chemicals.



Sources, BeautyCounter, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Working Group,, Harvard School of Public Health, Juice Beauty, National Institutes of Health,, UC-Berkeley, United States Department of Labor, U.S. Food and Drug Administration