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Dr. Cara: Be Careful with Cosmetics

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Dr. Cara Natterson: All of the things we use to beautify ourselves: shampoo and conditioner, make up, nail polish are considered cosmetics. Women are the primary consumers, but men (aftershave, cologne, sunscreen) and children (bubble bath, baby lotion, diaper cream) use them everyday, too.

toxic? eyeshadow

Many people don't think of cosmetics as potentially harmful because they go on top of our skin or in our hair -- but various ingredients in cosmetics have found themselves on the receiving end of controversy over the past several years. Phthalates are "plasticizers" that add flexibility to products: they help nail polish avoid cracking, they help hair spray work without creating too much stiffness and maintain smell in perfumes and shampoos. They are also used in thousands of products in our lives, including vinyl flooring, toys, detergents, food packaging, and more.

  • The most common phthalates used in cosmetics include dibutyl phthalate (DBP), diethyl phthalate (DEP) and dimethyl phthalate (DMP)
  • A study in 2008 put phthalates in the spotlight because it showed that children absorb them from baby shampoos and lotions
  • Phthalates seem to act as endocrine disruptors and affect reproductive system development and hormone levels in males
  • The law requires that phthalates be disclosed on the ingredient list of retail cosmetic products but not in fragrances or in cosmetics used for professional use
  • Parabens are preservatives -- they make it nearly impossible for microorganisms to live in and on our cosmetics, extending the shelf-lives of many of these products.
  • On the label, you may see them listed as methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, benzyl paraben, and so on
  • In 2003 a study was published showing that parabens are present in some breast tumors
  • The American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, the FDA, and others adamantly disagree that parabens cause cancer, but there are ongoing studies to address this concern

Ultimately, there are really dozens of chemicals in cosmetics -- above and beyond just phthalates and parabens -- that have been on the receiving end of bad press.

  • Formaldehyde (a preservative) and tolouene (a solvent) are both thought to be allergens present in nail polish
  • The preservatives quaternium 15 and bronopol, commonly used in baby products, break down to form formaldehyde
  • Cosmetic-grade talc has been shown to be carcinogenic in lab animals
  • Lanolin is of concern because it can be contaminated with DDT and other pesticides

What is the bottom line?
There is evidence that phthalates may act as endocrine disruptors -- and endocrine disruptors may affect the way hormones work in some bodies. There is also evidence that parabens are absorbed through the skin but there is no clear link causing disease. That's about all we know.

  • Phthalates and parabens haven't been proven to be medical dangers, but they haven't been disproven either.
  • Just because there is no clear evidence demonstrating that phthalates and parabens in cosmetics actually cause cancer doesn't mean that exposure is okay.
  • I don't generally advocate "all natural" products, because you don't necessarily get something safe.
  • And natural may imply healthy, but natural products aren't always well studied.

When it comes to cosmetics, though, if a plasticizer or a preservative can be left out and the product still accomplishes what you need it to, then that's likely the better choice. Is your child so much cleaner with the phthalate-containing soap or shampoo? Probably not. So it is reasonable to buy phthalate-free.

Remember though:

  • Chemicals in the product aren't always listed in the ingredients
  • We can pick on phthalates and parabens today, but there will inevitably just be another additive to pick on tomorrow -- there will always be another scare, another toxin to worry about, another poison threatening our children -- and we will have to wade through that hype and decide whether it is legitimate.
  • And even though pesticide-free or organic products are not automatically free of phthalates, they are likely to have fewer of them; meanwhile, many companies have chosen to remove parabens from their products.

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6 comments so far | Post a comment now
Jenny October 2, 2008, 10:31 AM

This is a really important issue, since we don’t know how these chemicals affect us in the long term. I found that going to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ website helped me find new companies to buy non-toxic products from. Nail polish and nail treatments were really a concern for me; so far I’ve bought from Nail-Aid, who’ve never used formaldehyde, toluene, or phthalates. and

Becca October 3, 2008, 5:36 AM

This makes sense to me! I use to work in a co-op for organic food and products! They brought up issues of products being put on the skin making people sick back then! I never toke the organic lifestyle seriously to be honest and just went on living and working there! However now 6 years later I have been trying to uncover what is making me feel so tired and in pain? One thing that has been brought up is a wheat allergy! Sure it has nothing to do with makeup but in retrospective i could literally be poisoning myself with the items i use on a daily biases. I have decided to at last take up a healthier lifestyle! That meaning I’m going to eat more organic and natural foods, use more natural made products and not use products that are overly chemical! In doing this I’m hoping I’ll begin to feel better over time. In fact I know I will and my children will benefit from the healthier lifestyle too!I’m going to check out that site to that Jenny has said sells good safe cosmetic’s!

MA October 3, 2008, 2:49 PM

Thanks for a great post— and your final thought is a very important one… it’s sometimes impossible to find out chemical ingredients! It’s important to choose phthalate and other chemical free products for you AND for your baby (shampoos, lotions, soaps, etc). For safe, toxic-free shopping go to

Barbara June 18, 2009, 5:15 AM

I am also very concerned! My daughter has allergies and also very dry skin. She is constantly putting on lotion. I think that I am going to find an alternate healthy product. Ladies, I have to tell you about a line of cosmetics that are paraben free and many fragrance free. They are called Motives Cosmetics. They are very high quality products. You can check them out at

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