Is That Going to Kill You? Why Our Fear of Chemicals In Cosmetics Is Unfounded

“The 20th century gave rise to the chemical industry. It has revolutionized our world, and transformed the way we live.”Our Chemical Lives

Are the chemicals in your cosmetics, foods, and furniture going to kill you? That’s the question many shoppers consider when deciding to buy products that claim to be organic, all-natural, or the ever-ambiguous green.

There’s little doubt that the first century of chemical engineering has dramatically shaped our world, offering new materials and convenient solutions to everyday problems.

It’s also given rise to a near fear: Chemophobia.

Defined as the irrational fear of chemicals, chemophobia isn’t a fear in the clinical sense. Instead, it’s an aversion to synthetic compounds, preservatives, vaccines—anything deemed as “unnatural.”

Our growing phobia of chemicals is fed by news clips and documentaries demonizing supposedly omnipresent toxins. For example, the documentary Our Chemical Lives states that there are “over 80,000 chemicals used in our everyday products,” which they link to “birth defects” such as:

  • Lower IQ
  • Cancer
  • Reproductive problems

That sounds terrifying! But, before you buy a bubble suit, know that the above claims don’t stand up to even a perfunctory Google search:

Lower IQ: Over the past 100 years, Americans’ mean IQ has been on a slow but steady climb. According to the American Psychological Association, between 1900 and 2012, it rose nearly 30 points, which means that the average person of 2012 had a higher IQ than 95 percent of the population had in 1900. (Additional sources: 1, 2)

Cancer: First, there’s nothing modern about cancer; it’s been around since prehistoric times. While specific cancers have increased, the organization Cancer Research UK states that this is because of lifestyle choices: “Diets high in red and processed meats have contributed to the rise in bowel cancer cases. And more and more people are becoming overweight and obese in the UK, which raises the risk of developing a number of cancers. And our culture of sunbathing and using sunbeds is contributing to rising rates of melanoma skin cancer.”

Finally, as the clip above explains, the gradual increase in risk comes down to one factor: We’re living longer.

Reproductive Problems: Unfortunately “reproductive problems” is too vague to research. However, an increase in fertility treatments can be linked to couples waiting longer to start their families.

Related: How to Check Facts & Never Fall for False Information Again

We’re not suggesting that you develop an entirely “hakuna matata” attitude about all chemicals; some are, in fact, responsible for some scarily adverse effects.

However, developing a sound understanding of what’s really dangerous will help you avoid paying more for potentially false promises of safety. To help you shop smarter, this two-part series will take a look at three chemical-phobic campaigns, starting with the fears surrounding chemicals in cosmetics.

Chemophobia In the Cosmetics Aisle

Once upon a time, “all natural” makeup meant something that you made at home from scratch or plucked from the dusty corner shelf in a health food store. Thanks to news stories like the one below, consumers are now hyper-aware of what’s inside the products that we put on our bodies:

In response to our worries, brands like Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company have sprung up. But, are all-natural brands offering safer, healthier choices or just profiting off of our fears?

Related: The Honest Company Review

To help you decide for yourself, consider the following:

1. Labels Implying “Natural” Hold Little Meaning

According to the FDA, words like “green,” “natural,” “non-toxic,” “clean,” and “safe” have absolutely no official or legal meaning when it comes to cosmetic labeling, yet they’re being used more than ever.

Alternately, the word “organic” is regulated by the USDA, with three different tiers of standards allowing for some slippery phrasing:

  • 100% Organic: Entirely from organic materials (besides salt and water). 
  • Organic: At least 95% organic materials, with remaining ingredients approved by the USDA.
  • Made With Organic Ingredients: At least 70% organic ingredients and can display three organic ingredients on the label.

Learn more: Greenwashing: How Cosmetics Convince You That They’re Natural

2. Plant-based Isn’t Always Safer – And Can Cause Allergic Reactions

“An ingredient’s source does not determine its safety. For example, many plants, whether or not they are organically grown, contain substances that may be toxic or allergenic,” reads a response to a FAQ on the FDA’s website about whether organic ingredients are safer than “ingredients from other sources.”

Meaning that even if a company does get “organic” labeling, that doesn’t automatically make it safer.

