What's In My Makeup?

Ever taken the time to look at the back of your favourite beauty product? If you have, you’ll most likely have spotted the exhaustive list of ingredients. You probably just turned it right over and started applying it as usual – who has time to read a whole list of 100-syllable chemical names?

Stop. Think again.

Being a pharmacy student, I am well aware of the impact that certain chemicals have on the body (pharmacodynamics, y’all), whether you swallow them, inject them or put them on your skin. Since we use these products on our faces every day – several times a day in some cases – why not find out what exactly you’re putting on your skin and absorbing into your bloodstream? I know this is supposed to be a blog focused around beauty, but I believe that education and health are equally important, especially when it comes to everyday products – it all adds up. Here’s a list of chemicals that you should be looking out for in products and why.


  • Synthetic musks

    • Galaxolide (HHBC), Tonalide (AHTN), Musk ketone

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The stuff that makes your products smell nice. They’re usually found in things like soaps, cologne sprays and detergents too. Basically, most of the fragranced products you own. However, in higher concentrations, they can interfere with hormone systems and the normal functioning of cells in your body. Those who are especially at risk include pregnant or breastfeeding ladies. They can accumulate in breast tissue, body fat, the umbilical cords of fetuses (this stuff lingers, guys) and have been detected in blood and breast milk.

  • Parabens

    • Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben

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You got it, basically anything ending in “paraben”. What exactly are parabens? They are a class of compounds derived from para-hydroxybenzoic acid, which happens to be what “paraben” is short for. Parabens mess with the oestrogen-responsive genes in human cells, and can increase growth of cells whose growth depends on oestrogen – think breast tissue, and breast cancer (more explanation on this below under “EDCs”). Parabens are so common in daily life, and can be found in things like shampoos, body lotions and even in foods. All this exposure to parabens means that it is high enough to be measured in human urine too.

  • Ethanolamines

    • Trietholamine (TEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA), Diethanolamine (DEA)

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These are ammonia derivatives, most commonly absorbed through skin and inhaled in aerosols. Often used in mascara, eyeshadows, foundations, shampoos and hair conditioners. Why are they in there? TEA is often used for fragrance and as an emulsifying agent (stops your foundation from separating out into two layers – think oil on water). DEA has been known to react with some preservatives to form nitrosamines, a class of carcinogens (cancer-causing compounds). It was subsequently banned by the European Commission in 2012. Ethanolamines have also been detected in human breast milk, blood, urine, faeces and even saliva. Yummy.


  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)


Often used as a preservative and anti-oxidant in lip products, food, sunscreen, and all sorts of makeup – particularly lipstick and eyeshadow. When applied to the skin of rats, BHT was associated with toxic effects on lung tissue, hence concentrations being strictly regulated in cosmetics. It may also disrupt the body’s hormone regulation.


  • Hydroquinone

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A skin-bleaching agent which can be found in skin lightening products, hair conditioners and nail varnishes. It can lead to discolouration in the nails if you use it for long enough. The other issue with hydroquinone is the fact that it can contain an impurity called tocopheryl acetate, which you may be aware of if you are an avid Vitamin E product user. Tocopheryl acetate is basically the result of combining vitamin E (tocopherol) and acetic acid (vinegar). It has UV-protection properties and can be found in sunscreens, which is the reason for some people having reactions to certain sunscreen brands.

  • Diethyl phthalate (DEP)

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One of the phthalates, a family of chemicals that are used as plasticisers – the stuff that makes your nail polish stay perfect and unchipped for as long as possible. DEP is also used in scented products for a longer lasting fragrance – not always so obvious since it is included as part of the ingredient “fragrance”. They have been linked to disruption of our hormones, which can harm fetuses in pregnant women and cause infertility in men.

  • Formaldehyde

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The chemical linked to Brazilian blowdries or “keratin treatments”. Formaldehyde isn’t always too easy to find on lists of ingredients – it’s a colourless, pungent gas that’s often released from formaldehyde-releasing preservatives like polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, and bromopol. The main problem in formaldehyde release is the slow, constant nature of it. Minuscule levels of formaldehyde are already a cause for concern. Add prolonged durations of release to that and… well, let’s just say that this is the one instance where consistency is not a good thing. These are often found in nail polishes, shampoo, and all sorts of makeup. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, recognised by the United States National Toxicology Program and can also cause skin irritations.


