Hidden Dangers Lurking in Cosmetics

    Driven by the dream of eternal youth, the cosmetics industry is big business, with billions of $ in sales each year. Advertisements make outrageous claims, but do you really know what ingredients are in the cream that promises to rejuvenate your skin?

    And even if they are listed on the label, do you understand, for example, what sodium lauryl sulphate, propylene glycol, methyl propyl paraben, triethanolamine and mineral oil actually are, and how they can affect your skin and body? Klaus Ferlow tells us what to look out for, and why.

    Over the past half century, tens of thousands of new chemicals have come into use in industry, in the workplace and in our homes. They have revolutionised industrial processes and changed the way we live. But many of these chemicals have a variety of toxic effects on human health and the environment. Some have been shown to be carcinogens, substances that can cause cancer. Some have been shown to have toxic effects on reproduction, in both humans and animals. Others may be endocrine disruptors, chemicals that affect the hormone-producing organs of the body.

    US researchers report that one in eight of the 82 000 ingredients used in personal care products are industrial chemicals, including carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins and hormone disruptors. Many products include plasticisers (chemicals that keep concrete soft), degreasers (used to get grime off auto parts), and surfactants (that reduce tension in liquid products like paint and ink). Imagine what they do to your skin, and to the environment!


    Large corporations in the cosmetics and personal care industry are interested in the promotion and profit potential of their products, not in your health! They are selling an image, not necessarily a safe and effective product. What does ‘new and improved’ on a label really mean? Aren’t you overwhelmed by all the claims made? Many of the so-called ‘new, improved’ products are old formulas in flashy new packaging designed to appeal to today’s consumer. All this does is up the price, not the quality.

    ‘Trade secrets’

    Companies selling cosmetics and personal care products can hide controversial or dangerous ingredients under the label of ‘trade secrets’. In the USA, for example, because of intense competition in the industry, if a company believes it has a new ingredient, or one that makes its products unique, it can petition the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent disclosure of that ingredient by granting trade secret status… it’s that easy! This spells delight for the company and can mean disaster for you!

    Toxic preservatives

    Most cosmetic products on the market are formulated for a shelf life of over three years, so they contain large amounts of preservatives. These preservatives are cellular toxins, otherwise they could not kill microbes. They penetrate the skin to a certain extent and many of them have been shown to cause allergic reactions and dermatitis. Over 80% of all ingredients in commercially available cosmetic products are of synthetic origin, with all the associated health risks.

    Hidden Dangers Lurking in Cosmetics


    The publication in 2004 of the first edition of the CancerSmart Consumer Guide changed the world of cancer prevention. It showed the link between environmental and occupational chemicals and cancer. At first this was not readily accepted by the media or even the country’s cancer agencies, but today research is shedding new light on the chemical-cancer link every day.

    Adverse reactions

    Thousands of people suffer from adverse effects when they use cosmetic products, but most of us don’t associate burning sensations, reddening of the skin or pimples and rashes with a product we are using. We simply discontinue using it, but seldom report it to a health agency. Worse still, many chemicals used in cosmetics never cause signs of toxic- ity on the skin, but contain potent systemic toxins.

    In a survey carried out by the FDA, nearly one-quarter of the people questioned said they had suffered an allergic reaction to personal care products. Have you ever experienced skin irritation and wondered whether it might be caused by your cosmetics or toiletries? Have you ever looked at the daunting list of ingredients, and wondered what on earth they were? Attractive packaging makes products look harmless, and we usually presume that ‘it wouldn’t be sold if it wasn’t safe’. (Wouldn’t it …?)

    ‘Natural’ – or not?

    How often have you seen the words ‘natural’ or ‘hypo-allergenic’ on the label of a skincare product? The Greek prefix ‘hypo’ means ‘below normal’ – in other words, likely to cause slightly fewer allergic reactions and slightly less skin irritation! Cosmetic companies use slick advertising to convince you that you are buying a safe product. And there are no industry-wide standards for what the word ‘natural’ refers to.

    Hidden Dangers Lurking in Cosmetics


    First of all, read all labels and learn to decipher some of the chemical jargon (a list of many chemicals that are hazardous and dangerous to your skin and health accompanies this article on the SAJNM website). Understanding the long-term effects of these chemicals and which products contain them is the first step in avoiding disastrous results for you and your loved ones. If nothing else, this information will make you a more informed consumer, aware of the potential risks.

    Keep out of reach of children

    There are dangers in your home that are as likely to harm your children as anything outside. Products your family uses every day may contain ingredients that studies have linked to cancer, blindness, and even death.

    One of the most widespread of these chemicals is sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS). Manu- facturers use it because it is inexpensive and readily available. Some products containing SLS are shampoo, soap, toothpaste and lotions.

    Your children’s toothpaste probably contains fluoride, because dentists have recommended it for years to prevent cavities. However, 120 grams of many toothpastes contains enough fluoride to kill a small child – and remember, children tend to swallow toothpaste. Fluoride is increasingly thought not to reduce cavities, and scientists are linking it to corrosion of tooth enamel, dental deformity, arthritis, allergic reactions and deaths from cancer.


    Did you know that some mouthwashes have higher concentrations of alcohol than beer, wine or even spirits? A mouthwash containing more than 25% alcohol can be dangerous to a child. Thirty grams can cause seizures and brain damage, and 150 grams can kill! According to the National Cancer Institute, mouthwash with an alcohol concentration of over 25% increases the risk of oral and throat cancer by 60% for men and 90% for women.

    Skin problems

    Certain synthetic preservatives, artificial fragrances, colours and mineral oils can cause itchy rashes, skin damage and asthma-like symptoms. A significant portion of dermatological complaints can be traced back to a chemical or non-natural substance applied to the skin.

    Some women develop rashes, eczema or acne when they use cosmetics containing synthetic ingredients. Sometimes they then use the same product to try to alleviate the problem! Synthetic ingredients can also dry the skin and change the pH level, allowing secondary infections to occur.

    Acne is a common problem and results from an increased production of skin oils, which block pores. If you suffer from acne, you need to keep your skin clean and use only natural products made from certified organic, organic or wildcrafted herbal extracts and other bo- tanical plant-derived ingredients. A balanced, nutritious diet can help considerably.

    Shampoo can make or break your hair

    Complaints about shampoos are among the most frequent made to the health authorities and manufacturers. People report conditions such as scalp irritation, drying of the scalp, itchiness, hair loss, severe hair damage and eye irritation. The vast majority of commercially available shampoos are loaded with chemicals that are hazardous to the scalp and body. Scientific studies have even shown that the sodium laureth sulphate (SLS) found in most shampoos damage protein formation in the eyes. SLS can also cause cataract formation and eventually blindness, not only due to direct eye contact but from absorption through the skin over the long term. Many shampoos formulated to treat dandruff and flaky scalp conditions contain coal tar, which is known to cause cancer in humans and is toxic to aquatic life. You won’t find it on the label, however. It is listed as FD&C or D&C colour.


    Fortunately there are personal care products available that do not contain harsh and hazardous chemicals. You just have to make the effort to find them.

    This article and the list of harmful chemicals on the website are based on research from books, the Internet, studies, material safety data sheets, and websites of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (www. cdc.gov), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (www.epa.gov/-47k), the Environmental Working Group (EWG) (www.ewg.org) the National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services (www.ntp. niehs.nih.gov), and the Health Care Without Harm Natural Skincare Authority.

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