Chemicals in Cosmetics: Why Do We Care?

flckr/eflon - from Heavy Metal Hazard, by Environmental Defence)

There are chemicals in our makeup measured in the parts per million – is that really a cause for concern? Well, for some of these metals, science has not established a “safe” level of exposure. Cumulative exposure over time is especially difficult to study, as different combinations of exposures can have different effects, and the possible combinations are seemingly endless, given the number of cosmetics products out there. In other words, even trace amounts may be of concern, because it all adds up.

Heavy metals can build up in the body over time and are known to cause varied health problems, which can include: cancer, reproductive and developmental disorders, neurological problems; memory loss; mood swings; nerve, joint and muscle disorders; cardiovascular, skeletal, blood, immune system, kidney and renal problems; headaches; vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea; lung damage; contact dermatitis; and brittle hair and hair loss. Many are suspected hormone disruptors and respiratory toxins, and for some like lead, there is no known safe blood level.

The information below is largely based on Canadian research and impurity limits.  For more information about the Laws & Regulations of various countries are available through the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

Another note about the data below: The United States Pharmacopeia Convention (USP) is the official public standards-setting authority for all prescription and over-the-counter medicines, dietary supplements, and other healthcare products manufactured and sold in the United States.


(Source: National Research Council Canada)

The toxicity of antimony and its compounds varies according to the chemical state of the element. The metallic form is considered to be relatively inactive whereas stibnite is extremely toxic to humans. Other antimony compounds are severe irritants, and cases of dermatitis have been reported.

Canada’s impurity limits for antimony in cosmetics is 3 ppm. 



(Source: Heavy Metal Hazard, Environmental Defence)

The United States Pharmacopoeia (USP) has limited it as an impurity to 3 ppm in nutritional supplements and the US FDA has limited to <3 ppm in certain dyes.

Ingested arsenic compounds are readily absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract and distributed throughout the body, including to developing fetuses (Environment Canada & Health Canada, 1993), and can mostly be found in the liver, kidneys, lungs, spleen, and skin within 24 hours (Health Canada, 2010b). Humans are suggested to rid 50 per cent of arsenic from the body between two and 40 days later, although it will tend to accumulate in skin and hair over time (Environment Canada & Health Canada, 1993).

Arsenic may also be absorbed via the skin, although an US FDA study has predicted that dermal exposure to arsenic may contribute less than 1 per cent of the exposure from ingestion (Health Canada, 2009a).

Arsenic and its inorganic compounds are considered to be “carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (International Agency for Research on Cancer, 2010).

Long-term exposure via ingestion has also been associated with skin cancer, skin thickening or discolouration (Environment Canada & Health Canada 1993), decreased blood cell production, blood vessel damage, feet and hand numbness, nausea and diarrhea (Health Canada, 2006a).

Long-term skin contact is not likely to lead to any serious internal effects (Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2007a).



(Source: Heavy Metal Hazard, Environmental Defence)
The United States Pharmacopoeia  has determined an acceptable oral limit for nutritional supplements to be 0.09 µg/kg bw/day to 3 ppm (Health Canada, 2009a).

Cadmium and cadmium compounds are considered to be “carcinogenic to humans” by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer, 2010). Cadmium and its compounds are also classified as known human carcinogens by the United States
Department of Health and Human Services (Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2008).

Oral exposure to high levels of cadmium has led to severe stomach irritation (Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2008), leading to vomiting and diarrhea, while exposure to lower levels over time has been found to cause kidney damage, bone deformity, and the ability of bones to break easily (Environment Canada & Health Canada, 1994a; Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2008).

Lower levels over time in the workplace or general environment have also been shown to result in kidney dysfunction (Environment Canada & Health Canada, 1994a).  Cadmium has also been shown to “exert significant effects on ovarian and reproductive tract morphology” even with extremely low doses.  Exposure during pregnancy is being associated with decreased birth weights and premature birth (Henson & Chedrese, 2004).


(Source: Heavy Metal Hazard, Environmental Defence)

The U.S. FDA does not regulate levels of lead in cosmetics.  Canada’s impurity limits for lead in cosmetics is 10 ppm. 

