Common Toxic Chemicals Found in Cosmetics

Since I was young, I have had sensitive skin, I suffered with acne and I’m allergic to so many products, including sudocream and E45 cream; the products people tend to go to for skin issues. I have always had to be careful with what I put on my skin and what beauty brands I can use. When I started my journey to becoming more sustainable, I started to read more about toxic chemicals found in common products. It was shocking to see how many chemicals are in these products, I was eager to learn more about what these chemicals are, the impact on our health and what alternatives are out there. Here are 10 of the main chemicals found in cosmetic products:


Paraben is a type of preservative which was first introduced in the 1950’s. Used in most cosmetics to preserve the life span, they help to prevent mould and bacteria forming. Common types which you will find on your ingredients list are butylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben. Although the percentage of this toxin is very small it is still known to disrupt hormone function by mimicking oestrogen which can link to breast cancer.



This ingredient is commonly found in deodorants, perfumes, lotions & Nail polish. It is used to plasticise products and allows products to better retain their colours & scents. In recent years there has been links to asthma, ADHD, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes as well as other health problems.

While phthalates is a huge class of chemicals and nowhere near every chemical in the class has been studied, several have been shown to have negative health impacts: butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP), dibutyl phthalate (DnBP), di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), diethyl phthalate (DEP), di-butyl phthalate (DBP), benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), diisobutyl phthalate (DiBP), diisononyl phthalate (DiNP), di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP), dipentyl phthalate (DPP), di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP), di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP), di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP), di-isohexyl phthalate, dicyclohexyl phthalate (DcHP), and di-isoheptyl phthalate.




This is a common ingredient found in cosmetics such as nail varnishes. It is used to prevent bacteria growth and is a great preservative. Formaldehyde was first put into cosmetics to keep them from spoiling and causing bacterial or fungal infections and to prolong their shelf life. There has been a lot of evidence to suggest that this chemical can have risks when used and because of this evidence the European Union has put a limit on the amount of formaldehyde that can be put into products.

"Formaldehyde can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat," says Kenneth T. Labbe, press officer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to the EPA's toxic substances portal, groups that are more susceptible to these effects include the very young and very old, along with those who have asthma and other breathing problems.”

Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen; however it is important to note that the real risks of this chemical are associated with very high levels of the chemical.



Carbon Black:

Carbon black is generally found in most makeup and beauty products. The most surprising factor is how many other types of products this chemical is found in, for example rubber tyres, paints and adhesives. When you think about the other products that this chemical is in,  it is easy to see why it should be avoided.

Carbon black can pose risk for people who use the products that contact it regularly. As many of us already know, carbon is something that is generally considered unhealthy for us in general, so applying it to our skin on a regular basis is almost as bad as smoking cigarettes.

While many argue that in small amounts, carbon black is a less harmful to us than carbon in its other forms i.e. carbon monoxide, Over time it can contribute to more serious health issues that could be avoided if we cut this out of our products. One health issue, Carbon black has been linked to is the formation of cancer in humans as it is a known carcinogen. 



This is a silicone/hydrogen based compound used to soften and moisten. They are often in hair products deodorants, moisturisers and toothpastes to name just a few. It can occur in a variety of different formulations such as: Hexamethyldisiloxane (L2), Hexamethylcyclotrisiloxane (D3) Octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane (D4) Decamethylcyclopentasiloxane (D5)Dodecamethylcyclohexasiloxane (D6).

Whilst it is often argued that siloxane is safe for use in moderate doses, we actually have very little idea of what the effects of this chemical are on our health over long periods of time. Some have noted that even in its current dosage, it may disrupt endocrine levels in our bodies, affecting hormone production as well as having a negative effect on fertility levels.

To add to this, Siloxanes are having a huge impact on our environment too. Siloxanes do not completely breakup when washed down the drain, this has led to increased toxicity levels in the water stream that can kill aquatic lifeforms.



Developed in the 1960s, Triclosan is a chlorinated aromatic compound. Its usage originated in hospitals but it is now commonly found in consumer products like toothpaste, soaps, and detergents. It is banned from hand soaps in the EU market due to its health impacts in the water streams and on animals and humans. Studies have suggested that Triclosan may alter hormone regulation, contribute to the development and of antibiotic-resistant germs and could be harmful to the immune system.



Octinoxate is an ingredient that is common in sunscreen and other skin care products. This ingredient is valued for its ability to absorb UV rays, as well as keep the physical integrity of a product which is why it can commonly be found in other longer lasting cosmetics such as shampoos, lip balms, moisturisers & lipsticks too.

Results from a wide range of tests show that Octinoxate may have a negative impact on the endocrine system, which is vital to keeping the hormonal balance intact. Octinoxate has shown to increase the development of estrogen in cells, as it absorbed rapidly into the skin when applied. This is a concern because high levels of estrogen in the body have been linked to the development of breast cancer.

Octinoxate also decreases thyroid hormones in the bloodstream, which interrupts normal thyroid function. Although there has been no definite link discovered between the use of octinoxate and thyroid disease, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that overuse of the ingredient may be a contributing factor.


Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS):

SLS & SLES, is an additive that allows cleansing products to foam. It is a common ingredient in personal care products like shampoo, face wash and other soaps.  According to the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database, SLS is a "moderate hazard" that has been linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, organ toxicity, skin irritation and endocrine disruption.

Undiluted SLS can cause skin and eye irritation, as well as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea if ingested, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (however the concentration of this used in cosmetics is considerably lower with only 1% concentration used)


Propylene Glycol:

Also known as 1,2-propanediol, is a synthetic alcohol that attracts/absorbs water. Propylene glycol is one of the most widely used ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products, including facial cleansers, moisturizers, bath soaps, shampoos and conditioners. Because propylene glycol attracts water it functions as a humectant and is used in moisturizers to enhance the appearance of skin by reducing flaking and restoring suppleness. Other reported uses include skin-conditioning agentviscosity-decreasing agentsolvent, and fragrance ingredient

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) 2018,136 studies have shown that Propylene Glycol is a sensitizer and an irritant that can induce skin rashes and mucous membrane irritation when ingested.


It can be really overwhelming and tricky to understand exactly what ingredients are in our cosmetics. In the EU, it has restricted over 1300 chemicals which means we are at the very least moving in the right direction. Here at The Plastic Free Life we show you the full ingredients list of our cosmetic and skincare products and clearly showcase which products are natural and organic. Avoiding any cosmetics and skincare is not the answer here either, your skin needs to stay hydrated, clean and moisturised in order to promote healthy cell renewal. Switching to natural products and not overusing them can help leaving your skin feeling nourished but also avoid it absorbing any harsh chemicals.

Stay safe

Lucy x



Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published