The 9 Most Toxic Chemicals Hiding In Your Makeup

Last Update: March 21, 2024

A sultry cat-eye, pumped-up lashes, a kissable pout—even if your signature look is just a pinch of peach on your cheeks, getting dolled up is pretty fun. But what chemicals are lurking in your makeup? A little—or a lot—of makeup can really boost your confidence.

But what looks beautiful on the outside may be doing more damage on the inside than it’s worth—a thought that would scare the mascara off of any makeup junkie. The truth is, many commercial cosmetics contain chemicals you may not want to absorb through your skin, let alone apply anywhere near your eyes [1].

Your body absorbs 60 percent of what you put on your epidermis, and your eyes—well, if you’ve ever accidentally gotten soap or shampoo in them, you know how sensitive they are.

Take a look at the package of some of your favorite foundation, powder, eyeshadow, or lipstick and you may find some ingredients that are about as decipherable as Sanskrit. Some of these may be allergens, or even worse, toxic to your organ systems. Some are endocrine disrupters that interfere with hormone function, affecting growth, metabolism, fertility, immune system, and even behavior [2]. And there may even be some possible carcinogens in there [3]. Eek!

Unfortunately, although the Food and Drug Administration conducts some reviews of some cosmetic color additives and active ingredients before products containing them hit the market, they don’t have the authority to require companies to test for safety of all of the ingredients they use; neither does the federal government. So, just because your makeup is sold in stores, doesn’t necessarily mean anyone deemed it totally safe to use. And the words ‘hypoallergenic’ and ‘natural’ mean diddly squat—they’re purely unregulated marketing buzzwords [4].

Feeling a little betrayed by the beauty industry? Not to worry—you can arm yourself with some knowledge to help you to avoid some of the most harmful ingredients in cosmetics. Focusing on chemical free makeup and nail products, here’s a roundup of information from the Environmental Working Group, Environmental Protection Agency, and the FDA about which common types of chemicals are hazardous and why, what types of cosmetics they’re lurking in, and their aliases to look out for on lists of ingredients in makeup.


Found in: Nail polish; cosmetics with synthetic fragrances
Worry because: They are known endocrine disrupters. Studies have linked them to early puberty in girls and a risk of developing breast cancer later in life.
Look out for: Dibutylphthalate (DBP); Diethylphthalate (DEP)
Best bet: Avoid cosmetics that list “fragrance” or “parfum.” Choose ones that are “fragrance-free” or “scented with only essential oils.”


Found in: Foundation
Worry because: It’s classified as a known human carcinogen, and can be toxic to human development and reproductive health.
Look out for: 1,3-butadiene
Best bet: If you see the above ingredient on a bottle of foundation, move on.

Lead and other heavy metals

Found in: Lipstick; eyeliner; nail polish; foundations; sunscreens; eye shadows; blush; concealer
Worry because: Lead is a proven neurotoxin and has been linked to reduced fertility, hormonal changes, menstrual irregularities, and sometimes miscarriages [5]. It may also  delay puberty. Mercury and other metals can be toxic to the nervous, reproductive, immune, and respiratory systems, and poses harm to the environment and wildlife [6].
Look out for: Lead acetate; Chromium; Thimerosal; Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil; Sodium Hexametaphosphate
Best bet: Stick to makeup products without the above ingredients.

BHA and BHT [7]

Found in: Various types of makeup (as preservatives)
Worry because: They are known endocrine disruptors, organ system toxicants, and can be harmful to fish and wildlife.
Look out for: Salicylic Acid; Salicylate; Sodium Salicylate; Willow Extract; Beta Hydroxybutanoic Acid; Tropic Acid; Trethocanic Acid; Butylated Hydroxytoluene
Best bet: Ditch some of the acne-fighting formulas that may contain the above ingredients. If you’re worried about zits, try eating these skin-friendly foods.

Formaldehyde releasers [8]

Found in: Various types of makeup (as preservatives)
Worry because: They release that nasty chemical formaldehyde (yep, the nauseating stuff used in your high school biology dissections), which causes cancer.
Look out for: DMDM Hydantoin; Diazolidinyl Urea; Imidazolidinyl Urea; Methenamine and Quarternium-15; Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol ); Hydroxymethylglycinate
Best bet: Look for makeup with fewer ingredients.

Titanium Dioxide [9]

Found in: Pressed powder and loose powder
Worry because: It’s a possible carcinogen (through inhalation only).
Look out for: Titanium Dioxide; TiO2
Best bet: Be wary of many loose powders. Pressed powder is safer, and avoid ones containing titanium dioxide.

Octinoxate [10]

Found in: Lipstick, nail polish
Worry because: It’s an endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen and can disrupt thyroid function and reproductive development.
Look out for: Octinoxate,o methoxycinnamate (OMC); Parsol; Parsol MCX; Parsol MOX; Escalol; 2-ethylhexyl P-methoxycinnamate
Best bet: This is a common sunscreen ingredient and is sometimes used to protect products from degrading in the sun. Avoid SPF products containing the above chemicals.

Carbon black [11]

Found in: Eyeliner, mascara, nail polish, eye shadow, brush-on-brow, lipstick, blushers, rouge, makeup, and foundation
Worry because: Possible carcinogen, may increase risk of lung disease and cardiovascular disease
Look out for: Carbon Black; D & C Black No. 2; Acetylene Black; Channel Black; Furnace Black; Lamp Black; Thermal Black
Best bet: You may want the blackest black makeup you can find for the most dramatic smoky eye possible, but products without the above ingredients are your best bet.

Benzophenone [12]

Found in: Nail polish; SPF lip balm and foundation
Worry because: It can cause cancer and endocrine disruption, and may be toxic to developmental, reproductive, and organ system health. Not to mention, it’s toxic to aquatic animals when it ends up in their environments as people swim slathered in SPF products.
Look out for: Phenyl Ketone; Diphenyl Ketone; Benzoylbenzene; Benzoylphenyl
Best bet: Choose sunscreen products that use non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

To learn more about chemical safety of cosmetics brands and their products as well as the ingredients in makeup, check out EWG’s excellent informational database, Skin Deep. Not to mention, you can feel confident in choosing any nontoxic makeup products from Thrive Market’s growing selection of makeup, nail care, and lip care. No more nasty, harmful, toxic chemicals to mess up your makeup game!

Photo credit: Stocksy

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Dana Poblete

Dana's love for all creatures under the sun (bugs, too) drives her in her advocacy for ethical eating, environmental sustainability, and cruelty-free living. A natural born islander, she surfs when she can, and writes, always.

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