Lipstick can become contaminated with lead via the use of contaminated raw materials or via the use of pigments that contain lead (Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, 2007). Skin contact with lead occurs every day, and the

Some lead has been found to be absorbed through the skin (Health Canada, 2009a) and dermally absorbed lead has been evidenced to be distributed throughout the body (Rastogi & Clausen, 1976; Lilley et al., 1998). The Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR) suggests that not much can be absorbed through the skin (Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2007b). The use of leaded eye powders (e.g., surma, kohl, alkol) has been associated with elevated blood-lead levels in children and women (Ali, Smales, & Aslam, 1978; Healy, Harrison, Aslam, Davis, & Wilson, 1982; Sprinkle, 1995; Bruyneel, De Caluwé, des Grottes, & Collart, 2002; Al-Ashbanab, Aslama, & Shahb, 2004).

No safe blood level of lead is known (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010), with even the lowest levels having shown to affect the fetus and the central nervous system in children (Sprinkle, 1995). Small amounts are recognized as being hazardous to human health (Environment Canada, 2010a). Infants, toddlers, children, fetuses, and pregnant women are most susceptible to its chronic low-dose effects (Health Canada, 2009a; Health Canada, 2010b). Chronic low-level exposure may affect the kidneys, cardiovascular system, blood, immune system, and especially the central and peripheral nervous systems (Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2007b). IQ deficits have been associated with high blood lead levels (Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2007b), including those of low-levels (Sprinkle, 1995). Lead exposure has also been linked to miscarriage, hormonal changes, reduced fertility in men and women, menstrual irregularities, delays in puberty onset in girls (Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, 2007), memory loss, mood swings, nerve, joint and muscle disorders, cardiovascular, skeletal, and kidney and renal problems (Environmental Working Group, 2010a). Lead and inorganic lead compounds have been classified as possibly and probably carcinogenic to humans, respectively (International Agency for Research on Cancer, 2010). It was also one of the first substances to be considered “toxic” in Canada (Environment Canada, 2010a). High-level acute exposures can cause vomiting, diarrhea, convulsion, coma, and death (Health Canada, 2007).



(Source: U.S. Food & Drug Administration)

Mercury compounds are readily absorbed through the skin on topical application and tend to accumulate in the body. They may cause allergic reactions, skin irritation, or neurotoxic manifestations. The use of mercury compounds as cosmetic ingredients is limited to eye area cosmetics at concentrations not exceeding 65 parts per million (0.0065 percent) of mercury calculated as the metal (about 100 ppm or 0.01 percent phenylmercuric acetate or nitrate) and is permitted only if no other effective and safe preservative is available for use. All other cosmetics containing mercury are adulterated and subject to regulatory action unless it occurs in a trace amount of less than 1 part per million (0.0001 percent) calculated as the metal and its presence is unavoidable under conditions of good manufacturing practice [21 CFR 700.13].

Canadian impurity limits for mercury are 3 ppm.



In addition to the metals we tested for on, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has researched other ingredients that raise safety concerns.  These chemicals are listed in the “Ingredients” section of each product detail page an include:

  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA): According to the International Agency for Research  on Cancer, BHA is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.” Their report specifically references use of cosmetics as a source of dermal exposure for BHA.
  • Fragrance: Ingredients in fragrance are not required to be listed on personal-care product labels. Fragrance can contain hundreds of chemicals that studies show may be linked to a variety of health problems, including allergies and skin reactions.
  • Methylparaben: Recognized as having potential links to cancer, neurotoxicity and skin irritation.
  • Diazolidynl urea: a preservative known for its potential to release formaldehyde into products.
  • Formaldehyde in cosmetics is widely understood to cause allergic skin reactions and rashes in some people. Although concentrations of formaldehyde in personal care products are generally low, for people who are sensitive, everyday  products can contain enough formaldehyde to trigger a reaction.
  • Propylene glycol: Propylene glycol used in personal care products has also been linked to skin allergies. Used in antifreeze.

Information about these ingredients and citations to detailed reports are available at: (footnotes 174-183)


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