  • Diethyl phthalate

See above.


  • Hydroquinone

See above.


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  • Aluminium salts

The stuff that makes your anti-perspirants, well… stop you from perspiring. They do this pretty literally – by blocking the sweat ducts in your armpit so that sweat can’t make its way onto the surface of your skin. This means that your underarms stay dry, and bacteria don’t get a chance to grow and cause that delightful BO smell. However, extensive exposure to aluminium salts mean that the body can experience elevated levels of aluminium – this has been linked to neurological problems.

  • Triclosan (TSC)

A common antibacterial agent found mainly in detergents and antibacterial soaps. They are also present in many antiperspirants, deodorants, toothpastes and shaving products. A study in 2009 showed that triclosan can decrease thyroid hormones, and can amplify the effects of this imbalance when paired with naturally occurring hormones in the body. Extensive use of triclosan can also mean that bacteria can develop resistance to it, since it acts similarly to antibiotics.


  • Synthetic Musks

See above.

  • Diethyl phthalate

See above.


  • Siloxanes

    • Octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane

More commonly known as silicones. Due to their chemical characteristics, certain types of siloxanes can penetrate through skin layers and even change the natural structure of the fatty membrane in our skin. Most often found in moisturising creams, siloxane toxicity mainly depends on the type of siloxane – usually presenting itself in skin irritations and in rare cases, carcinogenic effects.

  • UV Filters

    • Benzophenone (BP-3), Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, Octinoxate


Suspected to be an endocrine disrupting chemical (see below) based on results from testing. Interestingly, a study conducted on the effects of benzophenone on sexual development of zebrafish showed a skew towards fewer males and more female fish produced, in terms of sex ratio. Just think about that the next time you put your sunscreen on. Or maybe not.

  • Parabens

See above.

  • BHT

See above.

  • Formaldehyde

See above.

  • Ethanolamines

See above.


  • Triclosan

See above.

  • Ethanolamines

See above.


  • Triclosan

See above.


The mother of the baddies: Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)

This is a class of chemicals that are commonly found in many cosmetics and pharmaceutical products, consisting of:

  • Parabens

  • Triclosan

  • Phthalates

  • Aluminium

  • UV filters

What are endocrine disrupting chemicals? Well, “endocrine” concerns the glands in your body that produce hormones, which in turn act like messengers to regulate the activity of specific organs or body systems. This goes way beyond the classically “hormonal” PMS mood swings. Disrupting the body’s hormone balance can lead to all sorts of health problems concerning growth, reproduction, and how well you handle stress.

The main issue with EDCs is the way they mimic oestrogens. Oestrogens are sex hormones that help your breast tissue cells grow and multiply. Oestrogen levels often peak during the few days before your period starts – they’re the culprit behind the bigger, tender boobs you get before every period. They don’t only cause the multiplication of healthy breast tissue cells, the problem lies in the fact that they do the same for damaged cells. This increases your chances of – yup, you guessed it – breast cancer.

With these EDCs, aka. oestrogen impostors roaming around in your bloodstream, they may cause changes in your breast tissue. This is why they have been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. According to a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, nail and hair salon workers in Europe have been shown to be at a higher risk of some types of cancers (including breast cancer).

So, what are we supposed to do about it? Don’t run to your bathroom and throw out all these products just yet. Just like you, I love my makeup and wouldn’t give it up for the world. I am also worried about my healthand to be honest, I’m tired of reading all these fad articles on the internet about everything being carcinogenic. Yes, the chemicals mentioned in this post have the potential to cause cancer, and Breast Cancer UK agrees with me. However, it’s all about the levels – higher levels are more likely to cause problems, and as long as you aren’t abusing the product and using it excessively for purposes for which it wasn’t intended, you’re on the right track.

Screenshot 2017-09-03 15.45.39.pngBe smart about your makeup. Research any ingredients in your makeup that you are curious about, or have heard things about. Equip yourself with knowledge backed up by science (I hope this post has made your ventures a little easier!). Avoid fragranced products whenever you can. Explore the world of organic cosmetics and please let me know in the comments if you find anything that works well – I’ve been meaning to give those a go too! If you ever decide to make your own cosmetics at home, be safe and smart about it – don’t be using children’s colouring crayons as a lip tint just because someone did it and said they felt perfectly fine afterwards. Keep your makeup equipment clean, and always check the shelf life of your products – as stated by the manufacturer on the product itself, not from a Pinterest photo or what your friends are saying. You go girl.

