4 toxic chemicals in makeup, shampoo, and household products - and how to avoid them

·4 min read
applying perfume
Many of your cosmetics and household products contain harmful chemicals. Visoot Uthairam/Getty Images
  • Makeup products, toiletries, and even food packaging contain potentially harmful chemicals.

  • PFAS, phthalates, and parabens are just a few of the chemical groups that can have long-term effects.

  • With enough exposure, these chemicals can lead to issues with fertility, prenatal development, and increased heart disease risk.

If it seems like everything is toxic these days, it's not in your head. An outpouring of studies has identified potentially harmful chemicals in everyday products, from cosmetics to food wrappers.

While many of these chemicals don't pose too much danger in small doses, repeated exposure over time can lead to health problems.

Here are four common chemicals that are associated with adverse health effects in the long term.

Phthalates

Phthalates are so common they've been nicknamed "everywhere chemicals." These man-made compounds are found in hundreds, if not thousands, of consumer products including shampoo, makeup, perfume, and some food packaging.

Diethylphthalate is the most common phthalate used in cosmetics, according to the FDA. You can also look out for dimethyl phthalate and dibutyl phthalate on ingredient labels, two lesser-used derivatives that have been found in nail polishes.

Exposure to phthalates has been linked to a number of life-threatening conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. The chemicals are also known to interfere with hormone function, which may disrupt the reproductive and immune systems, as well as prenatal brain development.

Food is the most common source of phthalate exposure, although the chemical is not an intentional additive. The vinyl plastic tubing, gloves, and containers used in food processing can shed phthalates into what you eat - yet another reason to avoid processed foods.

BPA

Bisphenol A, or BPA for short, is another common plasticizer similar to phthalates. Both make plastic more bendable and durable.

There have been controversies surrounding the use of BPA since the early 1990s, especially regarding BPA in food container manufacturing. Like phthalates, BPA can leach out of plastic containers and into food or drinks, especially when heated in the microwave or dishwasher.

The FDA banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and infant formula packaging in 2012, but has stood by claims that the compound is safe in food at its current levels. However, at least 40 studies have found adverse effects caused by BPA doses below the FDA's baseline.

BPA has been linked to obesity, multiple miscarriages, polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometrial hyperplasia, and an increased breast cancer risk. Exposure to BPA in utero or early childhood can also affect the development of the prostate gland and the brain.

The number at the bottom of a plastic product - usually surrounded by the recycling sign - can tell you whether it's likely to contain BPA or phthalates. Items numbered 3, 6, and 7 are most likely to contain the plasticizers.

PFAS

PFAS have been a topic of concern in Congress this year, with the introduction of the PFAS Action Act in April calling for cleaner water and clearer labels.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are notoriously slow to break down. They can linger in the environment and the human body for many years, causing health problems including cancer, hormone imbalances, and fertility issues.

Indicators of the so-called "forever chemicals" were recently discovered in more than half of 231 makeup products purchased from popular stores in the US. They're especially common in products advertised to be waterproof or long-lasting.

Most of the products in that study that contained indicators of PFAS didn't disclose the chemical on their ingredient labels. The finding sparked legislation aimed at regulating chemicals in cosmetics. In the meantime, you can shop brands that have already committed to being PFAS-free.

Parabens

Parabens are a group of chemicals often used as preservatives for makeup and skincare products. The chemicals keep mold and bacteria from growing in the products, prolonging their shelf lives.

The FDA has said parabens are safe for use in cosmetic products, at least at the very small quantities typically used. But research shows even a minute amount of parabens can pass through the skin and into the body, and that may cause health problems.

Studies have found parabens can mimic estrogen, a hormone involved in the reproductive system of people with uteri. The body may produce less estrogen in response, disrupting reproductive function. Exposure to parabens may also lead to increased breast cell growth and could potentially be linked to cancer risk.

Methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben are three of the most common paraben ingredients to look out for. Many brands have shifted to offer products labeled "paraben-free," but that might mean they're using other preservatives.

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