The Hidden Killers

Cosmetics not only alter our appearance, but also affect our physical health. Every day, millions of Americans unwittingly expose themselves to harmful ingredients like formaldehyde when using common cosmetic products. Many believe the promises of beauty on the packaging, unaware of the negative short and long-term effects on the body. Manufacturers are often willing to break the rules of ingredient safety to make greater profit and defeat the competition.

These rule breakers often go unpunished because the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) [1], which regulates the cosmetic industry, is weak, ineffective, and hands over much of the power of regulation to manufacturers themselves. Adapted more than 75 years ago, the FD&C Act and other similar acts concerning the use and disclosure of cosmetic ingredients are now very outdated [2]. Under these laws, manufacturers are entrusted to test and to report side effects from their products in addition to ensuring the products’ safety. Currently, thousands of cosmetics on the market contain toxic industrial chemicals such as pesticides, toxins harmful to reproductive health, carcinogens, and hormone disruptors [3,4]. To ensure safe cosmetics on the market, the public must campaign for immediate legislative action, demanding that the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services increases regulation concerning ingredient safety and hold manufacturers responsible.

A December 2013 article published in “The Guardian” revealed that several Revlon products contained chemicals hazardous to human health [5]. Specifically, Revlon mascara, concealer, face cream, and foundation makeup were found to contain parabens, which are thought to play a role in the development of breast cancer. Tests of their face cream and eye makeup remover also revealed the presence of quaternium-15, a formaldehyde releaser that causes breast cancer, and their hair dye contained traces of P-Phenylenediamine (PPD), a chemical that contributes to respiratory toxicity [6]. Responding to accusations, Revlon stated that its products use parabens that are currently under investigation for association with cancer development; quaternium-15 only releases small amounts of formaldehyde; and PPD is not inhaled so it would not matter whether or not it is a respiratory toxicant [7]. Yet, according to research institutions such as Safe Cosmetic Database, National Cancer Institute, International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the World Health Organization, the chemicals found in Revlon products have been declared toxic. For example, PPD associated with allergic reactions and dermatitis, is a toxic ingredient labeled as a “moderate-high” concern by Safe Cosmetic Database  [6, 8]. The toxicity of the product was discovered in the late 19th century, leading to its subsequent prohibition in Sweden and France. Despite the advancement in research that points towards its negative effects, PPD continues to be legal in U.S. and E.U.  Further research is needed to know the exact extent of the chemicals’ influence on human health, but enough current evidence warrants the discontinuation of certain chemicals [7].

An average woman uses twelve items of personal care and cosmetic products daily, while an average man uses six [2]. In other words, an average adult is exposed to about 126 chemical ingredients in personal care products alone. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has accumulated data supporting the claim that PPD has potent skin-sensitizing properties.  NIOSH’s study demonstrated that long-term PPD exposure might increase the frequency of allergies within the population [9]. According to “The Environmental Magazine,” more than 50 million women in America used hair dye on regular basis in 2002, and this number has only grown since [10]. Not surprisingly, the frequency of allergic reactions and illnesses associated with PPD has also increased [11]. However, because these effects are even worse when PPD is applied directly to the skin the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of PPD in skin tattoos [12]. The FDA explains that the banning of PPD in skin tattoos should catch the attention of users of hair dyes, as individuals who color their hair will inevitably come into contact with dye on their neck, forehead, or ears. There are thousands of toxic chemicals out there like PPD that are unconsciously used by the public every day.

Federal law has left safety regulations to manufacturers who are often willing to include harmful chemicals in the cosmetics to make profit. A few congressmen, like Representatives Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) have stepped forward to demand external regulation so that consumers can use personal care products without worrying about harmful effects on their health.  Under current law, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not have the authority to require cosmetic companies to “conduct safety assessments or pre-market testing and cannot require product recalls” [2]. In March 2013, Schakowsky proposed the ‘Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2013’ which seeks to “amend title VI of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to ensure the safe use of cosmetics, and for other purposes” [13]. The act proposes increased FDA supervision of ingredient labeling, safety standards, and regulation of contaminants already on the market. Even as the first significant step towards cosmetic safety, the bill has yet to pass the committee on Energy and Commerce as well as the Committee on Education and the Workforce [13]. Until the federal government decides to take further steps in regulating the toxic chemicals, it is up to the public to demand cosmetic safety. For now, instead of relying on outdated federal law, it is left to the individual to navigate a hazardous cosmetics market. 


  1. Dunn, Charles Wesley. Federal Food, Drug, And Cosmetic Act: Index To Federal Food, Drug, And Cosmetic Act. 1st ed. New York: G.E. Stechert & co., 1940. Print.
  2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA Authority Over Cosmetics. Silver Spring: , 2013. Web. <>.
  3. “Endocrine Disruptors.” National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. 14 02 2014: n. page. Web. 25 Feb. 2014. <>.
  4. Institute of Public Health, Denmark & Department of Environmental Health, Harvard School of Public Health, “Developmental neurotoxicity of industrial chemicals,” Granjean,P., Landrigan, P., 2006. <>.
  5. Gunther, Mark. “A toxic situation: Walmart and Target take on chemical safety.” Guardian. 17 12 2013: n. page. Web. 25 Feb. 2014. <>.
  6. Phenylenediamine.” Environmental Working Group(2014): n.pag. Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. Web. 9 Feb 2014. <>.
  7. Aragon , Britta. “Revlon Threatens Legal Action When Pressed to Get Rid of Toxic Chemicals.” Cinco Vidas, Setting the Standard for Safe Self-Care. Cuie&Co, 27 11 2013. Web. 9 Feb 2014. <>.
  8. Thyssen, Jacob, and Jonathan White. “Epidemiological data on consumer allergy to p-phenylenediamine.”Contact Dermatitis: Environmental and Occupational Dermatitis. 59.6 (2008): 327-343. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <>.
  9. Schulte, Paul, and Scott Dotson. “NIOSH Skin Notation Profiles: p-Phenylene Diamine (PPD).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, n.d. Web. 10 Feb 2014. <>.
  10. Vartan, Starre. “Hair to Dye for.” E : the Environmental Magazine Jul 2002: 53-5. ProQuest. Web. 9 Feb. 2014 . <>.
  11. “Allergy to Hair Dye is Rising as More People Colour with PPD.” Nursing Standard 21.27 (2007): 14. ProQuest. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <>.
  12. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Temporary Tattoos, Henna/Mehndi, and “Black Henna”: Safety and Regulatory Information. Silver Spring, 2012. Web. <>.
  13. Schakowsky, Jan. United States. Congress: House of Representatives. H.R. 1385: Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2013. 2013. Web. <>.

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Anna Cholewa is a student in Georgetown University. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.