Additionally, plant-derived substances are technically still chemicals—and they can be unsafe. Natural chemicals can potentially react with substances in other products to cause reactions in the same way that synthetics can.

Allergies, which are likely your biggest risk with any topical beauty product, don’t discriminate between natural or synthetic—you can have an allergic reaction to anything, from coconut oil to synthetic fragrance.

Allergies don’t discriminate between natural or synthetic—you can have an allergic reaction to anything, from coconut oil to synthetic fragrance.

For example, you should never put certain essential oils, including popular homeopathic favorites lavender and tea tree oil, directly on your skin. That’s because essential oils still contain haptens—small, reactive molecules that, when combined with a skin protein, can cause the formation of antibodies and lead to an allergic reaction.

3. Synthetic Chemicals Can be Really Useful

One example, retinol and its many other vitamin A derivatives, is a favorite of dermatologists since it can do incredible things for your skin. Same with AHAs and peptides.

While certain ingredients like formaldehyde and phthalates definitely have some damning data against them when used in certain concentrations, a lot don't. The problem is that many scientific studies aren’t performed on humans, are inconclusive, or there just aren’t enough of them.

4. The Concentration of Any Ingredient Matters

A story comes out that states: “Researchers have found detectable levels of hazardous chemical A in your cosmetic product. Scientists have found that hazardous chemical A causes cancer in laboratory animals. Should you be exposing yourself to this hazard?”

However, they fail to frame the information about said chemical within the context of concentration levels. This is important because researchers can detect minute quantities—down to 1 part per trillion—of just about any chemical present in a given product. And when you break things down that minutely, you’ll find a lot of things—and some of them are going to be toxic.

An apple, for example, has detectable quantities of both acetone and formaldehyde. However, no one’s writing articles about “nail polish remover” or “embalming fluid” in our apples. This is likely because we assume that apples are not harmful—we’ve been eating them for ages.

However, consumers are shown scare stories, like this one by The Washington Post, about trace amounts of lead in lipstick, which states:

“For years, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has been pushing the government to set limits for lead levels in lipstick. The FDA has resisted, insisting that the amounts detected in various rounds of testing do not pose safety risks. But in a letter to the agency this month, the consumer group said that federal regulators have no scientific basis for this conclusion, and it pressed the government to take action.”

Sounds terrifying! Until you realize that the perceived risk is in how you use the numbers.

In It's OK to Have Lead in Your Lipstick, author Perry Romanowski shares that makeup, even in the 21st century, is basically ground pigments in a wax, oil, or clay base. And many pigments (and most soils, actually) contain minute amounts of lead.

The CDC considers soil that has 50 parts per million (ppm) of lead to be uncontaminated and allows up to 400 ppm in the soil used for children’s play areas. Today’s lipstick, depending on the pigment mix, may contain up to 7.19 ppm.

The Washington Post’s article attempts to frame that number, 7.19 ppm, as scary by saying that this is much higher than the amount allowed in candy colorants, or water and points out how often women reapply lipstick.

But makeup wearers don’t actually eat large quantities of lipstick. Romanowski points out that you’d have to eat six lipsticks a day to consume enough lead to cause harm. Six!

If you are eating six lipsticks a day then, yes, it’s likely time to cut back. However, it’s important for consumers to understand that, at a high enough level, every ingredient that is in a cosmetic can be toxic. What fear marketing ignores is that the level matters, not just the fact that there’s an ingredient in there. 

But consumers don’t really think that way. We tend to veer towards fear, assuming, “If there's a chance it can disrupt my hormones, metabolism, or health, don't put it in there.”

Certain brands market themselves under the “better safe than sorry” principle of risk, and this has resonated with shoppers. But, just like you wouldn’t stop eating apples because of minute levels of acetone, there’s no need to throw the figurative baby out with it’s perfumed bathwater.

Comparing An “All Natural” Body Wash Against One With Synthetic Ingredients 

Let’s look at The Honest Company’s Calming Gentle Shampoo + Body Wash in Dreamy Lavender as an example.

The product claims to be made without SLS, sulfates, parabens, synthetic fragrances, dyes, formaldehyde carriers, MEA, DEA, TEA, or most common allergens. Here are the first several ingredients (meaning those of the highest concentration) listed on their label:

Water (Aqua), Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine, Sodium Laurylglucosides Hydroxypropylsulfonate, Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate.

