Chemical and Cosmetics

Mineral oil is full of carcinogens! Sodium laureth sulphate is so toxic that full protective gear is required for it to be handled – and it’s in our toothpaste! Propylene glycol penetrates skin and causes liver and kidney abnormalities – and it’s found in shampoo, spray deodorant and … anti-freeze! Talcum powder causes ovarian cancer! Yet all these products are lurking in our bathroom cabinets.

So we find on the interwebs, in media reports and from purveyors of natural and organic cosmetics that many ‘dangerous’ chemicals are found in cosmetics and personal care products, but are apparently considered safe by the authorities that regulate such things.

With certain medical conditions inexplicably on the rise, and emerging research finding dangerous effects from chemicals at low, previously untested levels, it’s no surprise that people are worried. The good news is there’s nothing to worry about when it comes to sodium laureth sulphate, propylene glycol and mineral oil – at least as used in cosmetics.

But what about the claim that talcum powder causes ovarian cancer? Recently the issue hit the headlines when Johnson & Johnson was ordered by the courts in the US to pay $US72 million to the family of a woman who used its baby powder and died of the cancer.

We take a closer look at some of the chemicals ringing alarm bells to see which claims are justified, which aren’t and which ones need more research.

Chemicals of concern


Phthalates are used as plasticisers and solvents, and can be found in fragrances, hair products, skin lotions, nail polish and nail hardeners. They have been found to have endocrine disruption effects, and have been linked with endometriosis and early puberty in girls, and reproductive organ abnormalities and reduced fertility in males. They can also act on the thyroid, and have been linked with obesity.

In light of these concerns, several phthalates have been banned for use in cosmetics in Australia: dibutylphthalate, diethylhexylphthalate, diisobutylphthalate and di(methyloxyhexyl)phthalate.


Parabens are preservatives used in many cosmetic and personal care products, with methyl paraben being the most commonly used. In lab testing on animals and tissue culture, parabens have been found to have endocrine disruption effects, although the relevance to humans isn’t well understood.

The European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety reviewed parabens and determined that while methyl and ethyl paraben are safe to use in cosmetics, subject to concentration limits, five other parabens were banned in cosmetic products – Isopropylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Phenylparaben, Benzylparaben and Pentylparaben. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) Cosmetics Committee recently followed suit.

However, the Danish government has banned the use of some additional parabens – propylparaben and butylparaben – in products marketed for use by children up to three years old as a precautionary measure, as children might be especially vulnerable to endocrine effects.

No parabens have been banned in Australia.

Talcum powder

This link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer was drawn many years ago. The evidence that using talcum powder causes cancer – rather than something else causing the cancer – is not very strong, with some studies finding a small increase in risk of about 20%, and others finding no increase. The main risk factors for ovarian cancers are being overweight, having endometriosis, hormone replacement therapy, smoking and gene mutations.

As part of a response to the court ruling against Johnson & Johnson, Professor Paul Pharoah, Professor of Cancer Epidemiology at the University of Cambridge noted:

“The association is biologically plausible. Talcum powder applied to the genital area might get into the fallopian tubes and onto the ovaries and cause inflammation, which in turn could cause ovarian cancer… [however] it’s important to remember the size of the possible risk – a 20-year-old woman in the UK has a risk of getting ovarian cancer at some point in her life of 18 in a thousand; a 20% increase in this risk would raise this to 22 in a thousand (assuming that the association were real). A woman with a fault in the BRCA1 gene has a lifetime risk of ovarian cancer of about 400 in a thousand.”


Titanium dioxide or zinc oxide found in some mineral make-up and sunscreen products may contain particles in the nano range, which have been linked with cellular damage – including damage to DNA – in lab studies. While there’s no convincing evidence they’ll be absorbed into the body when applied to skin, some loose powder mineral make-up products may be inhaled, causing lung problems and potentially being able to travel via the blood stream to other parts of the body where their health impacts are largely unknown at present.

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde donors

Formaldehyde is a preservative that can irritate skin, eyes, nose and the respiratory tract, and can cause cancer among those with high levels of exposure. Small amounts are permitted for use in cosmetics, and it’s mainly found in hair straighteners and nail polish/hardeners. Several years ago high levels of formaldehyde were found in hair straighteners throughout the world, and the ACCC issued recalls for products in Australia. An eyelash glue product was also recalled.

There are also some chemicals that react to release (‘donate’) formaldehyde, including DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15, diazolidinyl urea and imidazolidinyl urea. People allergic to formaldehyde are often allergic to these formaldehyde donors, and are advised to avoid these chemicals, particularly in leave-on products.

Lead acetate

Hair colour restorers may contain lead acetate. It appears to be safe when used as directed, as there’s no evidence significant quantities of lead are absorbed into the blood stream. Once a common ingredient in products such as Grecian Formula, lead acetate was banned in Europe and Canada and many products have been reformulated with safer but less effective bismuth citrate and silver-based salts.

What about lead in lipstick? Lead occurs naturally in metal pigments used in lipsticks, it isn’t deliberately added. Even assuming that all lipstick that is applied to lips ends up being eaten, the amounts found in lipsticks aren’t high enough to cause concern.

Coal tar

Coal tar is a known carcinogen used in psoriasis and dandruff treatments, and some colouring dyes are also derived from coal tar. Some colourings have been banned in certain cosmetic products in various countries, and have also been banned in soaps and shampoos in Europe and some Asian countries. Shampoos and soaps containing coal tar in Australia are required to carry warning labels and are not recommend for prolonged use.

UV filters

Some chemical sunscreens, including widely used octyl methoxycinnamate (also called OMC or ethylhexyl methoxy cinnamate), as well as 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4MBC), homosalate and oxybenzone, have been found in some animal and tissue tests to have endocrine disrupting effects. However, it’s unclear whether the amounts of these chemicals penetrating the skin would be enough to have any effect. Nevertheless, government concerns about its effects in children and pregnant women led to 4MBC not being used in products sold in Denmark.


Triclosan is a preservative and antibacterial agent found in personal care products such as antiperspirant, soap, hand wash and toothpaste. Tests on mammals and other animals have shown endocrine disruptor effects. There are also concerns that it may contribute to antibiotic resistance. With no evidence that it hasany extra health benefits over soap and water, it may be best to stick to plain old soap and water.