Personal Care Products Should Not Be Toxic

Updated on January 23, 2023

Consumers want to believe that their favorite brands of makeup, toiletries, and other personal care products are safe. But in reality, most of these products contain unregulated chemicals known to be toxic when ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. It is estimated that there are over 10,000 chemicals in the beauty market today.

OEC conducted a survey amongst university women in 2011 (“What’s in My Makeup Bag?”) and concluded that, at that time, the average woman in Oregon was using about 10 different products a day. Unfortunately, due to beauty standards in the age of social media, that number has only risen. The Campaign for Safe CosmeticsBlack Beauty Project indicates that this number might be even higher for Black women, who spend an average of  $7.5 billion dollars on beauty products a year and nine times more on hair products than the average consumer. 

An Environmental Health and Justice Issue

Women living on lower incomes, black women, and women of color are exposed to more harmful chemicals from beauty projects and their everyday environments. This is because more toxic products, such as skin lighteners that contain lead and mercury, are marketed toward women of color. Black women whose blood was tested had higher PFAS content, also known as ‘forever chemicals’, that can cause cancer, birth defects, and reproductive disruptions. Black women who use chemical hair straighteners are 30% more likely to develop breast cancer than white women and are 44-77% more likely to develop breast cancer if they use hair dyes.  Additionally, such exposure is an occupational hazard such as for salon and nail salon workers (particularly Vietnamese women) who are exposed to reproductive toxic chemicals, such as toluene and benzene. 

A Climate Issue

The beauty industry also derives some of its most common ingredients from fossil fuels. Ingredients like mineral oil, petroleum jelly, paraffin wax, polyethylene glycol, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, and isopropyl alcohol come from fossil fuels, and their production is bad for the health of both humans and the planet. Moreover, bottles, tubes, and containers used annually by the cosmetic industry adds up to 120 billion units of plastic packaging.

Making Healthier Products Available to Everyone

Due to environmental health hazards and consumer pressure, more and more companies are voluntarily changing their formula to healthier and safer ingredients. Makeup brands like Credo Beauty and Beauty Counter pledge to sell non-toxic, clean makeup products, and the Black Beauty Project just unveiled its Black Beauty Database centering non-toxic beauty products marketed towards and owned by Black women.

But cleaner cosmetics, cleaning, and children’s products should not be only available to those who can afford more expensive specialty items.

OEC will be advocating for Oregon legislation that will call for the disclosure of all chemical ingredients and a ban of the worst-known carcinogens in personal care products and cosmetics. Such transparency and health protections ensure that all consumers have more information and healthier choices.

UPDATE as of JANUARY 23, 2022

A new report from the Washington State Department of Toxicology published in January 2023 concluded that cosmetics marketed to women of color contained harmful chemicals not disclosed on labeling

Personal care products were purchased and tested from chain and discount stores: Walmart, Fred Meyer, Dollar Tree, and Target. Key results showed that:

  • Formaldehyde was found in 26 out of 30 lotions and hair gels tested (the highest levels were found in Walmart products).
  • Dark-tinted powder foundations (for darker skin tones) had lead and arsenic (both traditionally used as skin lighteners).
  • The hazardous chemicals were not disclosed on the label.

Formaldehyde exposure has been linked to myeloid leukemia and rare cancers, including sinus cancers. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies formaldehyde as a human carcinogen.

Arsenic exposure can lead to many health impacts including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, liver, and prostate.

There are no safe levels of lead exposure. Children exposed to lead can have permanent learning difficulties and changes in physical growth. In adults, lead can increase blood pressure, affect memory, and contribute to other health problems.

The report concludes that the widespread presence of hazardous chemicals in a variety of cosmetic products means it is possible for people to be unknowingly exposed to toxics through their daily personal care routine – showing exactly why state action on cosmetics and personal care products is needed.

Make sure you’re signed up to receive OEC’s Grassroots Action Information Network (GAIN) action alerts. We’ll share updates and ways for you to take action to keep toxics off the shelves in Oregon. 


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