Chemicals in Cosmetics: are your personal care products toxic?

Did you know that your skin is the largest organ of your body? Well it is, and it’s key roles are absorption and detoxification.  Scientific studies have found that the skin on body surfaces can absorb up to 64% of what is applied topically.  Some areas such as the face, underarms and genitals can absorb much more, up to 100%.  Seeing as you are what you put on your body, it's best to ensure that your cosmetics are natural and wholesome!

Unfortunately, many cosmetic and personal care ingredients are far from wholesome.  They can (and commonly do) include synthetic chemicals that are downright toxic to you!  Such pollutants in the body are potential hormone disruptors and have been linked to a range of health problems, outlined below.

These nasty chemicals can infiltrate your body via a number of pathways.  How about ingestion? We're talking about that tiny taste of lip balms and lipsticks you get each time you apply.  One (unsubstantiated) source we read indicated that a woman will eat the equivalent of 500-1000 tubes of lipstick in her lifetime! That's highly unlikely but other online searches suggest the figure could still be as high as 150-500 tubes.  Inhalation anyone?  That's what enters the airways from your sprays, powders and perfumes.  And then the biggy, absorption.  Thanks to all that lathering we do of lotions, potions, make up, deodorants, bath products, fake tans, hair and nail products.

Women apply an average of 12 products to their skin every day, exposing them to potentially hundreds of chemicals.  Men, far from being immune, use an average of 6 products per day.


Which chemicals should you avoid in your cosmetics, and why?

According to the US based health advocacy group Campaign for Safe Cosmetics there are chemicals used in personal care products that are known to be linked to fertility problems, low birth weight, learning disabilities, ADD and ADHD and early puberty.  Given that safe alternatives are available, there is no reason for them to be used at all.

Unfortunately the list of dangerous chemicals is just too long to go into here in detail. But, they’ve got names you’ve probably heard of or seen on packets.  Phthalates, synthetic fragrances, formaldehyde (formalin), benzene, petrolatum (petroleum), parabens, triclosan, sodium lauryl sulfate and nanoparticles to call out a few.

For comprehensive lists of chemicals to avoid and the types of products they are used in, check out either Safe Cosmetics Australia’s list or Chemicals of Concern from

So, which products are safe to use?

Safe Cosmetics Australia is a good place to start.  It provides brand names available in Australia that are certified as safe.  It will help you choose your make up, skin care, hair care, deodorants, sun screens, baby care, bath and body, perfumes and home products.

Other great resources include Made Safe, an American initiative to certify and label products made with safe ingredients.   And lastly, brought to you by the Environmental Working Group is Skin Deep, a cosmetics database of over 66,000 products that you can cross-check for safety.  If you don’t find the product you’re looking for, you can even build your own report by entering details of its ingredients.

Labelling rules in Australia

In Australia, cosmetics are regulated.  The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) has requirements that manufacturers and importers of cosmetics must comply with. But it's not failsafe.

Whilst all cosmetic products must be labelled with ingredients, research from Choice Consumer Group indicates that this labelling may sometimes be lacking, especially in bargain stores and two-dollar shops.

Outside of the big international brands (who have begun to do away with many of the most toxic additives), the Choice findings are of concern.  They discovered cosmetics made in Australia, Asia and the Middle East that contained chemicals banned or restricted elsewhere.  They also came across products sometimes found to contain heavy metals or other problem chemicals.  Examples were skin whiteners, henna for tattoos and some eye make-ups.

Cosmetic shopping

Top 5 tips to safer cosmetics

Here are 5 good tips to reducing your toxic exposure from personal care products, thanks to Safe Cosmetics:

  1. Simplify – use fewer products and use products with fewer ingredients.
  2. Do It Yourself – consider making your own. Go online for recipes, starting with simple ones like salt and sugar body scrubs using organic ingredients.
  3. Do Your Own Research – beware of claims like ‘natural’ and ‘pure’. Read the ingredients carefully.
  4. Use Apps – such as Think Dirty which provides a rating and alternative products that are safer. Other apps to try are EWG’s Skin DeepCosmetifique and Detox Me.
  5. Get Involved – get behind the brands that are doing the right thing, speak up and spread the word!

What about products for kids?

The EWG’s Skin Deep has this to say: “children are not little adults. Pound for pound, kids are exposed to more contaminants in air, water, food, and personal care products than adults.”

The concern for babies and children is their immature organs that are less able to detoxify.  Sadly, subtle damage to developing bodies may lead to disease later in life.

Parents can make healthy choices by using fewer personal care products for their children.  Plus, you can also check the various certified databases listed above.  Products to be especially mindful of are baby wipes, nappy creams, toothpastes, sunscreens and baby powders.

Baby bath

For more information on how you can detox your cosmetics cabinet and your home in general, contact for advice or a home audit.