Conservation Minnesota

Harmful Chemicals Found in Cosmetics

Many people are aware that there are chemicals of concern in personal care products, but we don’t expect to find flame retardants and Teflon chemicals in products we put on our bodies. However, new studies have surprisingly identified the flame retardant triphenyl phosphate (TPHP) in nail polish and the Teflon chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in face creams.

Below are examples of chemicals of concern in cosmetics and personal care products, more information about TPHP and PFOA and how you can find safer products.

Chemicals of Concern in Personal Care Products

Cosmetics and other personal care products can include hormone disrupting phthalates used as fragrance binders, 1,4-dioxane, toluene, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), parabens, preservatives that release formaldehyde, quaternary ammonium products, mercury in skin lightening creams and lead in hair dye. These chemicals are variously associated with increased risk for cancer, liver damage, hormone disruption, asthma, allergies, reproductive problems and adverse effects on the brain.

And there’s more. The antibacterial agents triclosan or triclocarban, often added to soap and other personal care products, are not necessary to fight bacteria and are water contaminants that are toxic to aquatic life. Nail polish and nail polish remover may contain solvents, many of which are brain toxins and associated with increased risk of cancer.

Flame retardant in nail polish

Back to triphenyl phosphate (TPHP). A recent study found the flame retardant chemical TPHP (also referred to as TPP) in 8 of 10 nail polish brands tested. Many nail polish manufacturers removed hormone-disrupting phthalates from their products because of health concerns, so they may be substituting TPHP as a plasticizer to improve flexibility. Two of the products did not list the chemical on the label. Researchers measured TPHP in women’s bodies after using these products, finding a sevenfold increase in the TPHP metabolite DPHP in urine 10-14 hours after use. The researchers speculate that solvents in the nail polish increase the absorbency of the chemical into the nail.

TPHP is used in furniture foam as a component of the flame retardant Firemaster 550 and also as a flame retardant in plastic casings for electronics. There is evidence that TPHP causes hormone disruption and exposure is associated with reproductive and development problems. Men with higher levels of TPHP in their urine had poorer semen quality.[1] Zebrafish exposed to TPHP showed evidence of disturbed sex hormone balance.[2] There is also merging evidence that TPHP disrupts metabolism and may be associated with obesity.[3]

Teflon Chemical in Anti-Aging Creams

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is added to many anti-aging creams. The problem with PTFE is it’s often contaminated with toxic perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA. You may have heard of PFOA. It’s the Teflon chemical used in non-stick cookware. A recent study found PFOA in 6 of 17 PTFE-containing products tested.

PFOA is extremely persistent in the environment and stays in the human body for years. Centers for Disease Control biomonitoring studies find that almost everyone has this chemical in their bodies. We are routinely exposed to PFOA in food packaging and non-stick cookware, but now we know that cosmetics are also a source. PFOA is a hormone disrupter associated with increased risk of cancer and reproductive problems. Higher levels of PFOA in women’s bodies were linked to increased risk of breast cancer.[4] One study found that higher levels of PFOA in blood were associated with delays in onset of puberty in girls, which could lead to reproductive problems later in life.[5]

Safer Products Available

Although many personal care products contain chemicals we’d like to avoid, safer products without toxic ingredients are now widely available in the marketplace. Consumers are advised to not purchase nail polish that lists TPHP as an ingredient or skin creams and other cosmetic products that list PTFE as an ingredient. In general, try to use fewer products and only purchase those with known safer ingredients. See Top Tips for Healthy Kids – Personal Care Products and find safer products at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com

Kathleen Schuler, MPH, Healthy Kids and Families Program Director, Co-Director Healthy Legacy


[1] Meeker JD, Cooper EM, Stapleton HM, Hauser R. Exploratory analysis of urinary metabolites of phosphorus-containing flame retardants in relation to markers of male reproductive health. Endocr Disruptors (Austin). 2013;1(1):e26306.

[2] Liu X, Ji K, Jo A, Moon HB, Choi K. Effects of TDCPP or TPP on gene transcriptions and hormones of HPG axis, and their consequences on reproduction in adult zebrafish (Danio rerio). Aquat Toxicol. 2013;134-135:104-11.

[3] Belcher SM, Cookman CJ, Patisaul HB, Stapleton HM. In vitro assessment of human nuclear hormone receptor activity and cytotoxicity of the flame retardant mixture FM 550 and its triarylphosphate and brominated components. Toxicol Lett. 2014;228(2):93-102.

[4] Bonefeld-Jorgensen EC, Long M, Bossi R, Ayotte P et al. Perfluorinated compounds re related to breast cancer risk in Greenlandic Inuit: a case control study. Environmental Health. 2011;10:88.

[5] Pinney S, Windham G, Biro FM, Kushi L et al. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and pubertal maturation in young girls. Epidemiology, 2009;20(6):S80.

About Kathleen Schuler

Kathleen Schuler
Kathleen Schuler manages the Healthy Kids and Families program. With degrees in sociology and public health, Kathleen is perfectly situated to serve as the Co-Director of the Healthy Legacy coalition, which is a statewide network of advocacy organizations working to eliminate toxic chemicals from common consumer products.
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