and our only shield against the weather when it gets too cold or against germs and bacteria. And yet all-too-often we willingly apply harmful substances on our skin which are then absorbed and enter our body. Yes, cosmetics often contain harmful substances. Some of these are restricted or banned in some regions, typically in the EU but not in the US, while others belong to families of substances that are being regulated whereas for others the weight of evidence is still being built up before the regulatory process can be launched. For some of these reasons, we can still find that harmful substances are used in cosmetic products that any of us can pick up at the local drugstore. This is why it is important to verify the ingredients of the creams and lotions we apply on our face, hair and body on a daily basis.
Here are five such chemicals that you will want to avoid having in your cosmetic products:
Triclosan is used in antibacterial soaps, deodorants and toothpastes to limit the growth of bacteria and mould. The chemical, which is classified as a pesticide, can affect the body’s endocrine system especially thyroid hormones and may disrupt normal breast development. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention has found that 75% of the U.S. population contains triclosan in their bodies¹. While the EU has taken steps to regulate the use of triclosan as a biocide due to its toxicity, industry is now challenging a request from EU authorities on further data on triclosan in order to determine whether it poses further health or environmental risks².
Parabens are used as preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products. As such they can be found in a variety of products including makeup, moisturizers, shaving gels, shampoos and spray tan products. Evidence suggests that some substances of this family have the potential to act like hormones in the body, in particular like estrogens, the female sex hormone. The EU has introduced limits in the use of parabens and has recently lowered those for longer chain parabens like propyl and butyl paraben and their branched counterparts, isopropyl and isobutylparabens, as these are considered to be more potent³. Some countries like Denmark have proposed the further restriction of the use in parabens in skincare products for children given that they are more vulnerable to changes in their hormone system.
Siloxanes are a family of substances made from what is essentially silicone. They are used in a variety of cosmetic and skincare products as they help soften, smooth, and moisten. One very big use of D5 or Decamethylcyclopentasiloxane is deodorants. The two most commonly used substances of the siloxane family, D4 or Octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane and D5 have been found to be toxic for the aquatic environment. So when these are used particularly as shampoos and shower gels, they eventually find their way to water ecosystems where they can damage the local biodiversity. In addition, D4 has been classified by the EU as a category 2 carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic substance⁴,⁵.
Phthalates represent another big family of ubiquitous chemicals; in cosmetics they are primarily used to add softness and flexibility in fragranced lotions, body washes, hair care product and nail polishes. The most commonly used phthalates in cosmetics are dibutyl phthalate (DBP), DEP often labelled as “fragrance”, and Di-2-ethylhexylphthalate (DEHP). DBP and DEHP are banned from use in cosmetics in Europe. These chemicals have been found to have important health concerns and linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity and endocrine disruption⁶.
Oxybenzone is used in a lot of sunscreen creams. While it can cause eczema-like allergic reactions when applied to the skin, more importantly evidence suggests it also disrupts hormones. According to studies, 97 percent of Americans have this chemical circulating in our bodies, as it can accumulate more quickly than our bodies can eliminate it⁷. Due to its hazardous properties, the EU requires that above if the amount of oxybenzene is more than 0.5%, this should be labelled. However, because oxybenzone is relatively easy to obtain and cheap, it remains one of the most commonly used chemical UV filters in conventional cosmetics⁸.