Although many ingredients in makeup are safe, a number of common ingredients can be harmful to both the body and the environment.

Share on Pinterest
stilllifephotographer/Getty Images

In the United States, there is no law that requires the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve cosmetics. This means that other than color additives, cosmetics can contain a number of dangerous chemicals with no regulation.

When a person uses cosmetics, their skin absorbs chemicals, which can then enter the bloodstream. People might also inhale powders or ingest some cosmetics — by using lip products, for example.

Certain chemicals present in makeup and other cosmetic products can contain ingredients that researchers have linked to serious health concerns. Some of these health concerns include:

  • cancer
  • endocrine disorders, which affect the production of hormones in the body
  • developmental delays
  • neurological problems

This article discusses the ingredients in makeup to watch out for and how to find safer alternatives.

The following sections look at makeup ingredients that may have toxic effects. People may wish to avoid products that contain these chemicals.


In 2019, the FDA advised consumers to avoid using certain cosmetic items due to them testing positive for asbestos. These items contained talc, which itself is safe.

People can find talc in various makeup products, including blushes, eye shadows, and bronzers. It works in makeup to absorb moisture, give an opaque finish, and stop makeup from “caking.”

However, talc may pose a health risk due to possible contamination with asbestos; both talc and asbestos are natural minerals in the earth that often occur close together. Asbestos is a known cancer-forming chemical and can contaminate untested talc that manufacturers use in certain cosmetics.


Triclosan may be present in some over-the-counter cosmetics. Some manufacturers add it to reduce the risk of contamination with bacteria. Products that might contain triclosan include toothpastes, antibacterial soaps, and body washes.

According to the FDA, high levels of triclosan may affect thyroid hormones and contribute to antibiotic resistance. Research is also currently looking into the long-term effects of triclosan on the development of skin cancer.

Scientists need further evidence to determine the exact effect of triclosan on human health.

It is currently banned from body care products sold at Whole Foods and is scheduled for a ban from CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens.


Cosmetic eye products that contain kohl may contain high levels of lead, which is a harmful heavy metal for the body.

Any eye product containing any of the following could potentially contain lead:

  • kohl
  • kajal
  • al-Kahal
  • surma
  • tiro
  • tozali
  • kwalli

Any product containing these ingredients is illegal in the U.S., as they come under the FDA’s list of illegal color additives.

Mercury and thimerosal

Skin lighteners may contain mercury. Mercury is a heavy metal that is harmful to the body. It may affect the nervous system, cause kidney damage, and harm a developing fetus.

Thimerosal is a preservative that can appear in cosmetics and contains mercury.


Phthalates are present in some nail polishes and hair sprays, as well as the fragrances of many cleaning and cosmetic products.

Phthalates can unbalance hormones, particularly those that work alongside estrogen, such as testosterone. According to a breast cancer charity, phthalates may have a link with breast cancer. This is because certain changes in estrogen levels can cause breast cancer to develop.


Manufacturers use parabens as preservatives in many cosmetics. Parabens may appear on cosmetic labels as the following:

  • methylparaben
  • propylparaben
  • ethylparaben
  • butylparaben

Parabens may be present in makeup, moisturizers, hair products, and shaving creams. Parabens can enter the body through the skin and mimic estrogen.

Although parabens will only act as a weak form of estrogen, it could still be enough to cause breast cancer cells to grow. This is because an imbalance of estrogen can sometimes trigger a certain type of breast cancer called hormone receptor-positive breast cancer.

Breast tissue and breast cancers can contain paraben, though this is not proof that they are linked with cancer. It could simply indicate their wide usage. Further research will help determine whether or not there is a definite link.


Formaldehyde, and chemicals that release formaldehyde over a certain period of time, are present in cosmetics, lotions, shampoos, shower gels, nail polishes, and hair straightening products.

Formaldehyde can cause allergic reactions, as well as irritation to the eyes and respiratory system. Some studies in laboratory animals have also linked the chemical with cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, these cosmetics “may raise the concentration of formaldehyde in the air inside the room for a short time, but the levels reached are far below what is considered to be hazardous.”

They also suggest that professional hair smoothing treatments that use keratin can raise the indoor concentration of formaldehyde to potentially hazardous levels.


Toluene is present in some nail treatments and nail polishes. It is a solvent that may be toxic to the brain, nervous system, and a developing fetus.

Like triclosan, toluene is also currently banned from body care products sold at Whole Foods and is scheduled for a ban from CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens.

Carbon black

Carbon black is present in mascaras, eye liners, and lipsticks, as it gives these products their coloring. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) link this chemical with cancer, and research has reported that carbon black is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Scientists usually base these studies on industrial-level exposure in factories or laboratory animals. More research is needed to determine the safety of small amounts of carbon black in cosmetics.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) may be present in foundations, concealers, and eyeliners, as well as other cosmetic products.

According to the EWG, there are more than 4,000 chemicals classed as PFAS that may pose the following risks:

  • harming a developing fetus
  • increasing a person’s risk of cancer
  • affecting the immune system
  • affecting hormone balance

Benzophenone-type ultraviolet filters

Some makeup products may contain ultraviolet (UV) filters. Benzophenone is a type of UV filter that may disrupt hormones and have links with endometriosis.

People can avoid exposure to the potentially harmful chemicals in makeup by reducing their use or switching to safer, nontoxic alternatives.

Following these steps can help a person reduce or avoid the use of toxic makeup:

  • Use fewer products or choose products with shorter ingredients lists.
  • Check all labels carefully and look up any unfamiliar ingredients using a resource such as the EWG’s Skin Deep.
  • Make cosmetic products such as body scrubs and face masks at home using simple food ingredients.
  • Take care with products that claim they are “pure,” “organic,” or “natural,” as there is no legal backup for these claims, and it does not automatically make them safer.
  • Use products that have an organic certification or a certification with a recognized organization that promotes nontoxic products.

As people’s awareness of the toxic ingredients in cosmetics grows, an increasing amount of nontoxic alternatives are becoming available. People can switch to nontoxic alternatives for every type of makeup, including:

  • mascaras
  • lip products
  • eye products
  • foundations
  • concealers
  • bronzers and blushes

Using resources such as the EWG can help people check any products for toxic ingredients and find suggestions for nontoxic alternatives.

According to the EWG, congress has not updated cosmetic legislation since 1938. Apart from color additives, cosmetic companies do not need FDA approval before selling their products. This means that many makeup and cosmetic products may contain harmful chemicals.

A lack of legal regulation in the U.S. means that each person must decide which products they feel safe using. Avoiding products that contain the ingredients listed in this article may help people reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals from makeup.

People can also follow the guidance of the EWG, who have a scoring system to show how toxic certain products are. Switching to nontoxic makeup can help a person limit their exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.