Dan Wilson

Senior Member.
Buzzfeed posted a video a couple years ago that has made its round on social media and claims that chemicals in cosmetics are going to disrupt your hormones, cause neurodegenerative disease, and give you cancer. I'm sure many people don't (and shouldn't) view Buzzfeed as a reliable source but this and content like it is very easy to be influenced and scared by.
So are chemicals in things we use every day like shampoo, toothpaste, and soap harmful? While being cautious about what you put in and on your body can't hurt, this video has a good amount of misinformation in it and makes for another great example of why it is important to understand chemical context and concentration whenever talking about how toxic chemicals might be. So lets go through the claims of the video one by one.

1) The video starts off by claiming that Europe has banned over 1,300 chemicals in cosmetics while the US has only banned 8. This stat is being used dishonestly. It's true that the European list of banned substances is very long, but the bulk of the list includes things that would never be considered for use anyway like arsenic, steroids, benzene, and antibiotics. Ironically, none of the chemicals the video goes on to mention, except for lead, are even banned for cosmetic use in Europe.

2) Formaldehyde is the first chemical the video mentions. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, that much is true. It is normally formaldehyde derivatives that are in products like shampoo and lotion, though. DMDM hydantoin is what is normally used here and it is not listed as a carcinogen, but as an irritant. This is also a case of dosage makes the poison. There just isn't enough of it in these products to be toxic. The real reason it is there is to prevent the growth of potentially harmful bacteria that you probably wouldn't want to wash yourself with or get into any open wounds.

3) Triclosan is mentioned next. Triclosan is another preservative used in cosmetics, it prevents the growth of potentially harmful bacteria and fungi. The concern here is that it disrupts the hormones in the body. There is no evidence that this happens in humans, although it has been demonstrated to interfere with estrogen function in rats.
The bigger concern in the scientific literature, however, is about the environmental effects of its widespread use. So the video isn't totally wrong here, but it is still dishonest to tout something as toxic when it has not been demonstrated in humans.

4) One of the vaguest claims is made next, stating that parabens are "found in breast cancer tumors." One study published in 2004 in the Journal of Applied Toxicology by Darbre found parabens in breast tumors. Other authors commented on the obvious limitations on the conclusions one can draw from such a finding.
Parabens are yet another preservative and they have been shown to stimulate breast cancer proliferation in a dish. What happens in a dish, however, does not always happen in the body. In this case, it is a problem of delivery. Breast tissue will never see these chemicals when applied topically. Its analogous to the situation where eating venom from a snake won't harm you but injecting it into your bloodstream will. It is widely agreed that parabens will not cause any harm in biologically relevant contexts.
5) Ethylene oxide is probably one of the most dishonest claims the video makes. Ethylene oxide is a known carcinogen and is very toxic, but its not in cosmetics. Ethylene oxide is used in industry to make things like polyethylene glycol and that is what is in cosmetics. Polyethylene glycol is harmless in most contexts and is widely used in a variety of industrial, medicinal, and laboratory settings.

6) Lead is the last chemical mentioned here. Lead is in some lipsticks and one eyeliner brand. The dosage really does make the poison here and small amounts of lead are harmless, especially when considering not much lipstick is actually ingested and how much lead is present. The FDA regulations allow no more than 20ppm of lead in the coloring thats added to lipstick. To give that some context, the regulations for lead in drinking water include taking action when lead gets up to 15ppm. That's 15 parts lead for every 1 million parts water (1 million teaspoons of water = 15 teaspoons of lead). As mentioned earlier, lead is the only chemical actually banned from cosmetics in Europe, but considering the context and dosage, it's probably not something you have to worry about.

A fear of everything chemical comes from big misunderstandings of science and can result in making irrational or ill-informed decisions. People can also exploit this fear to sell products and fool consumers. It is important to understand things like chemical context and dosage and not let content such as this video scare or misinform you.
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