– J

Disclaimer: None of the information here has been intended to replace that of a healthcare professional. I have sourced all the information in this post from the references listed below. If you have spotted any scientific or citation errors, please contact me directly. If you experience any adverse effects from using the products mentioned, please see a doctor.


  1. Breast Cancer UK Cosmetics Leaflet, accessed 6/7/17. http://www.breastcanceruk.org.uk/uploads/BCUK_Cosmetics_Leaflet_V2.pdf
  2. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon et al, “Environmental Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)”. Published Nov 2009, accessed 6/7/17. http://www.hormone.org/hormones-and-health/scientific-statements/edcs
  3. Cynthia Washam. “A Whiff of Danger: Synthetic Musks May Encourage Toxic Bioaccumulation”, Environmental Health Perspectives. Published Jan 2005, accessed 6/7/17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1253742/
  4. Darbre PD, Charles AK. “Environmental oestrogens and breast cancer: evidence for combined involvement of dietary, household and cosmetic xenoestrogens”, Anticancer Research. Published Mar 2010, accessed 6/7/17.
  5. “Synthetic Musks”, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a project of breast cancer prevention partners. Accessed 6/7/17. http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/synthetic-musks/
  6. National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Database; CID=700, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/700 (accessed July 6, 2017).
  7. W. Dekant et al, Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS). “Opinion on Nitrosamines and Secondary Amines in Cosmetic Products”. March 2012, accessed 6/7/17. https://ec.europa.eu/health/scientific_committees/consumer_safety/docs/sccs_o_090.pdf
  8. “Tocopheryl Acetate”, cosmeticsinfo.org. Accessed 6/7/17. http://www.cosmeticsinfo.org/ingredient/tocopheryl-acetate
  9. “Hydroquinone”, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a project of breast cancer prevention partners. Accessed 6/7/17. http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/hydroquinone/
  10. “Butylated Compounds”, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a project of breast cancer prevention partners. Accessed 6/7/17. http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/butylated-compounds/
  11. Lanigan RS, Yamarik TA, “Final report on the safety of assessment of BHT (1),” International journal of toxicology, vol. 21, no. Suppl 2, pp. 19-94, 2002.
  12. National Biomonitoring Program, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Factsheet: Phthalates”. Accessed 6/7/17. https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/phthalates_factsheet.html
  13. “Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives”. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a project of breast cancer prevention partners. Accessed 6/7/17. http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/formaldehyde/
  14. Breast Cancer UK. “Aluminium Salts”. Accessed 6/7/17. http://www.breastcanceruk.org.uk/science-and-research/aluminimum-salts/
  15. “Triclosan”. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a project of breast cancer prevention partners. Accessed 6/7/17. http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/triclosan/
  16. K. Mojsiewicz-Pienkowska et al. “Direct Human Contact with Siloxanes (Silicones) – Safety or Risk Part 1. Characteristics of Siloxanes (Silicones)”, “Frontiers in Pharmacology”. Published online May 2016, accessed 6/7/17.
  17. Kinnberg KL et al. “Endocrine-disrupting effect of the ultraviolet filter benzophenone-3 in zebrafish, Danio rerio”, “Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry”. Published 2015, accessed 6/7/17. 
  18. Bahi Takkouche, Carlos Regueira-Méndez, Agustín Montes-Martínez; Risk of cancer among hairdressers and related workers: a meta-analysis. Int J Epidemiol 2009; 38 (6): 1512-1531. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyp283. Accessed 6/7/17. http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/38/6/1512.long#T6

12 Comments on “What's In My Makeup?”

  1. This was very informative. I wasn’t aware of many things. Thank you and keep up the good work

          1. Thanks a lot for appreciating my work dear. Means a lot

  2. I like informative posts like this to remind you about the ingredients. Although, people’s opinion about parabens differs, as I use body lotions and after having children bust creams daily, I do check for parabens as I’d rather be safe than sorry.

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