20 toxic chemicals in cosmetics that you need to avoid

Regardless of your like or dislike for heavy metal music, it’s unlikely that you would ever want to end up with heavy metals inside your body

While cosmetics claim to work beauty miracles on your body, they also have a dark side. When they are mass produced, they are inevitably loaded with toxic chemicals that are harmful to your body and the environment.

“Studies have shown that the skin absorbs 60% of the chemicals in products that it comes in contact with, and these chemicals move directly into the bloodstream”, says Sheena Amin of SoulTree.

Here are the most common chemicals used in cosmetics that you need to watch out for on product labels. The list will also tell you why a specific chemical is used as an ingredient for the product, and what are the effects arising from exposure to that chemical.

1) Lead

Source: Youtube/BuzzFeedVideo

Lead is a heavy metal, most often used in Kajal, Kohl, Kumkum, and hair dyes. Lead forms a coloured precipitate called lead acetate which is responsible for giving the product a fresh, persistent colour.

Lead in any quantity is harmful to the body and must be avoided. On inhalation or ingestion, lead is known to cause learning, language, and behavioral problems. Lead poisoning is a known cause of infertility and miscarriage.

2) Mercury

Salts of mercury prevent the formation of a dark pigment in the skin called melanin. As a result, the skin develops a lighter shade. Because of this, inorganic mercury is widely used in fairness creams and lipsticks. Organic mercury can be found in eye make-up and mascara as a preservative.

A CSE study found that 44% of the fairness creams that it tested in India contained mercury, even though its use is illegal. However, India’s regulations and enforcement is weak, and hence mercury is rampantly added. It also found that the levels of mercury in these products reached upto 71% of the Acceptable Daily Intake prescribed by the US (India does not have an ADI standard), which is a very high concentration.

To identify the presence of mercury on labels, one should look for “Hg, quicksilver, cinnabaris, hydrargyri oxydum rubrum, poison”, and the instruction to “avoid contact with silver, gold, rubber, aluminium and jewellery” (besides looking for “mercury” itself). Another way to know if your product has excessive mercury is if it’s grey or cream-coloured. (source)

Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin. It causes neuro-development deficits in children, neuropathy, anxiety, depression, psychosis, kidney damage, skin rashes, scarring, and skin discoloration. Mercury when discharged into water bodies forms methyl mercury which is even more toxic.

Vermilion- the purified and powdered form of cinnabar or mercury sulphate Source: Wikipedia

Vermilion{Sindoor} – the purified and powdered form of cinnabar or mercury sulphate
Source:Wikipedia user Arria Belli/Creative Commons

3) Chromium and Nickel

These metals are found in lipsticks and anti-aging creams. Chromium gives a green colouration, while nickel forms an apple-red colour.

Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found that the levels of chromium present in the products that it tested was as high as 15 times the Acceptable Daily Intake. They are both known to cause allergic dermatitis which is characterised by symptoms of dryness, fissures, scaling and swelling. Chromium is also a possible respiratory irritant and can cause bronchitis, asthma, wheezing and nasal itch.

4) Titanium Dioxide

Titanium dioxide in powdered form Source: Wikimedia commons

Titanium dioxide in powdered form
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This compound is useful because it blocks Ultraviolet radiations from penetrating the skin, since it has a high refractive index. Hence it finds use in sunscreens, blush, soap, eye shadow and face powder.

The downside to this is that the dust of this compound causes lung fibrosis and is carcinogenic. The dust is in the form of nano particles, which can easily penetrate into the skin and bio accumulate in our fat reserves.

5) Sodium Benzoate

Sodium Benzoate is used as a preservative in skincare products, toothpastes and mouthwash. The danger with Sodium benzoate is that it forms benzene on interaction with Vitamin C, and benzene is a known carcinogen.

6) Parabens

These are also used as preservatives in cosmetics. Parabens mimic estrogens (a group of hormones that that are important for female sexual and reproductive development) and disrupt the endocrine system, unbalance crucial hormones, cause breast cancer, skin irritation, rashes, eczema.

Even more disturbing is the fact that parabens exhibit more mimicking properties in smaller concentrations.

It has also been found that deodorants contain parabens after a study conducted which found parabens in breast cancer tissues from the upper region near the armpit where deodorants are applied. (source)

Preservatives are used to increase the life of cosmetics which have a high percentage of water. The more the water content, the greater is the need to use preservatives.

7) Sodium Lauryl Sulphate

A notorious chemical, it is found in soaps, shampoos, toothpastes, bath products and moisturizers. It is a surfactant, which means that it functions as a good cleanser by surrounding, trapping, and carrying away oily material.

Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) is however very damaging to the biochemical functioning of the human body. It causes skin irritation, dryness, scaly skin, and eye irritation. It is linked to hormone imbalance especially during menopause/PMS. When used in shampoos, it damages the hair follicle and causes hair fall.

It is a threat to the immune system, enhances allergic response to other toxins, may cause cataracts in adults, and may hinder the proper development of children’s eyes.

How Sodium Lauryl Sulphate acts: At the center is the dirt molecule trapped by the SLS molecules Source: Wikipedia

How Sodium Lauryl Sulphate acts: At the center is the dirt molecule trapped by the SLS molecules
Source: Creative Commons/Onco p53

8) Sulphates

They are found in most skin and hair-care products. They are used to create better foam, lather, and serve as fillers. They are skin irritants, hormone and endocrine disruptors, suspected carcinogens, and gene mutagens.

9) Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)

This efficiently removes grease that sticks onto the hair. Hence, you can find it being used in shampoos. However, it strips the skin of its natural protective oils leaving the body susceptible to invaders, leukemia and uterine, breast and brain cancers.

10) Carbon (in the form of coal tar/carbon black/ charcoal)

Carbon in its many forms is used in hair dyes as a colouring agent. It acts as an allergen, and has been known to cause hyperactivity in children.

11) Alcohol

Source: Wikipedia


Alcohols are a constituent of skin lotions, nail polish, nail polish removers. It gives a pleasing, quick-drying finish that feels weightless on skin and is a good solvent for water insoluble products. The industry perceives it to have anti-bacterial properties.

However, its actual effects work against the properties it is used for. It causes irritation, dryness, and can strip the skin’s natural acid mantle which dehydrates the cells and makes the body more vulnerable to bacteria and viruses.

In the label, what you need to look out for is ethyl alcohol, propyl alcohol, or chemicals ending with “-anol”.

12) Urea and Formaldehyde

Source Youtube/BuzzFeedVideo

Source Youtube/BuzzFeedVideo

Urea provides nitrogen supply to the skin and functions as a buffering agent, skin conditioning agent, moistener, and conditioner.

Urea is a risky chemical because it releases formaldehyde. Formaldehyde- besides being a respiratory carcinogen- causes contact dermatitis, irritation in the eyes, nose, throat, and skin, nausea and headaches, development of allergic responses, and a significant increase in asthma.

On labels, urea can also be called diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea and DMDM hydantoin

13) Diethanolamine/Triethanolamine (DEA or TEA)

These substances are wetting agents and act as foam boosters in shampoos, moisturisers and sunscreens. They cause liver cancers and precancerous changes in skin and thyroid, skin and eye irritation. Also look out for the name “cocamide DEA or TEA” on labels since they have much the same effect.

14) Glycerin

Glycerin is used in soaps as an anti-drying agent and improves the quality of the soap. While it is generally safe for use and cannot be avoided in soaps, pure, undiluted glycerin as well as artificially synthesized glycerin is harmful to the skin and can cause dehydration, blister formation and even some fungal infections.

15) Triclosans

Source: Youtube/BuzzFeedVideo

Source: Youtube/BuzzFeedVideo

Triclosans have bactericidal properties and are hence used in toothpastes, hand wash liquids and soaps. However, bacteria easily develop resistance to triclosans and the more it’s used, the more is the growth of resistant bacteria promoted. Triclosans also result in the formation of dioxins which have a negative effect on the endocrine system and on thyroid glands.

16) Silicones

Seen on labels as “Dimethicone” or “Cyclomethicone”, it is used in shampoos to form a thin film on the hair shaft. This gives the hair a sheen of softness. It is also used in fragrances. However, with long term use, the molecules start coating the hair and prevents moisture from getting in. This results in dryness. It also traps the allergens already present on the surface of the hair, increasing contact exposure.

17) Phthalates

Phthalates are fragrance-fixers and help fragrances last longer. They are used in shampoos, soaps, perfumes, and other fragrance-based products. They have a negative effect on immune system, cause nausea, skin rashes, hormonal disruptions, liver cancers, birth defects, and affect the central nervous system

18) Benzoyl peroxide

It is used to treat acne lesions and has a bactericidal effect. However, there is the risk of free-radical generation which is the first step towards the production of malignant cells.

50 shades of danger- know what chemicals you're using when you use cosmetics Pic credit: Flickr user Courtney Rhodes

50 shades of danger- know what chemicals you’re using when you use cosmetics
Pic credit: Flickr user Courtney Rhodes

19) Mineral oil/Petrolatum

Petrolatum, also known as petroleum jelly, is used for its easy glide properties, and has been known to cause breast tumours, suffocation of the skin, premature ageing and aggravated acne.

20) Fragrance/parfum

This catch-all term often represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.

This is just an indicator checklist. Effects vary depending upon the product, concentration of the chemical, and the sensitivity of the individual. To get a better idea of the hazard ratings, the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database has a searchable ingredient tool which gives you a rating of how hazardous it is.

As part of the Natural Beauty and Wellness series, we will also be exploring what the alternatives to these chemicals are, and how they can be used, so stay tuned!


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The Natural Beauty and Wellness Hub is our journey into discovering ideas for personal care that are natural, free of harsh chemicals and over-processing, are non-polluting and fair to everyone involved in the process, just as much as it is an inquiry into the idea of beauty and wellness itself. All content on the hub is produced with 100% editorial independence by The Alternative. 


The Hub is supported by  logo st that produces a line of organic certified skin care solutions made with natural ingredients and eco-friendly processes and in true Ayurvedic tradition. SoulTree® is India’s first and the only range of certified natural beauty & personal care products crafted from natural origin ingredients, using natural oils and carefully selected Ayurvedic herbs which are grown organically or wild-crafted in the Himalayas and through strictly regulated processes to ensure that synthetic and harmful ingredients do not make their way intothe products. Every SoulTree product comes in a recyclable packaging. Their products and processes can be found on www.soultree.in.

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