Manataka American Indian Council


Health Watch... 





Toxins in Cosmetics

and Personal Care Products!

By Lauren Zack



Harmful chemicals in cosmetic and personal care products can cause

cancer, birth defects, allergic reaction, and other health problems.





Chemicals that may be harmful to our health are found in our every day cosmetic and personal care products such as shampoo and conditioner, soaps, deodorant, perfume, body and hand lotion, shaving cream, makeup, toothpaste, facial cleansers, hair dye, to name just a few. Products that are labeled "natural" are not necessarily free from these ingredients and also require close scrutiny by the consumer.

For example, chemical ingredients of concern include fragrance, phthalates, coal tar hair dye, and alpha hydroxy acids (skin peelers):

Fragrances can consist of hundreds of ingredients, and are common human allergens. One in 50 people suffer immune system damage from fragrance exposures.

Phthalates are found in personal care products such as perfume and nail polish, and other scented products. These chemicals are possible human reproductive or developmental toxins and endocrine disruptors that have been linked to birth defects in male babies.

Coal tar hair dyes are widely used in popular brands despite studies linking them to bladder cancer and immune system damage.

Alpha hydroxy acids, or skin peeling products, are designed to diminish wrinkles and blemishes by stripping off outer layers of skin. Their use may lead to increased skin cancer risk, chemical burns and permanent scarring (1).

The ingredients listed here are just the tip of the iceberg; these and other chemicals known or suspected of causing cancer, birth defects, allergic reaction, and other health effects are found in thousands of cosmetic and personal care products. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), in a study titled "Skin Deep" first published in June, 2004 and updated in October, 2005, details over 14,000 common, name-brand personal-care products and almost 7,000 of their chemical ingredients. Over 44% of these products contain chemicals that are possible human carcinogens. Almost 46% of the products contain ingredients that may contribute to birth defects. Just under 86% of the products contain ingredients that may cause allergic reaction (2).


More than 99 percent of all personal care products on the market have at least one or more ingredients that have not been publicly assessed for safety. "Most of the products you use have chemicals that haven't been tested for safety at all...Most people assume that if you see something on the shelf, it's safe for you. The findings of our study really contradict that" states Dr. Tim Kropp, a toxicologist with EWG.(3)

In response to a cosmetic safety petition filed by the EWG in June 2004, the Food and Drug Administration issued a report that "revealed deep deficiencies in its power to protect the public health under the nation's cosmetics law. Notably, FDA affirmed its inability to enforce a requirement that a warning label be posted on products that have not been substantiated for safety"(4).

What can we do about the safety of the ingredients we use daily in our cosmetics and personal care products?

1) Join The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a coalition of public health, educational, faith, labor, women's, environmental and consumer groups. The mission of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is to protect the health of consumers and workers by requiring the cosmetics industry to phase out the use of chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer, genetic mutation or reproductive harm.

Founding organizational members of the Campaign include: Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow, The Breast Cancer Fund, Commonweal, Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Earth, Health Care Without Harm, National Black Environmental Justice Network, National Environmental Trust and Women's Voices for the Earth.

2) Sign a Petition

At the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website, a petition is available for consumers to sign, addressed to companies that make cosmetics and personal care products, demanding that these industries stop using chemicals known or suspected of causing cancer, birth defects, allergic reactions, and other health effects.

3) Environmental Working Group Report, "Skin Deep"

Do a "home survey" of your own cosmetic and personal care products. Look up the ingredients at the Environmental Working Group's on-line study

4) Letter Writing Campaign

Over 200 companies have signed the "Compact for Safe Cosmetics", agreeing to formulate the products they manufacture domestically and/or globally to use only ingredients that are not known or suspected of causing cancer, mutation, or birth defects:

Look up the names of the companies whose products you buy on the webpage above. If a name of a company is on the list, write that company thanking them for their pledge and letting them know you will continue to buy their products.

If the company is NOT on the list, or if you find an ingredient that is potentially harmful to human health in one of the products you use, write that company and ask them why that ingredient is in their product and/or why they have not signed the pledge.

5) Safe Cosmetics Action Center

Take action for safe health and beauty products.

6) For future updates, alerts, and information on how you can take action in your community:


Resources used for this article:

(3) Ethier, Marc, "Under Our Skin" Friends of the Earth, Fall 2004, Volume 34, No.3.



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