The Chemicals In Mainstream Beauty Products

The Chemicals in Mainstream Cosmetics

Credit photo: Kalos Skincare on Unsplash

If it’s legal, it has to be safe, right? Most of us can remember our mothers and grandmothers wearing mainstream beauty products since early childhood. We strolled (or ran) through the cosmetic sections of department stores to reach the toy corners; when we got older, we borrowed from our sisters’ or cousins’ makeup and perfume collections until we got our own.

Unfortunately, most cosmetics, including perfumes, contain synthetic chemicals. And just because such synthetics are everywhere doesn’t mean they can’t harmful to our health.

When I became a mother, I realised I needed to become more aware, as I was bringing a new life into the world much more vulnerable to environmental toxins than myself. I learnt about the effects of synthetic chemicals used in perfumes and other cosmetics, and how all-natural alternatives can be just as good as currently-mainstream products.

Why Does Caution Matter?

It is essential to look at products on the basis of their ingredients. The term “organic” can legally be used even where synthetic ingredients are included, so you must look for recognised certification. Organic certification labels require independent verification before they can be used. However, there is no regulation around the term “natural”. Even some ingredients labelled as natural could have been altered by synthetic chemicals, and do not exist as they are found in nature. Additionally, “natural” does not mean something is vegan or cruelty-free. Milk products, honey, and ambergris (a substance secreted by sperm whales), can be present in so called "natural" beauty products.

Our skin appears to be an impenetrable barrier to the naked eye, but it actually allows many substances to enter the bloodstream. Research on volatile chemicals (these are easily released; substances with a scent are typically volatile) found an average absorption rate of 64%, with a range from 29-91%! It must be remembered that children do not have the same skin thickness as adults, and conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and even sunburn can impair the protective properties of our skin. Many of these synthetics also make their way into the natural environment, and can harm the general and reproductive health of animals

Personal care products contain dozens of chemicals that may damage human and environmental health, but here we will focus on sulphates, parabens and phthalates.


Sulphates, most commonly found as sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulphate (SLES), are included in mainstream personal care products such as shampoos as cleaning and foaming agents. They seem to be everywhere in conventional formulations aimed at cleaning the skin, even for children. However, SLS has been demonstrated to dry out the skin by increasing water loss, with younger adults often more affected than older people. In this study, younger adults were irritated all over their faces and necks after SLS exposure, but older adults were less affected though still irritated.

If you or your child has atopic dermatitis (eczema), avoiding sulphates is even more important. A case-control study of people with and without eczema compared reactivity to different doses of SLS up to six days after exposure. Some had a genetic variation associated with impaired skin barrier integrity, which is linked to developing eczema. All groups with eczema reacted more severely to SLS than the control volunteers, whether or not they had the gene affecting skin barrier integrity. People with both eczema and the gene reacted faster, but the actual presence of eczema was more relevant than genetics.


Parabens are used in many conventional personal care products and cosmetics as preservatives but how safe those are has come into question. A study on regular use of methyl-paraben found that some of the chemical begins to persist in the skin after one month. Methyl-paraben impairs the ability of skin cells to grow and divide, which is essential for normal maintenance. It changed their shape, and lowered the levels of one type of collagen, as well as one type of hyaluronic acid. Collagen and hyaluronic acid keep the skin firm, strong and able to retain moisture. A reduction in these essential parts of connective tissue, alongside fewer skin cells, may indicate that parabens speed skin aging, and could worsen conditions that impair its integrity such as eczema.

Parabens and Fertility

Parabens are a form of endocrine disruptors, meaning they interrupt the healthy function and balance of hormones. Some research on parabens has found that they may affect fertility by damaging the eggs in our ovaries, as they interfere with the ovaries’ oestrogen-dependent communication. In this study, women with higher levels of propylparaben (PP) had lower ovarian reserves, meaning that they could also speed the aging of our ovaries. Women in the highest third for PP levels had egg follicle counts 16% lower than those in the lowest third, and they had a poorer response to follicular stimulating hormone (FSH).

Parabens and Testosterone

Others have suggested that parabens could reduce testosterone and lower sperm counts. When boys are exposed to parabens during pregnancy, it can lead to impaired development of their reproductive systems right from the beginning. The incidence of these developmental problems in boys has sadly increased over the last 50 years, as the chemicals responsible continue to be sold as “safe”. While testosterone is known as the “male” hormone, it plays essential roles in areas including muscle and bone maintenance for women too. 


Phthalates are another type of chemical used in conventional perfumes that may have hormone-disrupting effects. These are used as solvents and fixatives, to preserve the perfume’s scent. When 47 commercial perfumes were screened, all of them contained at least one phthalate; DEP, DMP and BBP were found in every perfume, while DEHP was present in 46 and DBP was found in 23 of 47 perfumes tested for it. Some perfumes contained phthalates at levels above their threshold limits, including cases where their presence was prohibited entirely.

Phthalates and Puberty

Phthalates can especially problematic if you have children at home, or are planning to conceive. Both high and low levels of exposure to phthalates has been linked to disrupted puberty in boys and girls, with the rate and timing affected. As girls require some testosterone for healthy muscle development, exposure to phthalates during pregnancy and early childhood is associated with impaired muscle growth. Boys were unaffected, possibly because their testosterone reserves are high enough to withstand the chemicals.

Phthalates And Menopause

No woman wants to experience early menopause, but many of us unknowingly expose ourselves to endocrine disruptors that bring “the change” forward. A study on various endocrine disruptors, all with long or unknown half-lives in the body, found that higher exposures were linked to menopausal ages between 1.9 and 3.8 years younger than in women with low exposure.

In conclusion

With the chemicals found in mainstream cosmetics having potentially harmful effects, all-natural alternatives are growing in popularity and quality. We chose to create a line of all-natural perfumes, free of synthetic fragrance and other man-made chemicals. We use essential oils and fermented grain alcohol in our perfumes, upholding the true meaning of "all-natural" so you can be Mindfully Beautiful.