1. Is it natural? That depends on your definition.

One definition of “all natural” means that all ingredients in a product are from renewable, non-petroleum resources.

Through this lens, this product would be rated very natural because all of the ingredients can be derived from non-petroleum sources. For example, the surfactants are coconut-based can be derived from coconut oil.

However, what if your definition of an “all natural” product means that all ingredients are from renewable, non-petroleum resources and that all chemicals used in the processing of the main ingredients follow the same rule.

Let’s look at the main ingredient in the formula, Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine (CAHS) as an example. While coconut oil is a natural source for the backbone of this ingredient, CAHS is a synthetic amphoteric surfactant. Further, several “non-natural” chemicals like chloroacetic acid must be used to transform the nutty oil into CAHS.

Now, we’re not saying there’s anything wrong with synthetic surfactants—just the opposite. However, trying to pin down what’s “all natural” can lead you down a rabbit hole.

Is it still “all natural” if there’s one synthetic ingredient? Two? What if one of those ingredients is damaging to the environment?

At some point, consumers factor in cost:

  • The Honest Company’s product is $9.95 for 10 oz—that’s almost $1 an ounce. 
  • Alternately, the lavender-scented Johnson's Baby Bedtime Bath is $6.61 for 9 oz—which is just $0.73 an ounce for a similar product.

Depending on the parameters of your natural definition you can declare that everything is all natural, nothing is all natural, or it’s somewhere in between.

Again, your own definition is personal. However, it’s important to know that there’s a lot of wiggle room in the definition of natural products when you’re choosing what’s worth your money.

2. Will it cause an allergic reaction?

The Honest Company’s Calming Gentle Shampoo + Body Wash contains the following ingredients for to create a pleasant scent:

Lavandula Hybrida Oil, Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Oil, Vanillin, Calendula Officinalis Flower Extract.

Lavender, vanilla, calendula, and chamomile all have pleasant scents that are reported to have a calming and relaxing effect. As such, each can be found alone, or combined with other scents in many personal care products. However, these scents are often synthesized and listed as simply “parfum.”

Why do companies include synthesized scents instead of natural oils?

According to WebMD, skin contact with lavender and vanilla can cause irritation and swelling (inflammation). The University of Maryland Medical Center states that calendula, otherwise knows as pot marigolds or ragweed, is a common allergen and can cause skin irritation.

Pointing out these potential allergic reactions isn’t intended to demonize plant-derived scents. However, understand that fragrances, whether plant-derived or synthetic, tend to be reactive—and it’s not uncommon for a small percentage of people to have a reaction to some of these compounds.

Meaning that, if you’re sensitive to synthetic scents, your skin will likely also be sensitive to plant-based scents as well. To determine what’s causing your skin irritation, consider asking an allergy specialist for a skin test and learn which specific ingredients you need to avoid.

Bottom Line: Don’t Damn All Chemicals. Instead, Educate Yourself on Individual Ingredients

The internet is partially responsible for consumer’s safety outcry. Stories about aluminum in deodorant causing breast cancer (not true) and the amount of lead in lipstick (not dangerous) can be found in increasing numbers on your Facebook feed.

Related: Stop Believing Everything That You Read Online

“It made consumers much more aware, and when marketers noted that consumers were more aware, you started to see claims like ‘sulfate-free’ and ‘no parabens’ on packaging. That started to snowball in the mid-2000s and has been growing since then,” says Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist and a co-founder of The Beauty Brains.

Instead of getting swept up in the hysteria (and higher prices of organic cosmetics), take the time to educate yourself on individual ingredients.

Romanowski offers information on The 12 Most Maligned Cosmetic Ingredients in a post for The Chemist’s Corner. If you’d like to learn more about a chemist’s perspective on scare stories, themselves, The McGill Office for Science and Society published Is Your Makeup Killing You? Decoding Cosmetic Scare Stories. Or, if you have any remaining questions, feel free to post them in the comments below.

Stay tuned for part two, in which we look at chemophobia in relation to what we put in and around our bodies. We’ll take a look at everything from food to furniture  to learn whether or not there’s really danger of toxins lurking around your home.

Now read: How to Test Your Next Beauty Product to See If it Really Makes a Difference


Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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