Probing Question: Are there harmful ingredients in cosmetics?

Shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, lotion…how many personal care products are part of your routine? Americans use an average of ten such products daily, exposing themselves to an array of chemical ingredients, the safety of which is increasingly a subject of public debate. The Johnson & Johnson company made news recently with the announcement that it plans to remove “a host of potentially harmful chemicals” from its U.S. product line by the end of 2015, becoming the first major manufacturer of consumer products to make a commitment of this kind to the public.

two young women selecting cosmetics
© iStockphoto/poba

It’s likely that many consumers were not even aware that “ingredients of concern” were in personal care products to begin with. What are these chemicals and are they safe for use in cosmetics?

Along with ingredients such as parabens and phthalates, one compound under scrutiny by public health watchdogs is formaldehyde, an inexpensive chemical used widely in manufacturing and as a preservative—and present in Johnson & Johnson’s iconic baby shampoo.

Formaldehyde has been a hot-button issue in the debate about environmental chemicals ever since high levels were detected inside trailers provided by the federal government to homeowners dispossessed by Hurricane Katrina. In 2009, the National Cancer Institute released study results linking formaldehyde exposure to increased risk of cancers of the blood and lymph systems, and in 2011 it was added to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ list of known human carcinogens.

Says Miriam Freedman, assistant professor of chemistry at Penn State, “Formaldehyde is found in some of Johnson & Johnson’s products but apparently is not listed as an ingredient—because technically it’s not. It’s a degradation product of other ingredients.” Explains Freedman, who teaches environmental chemistry at Penn State, “This means that other ingredients within the product break down over time to form formaldehyde.”

Miriam Freedman

Miriam Freedman

The question of whether exposure to formaldehyde and other chemicals in cosmetics can cause health problems is complex to answer. “I think that when we hear the word 'toxin,’ we associate that with a poison that can kill us with just a small dose,” notes Freedman. “But chemicals can be toxic in different ways. We describe some compounds as being ‘acutely toxic,’ meaning that they result in death. But others exhibit ‘chronic toxicity,’ meaning that they disrupt systems within the body such as the central nervous system, the immune system, or the endocrine system. Other toxins cause problems in human development or cause cancer. Dosage is important for all these effects: for some toxins, the problems are not observed below a given dosage.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the $50 billion dollar beauty industry but has come under criticism from some quarters for being too lax in its approach toward personal care items, compared to other FDA-regulated products such as drugs, supplements, and medical devices. With the exception of color additives, cosmetic ingredients don’t need to be approved by, or listed with, the FDA. Instead, companies are asked to submit voluntary registration and ingredient filing documentation. Some advocacy groups and lawmakers feel this system is insufficient, prompting last year’s introduction to Congress of the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011, a bill that would require full disclosure of ingredients, and would give the FDA the ability to recall products it deems dangerous and to push for more research to determine scientifically-based maximum exposure levels.

Says Freedman, “Some current research is interested in determining what the effect of exposure to these low doses is over long time periods. Some toxins are excreted immediately or processed in days or weeks, while others can accumulate in our bodies.”

While synthetic chemicals are under scrutiny, the public shouldn’t automatically equate natural with non-toxic, she cautions. “The molecules found in nature are sometimes used as inspiration for the molecules synthesized in chemical laboratories,” she explains. “For example, willow bark contains salicylic acid, which can be made in a lab and converted into acetylsalicylic acid, also known as aspirin. Formaldehyde is produced naturally in the environment and also synthetically. Metals like lead are found naturally in the environment, but the historic usage of lead in white paint led to increased exposure in people than is likely to have otherwise occurred.”

Whether the chemicals in question are natural or synthetic, Freedman notes, “It’s a positive development that we are more aware of the chemicals we are exposed to so that we can limit our contact, whenever possible, with anything potentially hazardous either to ourselves or our environment.”

Miriam Freedman, Ph.D., is assistant professor chemistry and can be reached at

Last Updated September 05, 2012