Watch Out: Toxic Cosmetics and Personal Care Items

Commercially-produced household products in the U.S., including personal care items and cosmetics, often include harmful chemicals and volatile compounds.


Avoid problematic chemicals in cosmetics and household products by learning which ingredients are harmful.

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If you’re a reader of this publication, you’re probably aware that common household items may contain toxic chemicals. As educated consumers, many of us have learned to be concerned about chemicals in all kinds of household products, including—but certainly not limited to—furniture, building materials, paint, food containers, cleaning products and personal-care items such as shampoo, lotion and makeup.

What chemicals are we trying to avoid? In cosmetics and other personal-care products, we worry about parabens and phthalates. In food packaging, we’re concerned aboutBisphenol A (BPA). For furniture made from manufactured wood, we wonder about formaldehyde exposure. For upholstered furniture, it’s toxic flame retardants, while many other products, such as paint and cleaning products, contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Evidence suggests that these chemicals may play a role in a wide variety of health risks, including developmental problems, fertility issues and cancer. To many of us, it seems strange that manufacturers are allowed to knowingly use established human carcinogens, for example, in products we bring into our homes or slather on our skin—yet that is precisely the situation in the United States. So how did we end up with this situation, and what can we do about it?

What’s Up in Washington?

For help understanding the issues, I turned to several environmental nonprofits, including the Washington D.C.-based research organization Environmental Working Group (EWG). “We’ve really fallen behind the rest of the world in regulating chemicals that are linked to different health issues,” says Scott Faber, vice president for government affairs with EWG. “I think the big picture is, whether it’s the chemicals in food or cosmetics or cleaners, the government currently plays little or no role in regulation.”

One problem is the huge number of chemicals that simply aren’t tested. One often-cited figure is that more than 80,000 chemicals available on the market in U.S. products have never been fully tested for potentially toxic effects. But don’t get too depressed yet, Faber says. “The good news is there are efforts underway to give the FDA and the EPA the power and resources to review the chemicals in everyday products. And it’s long overdue.”

One of these efforts is a move to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This law, passed in 1976, gives the EPA the authority to require testing and restrict the manufacturing and use of many chemicals. But the way the law is written creates challenges for the EPA to obtain the information necessary to assess the risk of chemicals. For one, TSCA doesn’t require chemical companies to test new chemicals before they’re submitted to the EPA for review; instead, the law generally places the costly and time-consuming burden of obtaining data on the EPA itself. The EPA also has limited ability to publicly share the information it receives from chemical companies, as TSCA prohibits the disclosure of confidential business information, and chemical companies claim much of the data submitted as confidential. At the time TSCA was passed, the EPA allowed 62,000 chemicals to remain on the market without being tested; since then the EPA has required only 200 new chemicals to be tested, and fewer than 10 have been restricted.

Enough people agree on the inadequacy of TSCA that even Congress—not known to agree on anything—has voted to reform the regulation. Bills to update TSCA have had wide bipartisan support, and finally passed both houses of Congress in 2015. A final bill is expected to be signed into law sometime this year. For that reason, the question facing environmentalists recently has been not whether chemical reform will pass, but what it will look like when it does... more about all that to come. Because while TSCA reform has been a big deal for people who want better regulation of toxic chemicals, it’s not the only issue.

Getting Personal

While many household products that may cause health concerns are covered by EPA regulations (including household cleaners, building materials, furniture, etc.), quite a few other products of concern are personal-care products such as shampoos, moisturizers, makeup etc., all of which fall under the jurisdiction of the FDA. Cosmetics law, as Faber points out, is even weaker than TSCA. To sum up the situation, here’s a quote from the FDA website:

“Under the law, cosmetic products and ingredients, with the exception of color additives, are not subject to FDA approval before they go on the market. FDA can take action against unsafe cosmetics that are on the market, but only if we have dependable scientific evidence showing that a product or ingredient is unsafe for consumers under labeled or customary conditions of use.”

In addition to cosmetics, the FDA is also in charge of regulating food containers and food packaging, so issues with BPA in food containers, including baby bottles and water bottles, also fall under the FDA. Fortunately, some of these regulations might also be headed for reform. One bill that could make this happen is the Personal Care Products Safety Act, a Senate bill that’s being debated this year. This proposed legislation could give more power to the FDA to test products and restrict problematic products. And that’s good news, because the potential impact on our health is huge. When you start looking at the specifics of the health risks attached to personal-care products, it’s easier to understand just how high the stakes are with chemical reform.

For help understanding these health risks, I turned to the organization Physicians for Social Responsibility, which put me in touch with Elizabeth Neary, a doctor who practiced primary care pediatrics for more than 15 years and now works primarily on public health issues. Neary is deeply concerned about problematic chemicals in personal-care products. “We know that some of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors,” she says. “These chemicals are linked to breast and prostate cancer and fertility issues, just to name a few.”

Parabens and phthalates are both hormone disruptors commonly found in personal-care products, and Neary is especially troubled when they are used in products marketed to children—such as a paraben-laden children’s lip balm she recently spotted while shopping. Being educated about these products is a good first step, Neary says, but it’s not as good as making sure potentially harmful products stay off the market in the first place. Neary points out that a lot of these chemicals are banned in the EU, especially in baby products. For reference, while the FDA has only banned 11 products, under European cosmetics law the EU has restricted more than 1,000 products and requires toxicity data for a product to enter or remain on the market. “Their system is the opposite of ours,” she says. “There, you have to prove the chemical is safe before you can use it.”

