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Toxic beauty products have been a hot topic for a while now. Ever since a 2004 study linked parabens to breast tumor tissue there has been concern regarding its use. Consumers began to question the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products.  Could it be that your favorite foundation poses a serious health risk? Is your toothpaste causing you cancer?
There are more questions than answers regarding paraben usage. Research can’t link parabens, phthalates, BPA, and formaldehyde-releasing agents to cancer development. Whereas, clean beauty organizations adamantly argue these ingredients are harmful, deadly even. Thus giving rise to the upsurge of clean beauty brands that focus on the purest and safest ingredients. There seems to be a lot of back and forth but no concrete information about what’s fact and fiction. So, what’s really the truth when it comes to these ingredients and how they are affecting our overall health and well-being? First, let’s start with what we do know about potentially toxic ingredients.
blush, lipstick and flowers on vanity


Cosmetics and personal care products use parabens for their preservative qualities. Their purpose is to extend the shelf life and stability of the self-care products you use daily. In other words, parabens prevent bacterial growth while also helping to maintain product efficacy for prolonged use. Despite their benefits questions started to rise in the early 2000s regarding the safety of this ingredient.  A UK study conducted in 2004 found the presence of parabens in 19 samples of breast tumor tissue. (1)  Researchers could not explain the presence of parabens in the breast tumor tissue. As a matter of fact, many researchers claim when it comes to the long term effect of parabens more studies need to be done. Thus, leaving many consumers a little queasy about using products with parabens.
The parabens that are the most troublesome are:
  • Methylparaben
  • Ethylparaben
  • Propylparaben
  • Isobutylparaben
  • Butylparaben
  • Benzylparaben
Parabens are suspected of causing endocrine disruption, infertility, decreased sperm motility and breast cancer.  A variety of cosmetics, skincare, shaving, and hair care products contain parabens.  Many clean beauty initiatives such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) advise against using products that contain parabens. And, over time more brands and companies have responded by creating products that are paraben-free and utilize alternative preservative ingredients.

Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde Releasers

In its natural state formaldehyde is a colorless gas with a strong odor. Similar to parabens, formaldehyde acts as a preservative and prevents the growth of bacteria. Additionally, they preserve the product, increase longevity and stability. Manufacturers rarely use formaldehyde in its pure form when formulating cosmetic products. It’s typically encapsulated into what the EWG refers to as “preservative systems” that allow small amounts of formaldehyde to be released over time. Thus these formaldehyde-releasing products sit in your cabinet as small amounts of formaldehyde are leaked into the air. The American Cancer Society states that trace amounts of formaldehyde less than 0.03 parts per million can be found in the air around us. Common personal care products such as lotions, shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, and nail polish contain formaldehyde ingredients.
Consequently, most health concerns regarding formaldehyde involve prolonged exposure to high levels. Symptoms range from skin irritation, allergies, and increased cancer risk. Hence, why those that work or deal with formaldehyde regularly experience an increased cancer risk and adverse reactions. Occupational hazards concerning formaldehyde can be decreased when proper safety protocols are implemented. 
Additionally, adverse reactions due to low-level formaldehyde exposure are inconclusive due to the lack of scientific data. In regards to its effect on human health more studies focusing on low-level exposure to formaldehyde via cosmetics and personal care products are needed.
Common formaldehyde-releasing ingredients to be aware of are:
  • Quaternium-15
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Bronopol
  • Hydroxymethylgliconate
  • Imiadazolidinyl urea
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • 5-Bromo-5-Nitro-1,3-Dioxane

applying lipstick in a compact mirror


Phthalates increase the flexibility and transparency of certain cosmetics and personal care products. They are made up of esters of phthalic acid. Products such as shampoos, hair spray, perfumes, and nail polish contain this ingredient. Additionally, there’s limited scientific information about how phthalates affect overall health and well-being. As stated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) studies conducted on phthalates by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) during 1998-2000 found the link between phthalates and reproductive health to be of little risk. Whereas, many clean beauty organizations such as the EWG, and Safe Cosmetics blame phthalates for endocrine disruption, human reproduction complications, development issues, and cancer. The accumulative effect of phthalates on human health and well-being still remains inconclusive.
Common phthalate ingredients used in cosmetic and beauty products are:
  • dibutyl phthalate (DBP)
  • dimethyl phthalate (DMP)
  • diethyl phthalate (DEP)
  • di-2-ethyl hexyl phthalate (DEHP)



