It’s especially important to pay attention to labels on cosmetics and other personal care products, environmental health groups say, because it is legal for manufacturers to use ingredients that have been linked to cancer or endocrine disruption.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has made it clear that when it comes to policing ingredients, you’re on your own: “Companies and individuals who manufacture or market cosmetics have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety of their products. Neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients. The law also does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information with FDA.”

Labeling loopholes have also allowed companies to avoid disclosing ingredients in hair and nail salon products, according to the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP), a nonprofit policy and advocacy group that focuses on eliminating environmental exposure to toxins.

The BCPP recommends being wary of marketing that tries to “greenwash” products by using meaningless words such as “natural.” Check the label. If you don’t know what’s in it, don’t use it.

Here are the top ingredients to watch out for on beauty product labels, according to the BCPP and the Maine Environmental Health Strategy Center. For more information on any of them, go to



Found in lip balm, nail polish, foundations, baby suncreens, fragrance, shampoo, conditioner, hair spray and moisturizers, these chemicals have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, organ system toxicity, irritation and environmental problems. Look for benzophenone, ingredients containing the word benzophenone (for example benzophenone-2), BP# (for example BP2), oxybenzone, sulisobenzone and sulisobenzone sodium.


Found in eyeliner, mascara, nail polish, eye shadow, brush-on-brow, lipstick, blushers, rouge, makeup, and foundation, carbon black is a potential cancer concern and has been linked to organ system toxicity. Scour the label for carbon black, D & C Black No. 2, acetylene black, channel black, furnace black, lamp black, and thermal black.


A potent carcinogen and skin irritant found in nail polish, nail glue, eyelash glue, hair gel, hair-smoothing products, baby shampoo, body soap and body wash. Look for quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin and bronopol, among others.



A common ingredient that could include dozens or hundreds of different toxic chemicals that are routinely kept secret. Found in most personal care products, from sunscreen and shampoo to body lotions and deodorant. Words to look for: Fragrance, perfume, parfum, essential oil blend and aroma.


These are widely used hormone-disrupting preservatives found in shampoos, conditioners, lotions, facial and shower cleansers and scrubs. Examine the label for ethylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben.


Often found in fragrance, and sometimes in nail polish, phthalates are associated with harm to brain development. There can also be reproductive health effects, with harm to both mother and child.


Added to antimicrobial soaps, it is a major environmental pollutant.

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