Meanwhile, in the U.S. it is very difficult for individuals to protect themselves and their families, Neary says, even for someone with a chemistry degree. “I am convinced that none of us can protect ourselves without regulation,” she says. “We have strong regulations related to food and pharmaceuticals. We need that for our personal-care products, too.” 

Can We Do Better? 

Everyone I talked to agreed that it’s difficult to project now what U.S. chemical reform will look like in the coming years—or even months. It seems likely that the EPA will get more power to regulate chemicals through TSCA reform, and that manufacturers will have to provide more information about chemicals, but at this writing, the structure and details of the final law are still being decided. The future of cosmetics law and FDA regulation is even murkier. However, it’s useful to imagine what a good chemical law would look like as a standard we can use to measure future laws or proposals. When trying to picture what a good chemical law would do, many people end up in the same place Neary did when looking at consumer products—prove safety before the product goes on the market.

That’s the same point I heard when I talked to Veena Singla, a staff scientist with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), primarily about TSCA reform. “NRDC is pushing for reform that’s going to try to change the policy so that chemicals are proven safe before they’re used in products, rather than the other way around,” Singla said. She also agrees that good regulation is essential. While there are several helpful educational resources out there, there’s only so much consumers can do because it’s often too difficult to get good information about toxic chemicals in products, she says. “It’s not fair to consumers. We can’t shop our way out of this problem. We really do need policy reform at a higher level.”

What else might a strong chemical law look like? I asked Singla about The European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation, passed in 2006, and how it worked as a positive model. Singla says in her opinion REACH got one major thing right: “I think something positive that policy did was to say ‘no data, no market’. You have to have some information about the chemical before it can move through the process and be used in products,” Singla says. In contrast, she says, the TSCA has no data requirement, and a chemical can start being used with minimal information about safety.

For another interesting example, Singla says we can turn to California, where a state initiative called the Safer Consumer Products program took effect in 2013. “What’s unique about it is a requirement for an alternatives analysis,” Singla says. “It requires manufacturers to make sure the alternative they’re going to use to replace a toxic chemical is safer.” Singla points to this aspect of the policy as another idea worth pursuing. “What we’ve seen in the past is that, when one chemical is phased out, what we get is a close chemical relative. If we simply replace one toxic chemical with another, we’re not getting anywhere. We want to make sure the replacements that we use are better and safer.” 

The Demand for Change

California is not the only state acting to restrict chemicals. More than 30 states have acted on their own, choosing to restrict problematic chemicals including BPA, phthalates, formaldehyde, toxic flame retardants and more. (For a comprehensive, up-to-date database of state-by-state policies on toxic chemicals, check out Safer States.)

In this case, increased state regulation has acted as an agent of change. Faber of EWG says it’s action on the state level that has spurred the federal government to try to establish a coherent national policy. Faber also credits this potential progress in Congress to greater awareness of these issues among legislators and especially among members of the general public, who have begun to realize just how lightly these products are regulated. To some extent even the personal-care industry has gotten on board, which Faber suggests may be motivated by a need to reassure consumers. “The core problem for big chemical manufacturers is shrinking consumer confidence in the safety of their products,” he says.

So what can we do with this information? Faber says there are three ways consumers can help accelerate the pace of change. First is voting with our dollars. “Consumers can use their dollars to drive reformulation much more quickly than Congress or regulatory agencies can,” Faber says. A second way is by engaging with companies and asking them to remove problematic chemicals from their products, either directly, such as by emailing or making phone calls, or through environmental groups working on these issues. A third is talking to our legislators. “We can keep persuading Congress and regulatory agencies to act more swiftly,” Faber says. And no matter what happens or doesn’t happen in Congress this year, we’ll need to keep paying attention to these issues. “Even if Congress acts to give FDA and EPA more power and resources to regulate chemicals, the work doesn’t stop there. There will be more fights in the future.”

A Helping Hand

The Environmental Working Group’s new verification system promises an easy way to identify healthier personal-care products.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit whose mission is to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment via groundbreaking research and education, has long offered the Skin Deep educational tool, which rates ingredients in personal-care products based on their safety and potential for toxicity.

Now the EWG is taking Skin Deep a step further with its EWG Verified labeling program. To become a verified product, the EWG asks companies to submit detailed information to confirm that they are “making full disclosure to consumers, that their products are adequately preserved and free of contaminants, and that manufacturing processes meet EWG’s rigorous criteria.”

Those companies that meet these standards will be able to bear the EWG Verified label on qualified products. The EWG aims for EWG Verified to be the gold standard in the health and wellness space, offering consumers a fast and reliable way to know the personal-care products they buy for their families are safe, free of toxic ingredients and produced in a responsible way. 


These useful tools offer a wealth of information.

Finding Better Household Cleaners

EPA’s Safer Choice program and label
• The Environmental Working Group’s guide to cleaning products

Finding Better Personal-Care Products

• The Think Dirty App
• The Skin Deep Database from Environmental Working Group
(Note: This is the guide Mother Earth Living uses to evaluate product safety.)

Organizations Working on These Issues

Environmental Working Group
National Resources Defense Council
Physicians for Social Responsibility
Breast Cancer Fund
Campaign for Safer Cosmetics