Respiratory allergies and sensitivities can occur when exposed to synthetic fragrance, fragrance blends or essential oils. There are various reasons this reaction occurs. In the case of synthetic fragrance and fragrance blends the ingredients used to manufacture these scents are responsible for contributing to allergic reactions.  Whereas, the pure undiluted potency of essential oils may cause allergic reactions in those with allergies, respiratory issues, and sensitivities.
To mask unpleasant scents from other ingredients used in certain products, synthetic fragrance or essential oils may be used. Additionally, fragrance contributes to a pleasant association with the product and makes using it a positive experience. Yet, the fact remains that both of these fragrance types can increase respiratory allergies especially for those with asthma or respiratory conditions. Other concerns regarding synthetic fragrance are the suspicions that it contributes to endocrine disruption and hormonal imbalance.
Toxic beauty products infographic

Are These Ingredients Killing You?

But, the big question is are these ingredients really killing you. And, the truth of the matter is that there is really no concrete answer or absolute truth. First, let’s focus on the fact that we all have unique bodies with a unique chemistry. For example, synthetic fragrance may trigger an allergic reaction for you whereas for me it has absolutely no effect. This is why it’s important to consider your current state of health in conjunction with your unique body chemistry. For instance, a person who is struggling with hormonal imbalance may find that discontinuing the use of products linked to endocrine disruption helpful whereas for another person it has no effect.
Lastly, let’s talk about cumulative exposure and how that affects your long-term health risks when using these ingredients. Chances are you’re layering and using products that contain these ingredients daily. While using one product that has a small percentage of parabens may not pose a significant health risk how does using 5, 10 or 15 products with parabens affect your overall health and well-being. This is the main argument that clean beauty initiative groups argue. It’s based on the idea that the accumulative effect of these products over a long time period increases health risks.
makeup products on a vanity

Is It Time to Come Clean?

You shouldn’t feel bullied or forced into transitioning to clean beauty. Indeed, it’s a personal decision that you must decide for yourself. If it’s something you believe will be beneficial for your health and well-being go for it. If not, then you don’t have to; it’s all good. What matters most is being aware of your options and making an informed decision. But, if you have decided to transition to a more “clean” or green approach to your cosmetic and personal care products there are a few things you should consider.
First, you should focus on your own health and well-being. Are there specific needs that you need to address or are you of generally sound health. Having specific health issues or conditions will dictate what products and ingredients you will want to stay away from. For example, if you have a hormonal imbalance or reproductive dysfunction discontinuing the use of endocrine-disrupting ingredients will rise to the top of your list.  If you’re starting from generally sound health you can take your time transitioning to “clean” health and beauty products.

Take Your Time

In either case, allow yourself time to research products and understand ingredients. Experiment with different brands and find replacements for your favorite products. Remember this is a process and it will take time. You don’t have to rush and accomplish it all at once. These changes can be sustainable and permanent if you take your time. There is no rush or race just take it one step at a time and seek to be a little bit better than you were yesterday. Now, I want to hear your thoughts on clean beauty versus traditional beauty products. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

About the Author

female anti-agingHi, my name is Kathleen but you can call me Kat. I’m a health and wellness professional turned freelance writer and content creator.  My personal struggle with infertility, endometriosis and ovarian cysts made me realize that there just isn’t enough information out there available to women to help them learn more about  PCOS, endometriosis, adenomyosis, or fibroids. Basically, there’s a serious lack of information concerning a variety of women’s health topics and issues and well I got fed up. I decided to be the change and created this blog to spread awareness and advocate for women’s health issues. It has now become my passion to educate and empower women to redefine their health and be their own advocate. You can find me on  YouTube and Instagram. If you take the opportunity to visit me on my other platforms don’t hesitate to leave a message, I would love to hear from you!