Being Well

4 Chemicals in Makeup to Avoid: Looking Good Shouldn’t Involve Cancer

Do you know what chemicals are in your makeup? Read the ingredient list to know what you're putting on your body, as studies show come ingredients could lead to cancer.

You wear cosmetic products to make yourself feel confident. Yet, studies show that certain chemicals in makeup could promote cancer and other health issues, possibly making you feel the exact opposite. Just like you read ingredient lists for your food, you can figure out what’s in your cosmetics.

A recent lawsuit possibly linking the baby powder ingredient talcum powder to ovarian cancer, as the New York Times describes, brings this concern to the forefront. While the American Cancer Society downplays that concern until further studies are done, there are other ingredients to be aware of. Here are four chemicals in makeup and personal care products to look for when purchasing personal care items.

1. Parabens

Parabens are preservatives commonly found in shampoos, body washes, lotions and scrubs. They’re known to be endocrine disruptors, according to studies in journals like Environmental Health Perspectives, and there’s concern that they increase the development of breast cancer. The European Union recently lowered the maximum permitted concentration of some parabens and banned others in certain products. Look for products that are labeled as “paraben-free,” especially those from manufacturers known for using organic ingredients.

2. Phthalates

Phthalates are also endocrine disruptors, and they’re used in nail polish and some fragrances. It might be on the label as DEP, DBP or DEHP. The concern here is not only for your age range but for girls, as phthalates have been linked to early puberty in girls, according to the journal Environment International, as well as breast cancer in adults, per Alternative Medicine Review. In addition to looking for the ingredient on the label, look to see if the product says “phthalate-free.”

3. Lead

When you think of swiping on some lipstick, you don’t expect to be applying lead to your mouth. Yet lead isn’t only in some lipsticks, but can be found in nail polish and foundation as well. The top level of lead found in lipsticks sold in the U.S. is 7.19 parts per million (ppm), though most have less than that. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration published its list of lipsticks and lead levels, so consider choosing a brand with lead levels of one ppm or less. Another concern with lipstick (and other pigmented cosmetics) to look for is carbon black, as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics lays out a few studies linking the dark powder possibly to cancer.

4. Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is found in some hair straighteners, nail polishes, mascaras, eye shadows and blushes, in addition to some liquid baby soaps. It’s used as a preservative, but the National Toxicity Program classifies it as a carcinogen. You’ll find formaldehyde under a number of names, including DMDM hydantoin and quaternium-15. To be safe, choose nail products that say “formaldehyde-free” or “toxic-trio-free,” and limit how many times you paint your nails to one time a month.

If you’d like to be more careful in choosing the products you put on your body, read the ingredients in your products. The Environmental Working Group has a database with information on more than 61,000 personal care products. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics also has product information about chemicals in makeup and tips for using makeup more safely. That includes advice like choosing products with fewer ingredients and fragrances and making some products yourself. As well, the Think Dirty app lets you scan your beauty products and rates how dangerous each one could be.

It’s all about taking stock of and researching what’s on your beauty counter. Most of what you buy is perfectly fine to keep using. As with most medical concerns, the more information you have, the healthier you will be.


Another way to avoid cancer, or at least detect it quickly, is to get yourself screened.

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Deborah Abrams Kaplan
Deborah Abrams Kaplan