Wise Words – Cosmetic Safety

Dr Rebecca Wise
Dr Rebecca Wise

Submitted by Dr Becky Wise

A cosmetic is any product applied to the body or face to improve its appearance. This includes make-up, dyes, lotions, cleansers, defoliants, perfumes/colognes/after-shaves, sunscreen, tooth pastes and whiteners, nail polishes, shaving creams, powers, etc.

These products contain chemicals that can cause allergies, irritate or increase sensitivity, or interact with other chemicals. Allergies and irritation present as redness, swelling, itching, and/or hives, and you should wash off the product immediately if these symptoms occur. However, if the reaction spreads to an area where you did not apply the cosmetic, or your breathing becomes difficult, you should call 911 immediately. There are nearly 4000 agents that are known to cause allergies or skin reactions, but the most common chemicals likely to cause these reactions include:

1. phthalates – these are a chemical plastic, especially in nail polishes. It is known to cause allergies, eczema, and possibly birth defects. In fact, this chemical is banned in Europe.

2. shea butter – often found in lotions and hair products. It may cause a reaction if you are allergic to nuts. The same is true of cocoa butter products and other emollients.

3. triclosan – this chemical is found in soaps, detergents, and sanitizers, so the reaction is most often seen on the hands. If you get irritation, redness, or very dry skin, avoid products with this chemical.

4. balsam – this is a fragrance agent. It can cause sensitivity to the sun causing streaks of brown or red on your skin where it was applied. Be sure to look for products that say “Fragrance Free”. [Note, “Unscented” means it contains extra chemicals to mask a scent or odor, not that it contains no fragrances.]

cosmetics-WEB5. tolulene and formaldehyde – less common now because of its reputation, but other chemicals change into formaldehyde when applied – these are Imidazolidinyl Urea or Quaternium 15. All three of these chemicals are found in hair, nail, and skin products, as well as make-up. They can cause redness and irritation, especially in or near the eyes.

6. parabens – product names include methyl-, propyl-, or benzyl- hydroxybenzoate. These are found in nearly every topical product from lip balms to hair products to foot scrubs. They cause redness and/or rashes in folks who are allergic.

7. some acids – specifically azelaic, alpha hydroxyl, benzoic, lactic, and sorbic – can cause sensitivity in some people, and are found in many products. If you are noticing a uncomfortably “hot” or burning feeling, stop using the product immediately. However, the most common acidic reaction is from cinnamon. This is found in toothpastes and lip balms and cause itchy lips or even lesions or sores around or inside your mouth. If these occur, do not use products containing cinnamon.

8. paraphenylenediamine (PPD) – is also called “coal tar” and is found in hair dye, and sensitivity to it increases with age. It will cause a rash or even burn the skin anywhere it is applied, but is worse on your ears, neck, and forehead. If you get this product in your eyes, you should flush with water for at least 2 minutes, and you may need to go to the emergency room. Instead, choose products that have PPD-free labels, or use henna-rinses instead of permanent dye.

9. retinoids – these chemicals are “vitamin A” substances in anti-aging and anti-acne products. They cause redness and dryness, and can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun.

10. aluminum – found in antiperspirants, can cause dryness, itching, and red bumps.

11. other metals – some make-up contains “sparkle” or “glitter” which are generally tiny flakes of metal. These can cause irritation, especially in the eyes, and the worst offenders are lead, chromium, and cobalt. Zinc is often found in sunscreens/sunblocks so avoid it if you have a reaction to it.

12. sulfates – found in shampoo, bodywash, and soap (including baby formulas) and cause excessive dryness in addition to immediate redness in some cases. The best choice, if you must use a product containing sulfate, is to only use it in alternation with another product that does not irritate your skin. Products marked “organic” should not contain sulfates.

13. essential oils – all kinds of these aromatherapy products have risk to your skin even though they are “natural”. You should test each one before use (see ‘patch test’ below).

14. bleaching agents – usually contain peroxides – which break down into irritants of the skin. If used on the teeth, some of the product is invariably swallowed causing GI upset, and overuse can cause sensitivity of the teeth themselves.

Before using any new product, you should do a “patch test” on a very small, sensitive, less-visible area of the skin, such as the inner wrist. If there is no reaction, the product is likely to be safe for you to use. But, don’t forget that some of these are sensitized by your perspiration or by the sun, so you may still have a reaction under certain circumstances. If you do, note the product and its ingredients (taking a picture is a great idea) and tell your doctor and pharmacist what the reaction was.

In addition to immediate reactions, some products can worsen the condition of your skin by causing acne pimples or black-heads, increased dryness which leads to wrinkling, or even lesions or scarring. Some of these are known carcinogens causing breast or prostate cancer most commonly. Many can harm fetuses in pregnant women.

If you are having an immediate reaction, first, wash the area with a gentle soap immediately until all the product is gone. Then, use an anti-allergy medicine like diphenhydramine/Benadryl which is available as a topical product or a pill. The pill is sedating, so be careful of taking it if you have to drive or have clear thoughts for about 4 hours. For longer / more chronic reactions, the first step is to determine which product is causing the reaction, and then avoid it. You can use prescription steroids in some case to improve reactions as well, depending on what type of reaction it is. Additionally, talk to your doctor and pharmacist about an allergy test to see what specific chemicals to avoid in the future.

To prevent these types of reactions, first and foremost, limit the different kinds of products you apply to your skin and look for some keywords when buying product too – “Fragrance Free”, “Organic”, “Clear”, “Sensitive skin” or “Allergen-free”. Also avoid products that use adhesives (such as artificial lashes, nail-stickers or nail-wraps, and stick-on “tattoos”) if you have a glue allergy like a reaction to some band-aids. If you are allergic to nuts, avoid “cocoa” or “almond” containing products. If you are allergic to eggs, avoid products with the words albumin, lecithin, globulin, or “ovo-” or “ova-”. Finally, if you know you are allergic to a specific plant or herb, you should avoid that product in your cosmetics as well. Examples are lavender, zucchini, chamomile, lemon or lemon-grass.

For more information:

Be Well, Be Wise,


Dr Rebecca Wise
Dr Rebecca Wise

Wise Words…. is a general medical information column from Rebecca Miller Wise, MEd, PharmD, CGP. Dr. Wise has a master’s degree in education as well as her doctorate in pharmacy. She is a nationally board certified geriatric pharmacist and an assistant professor at a local medical college.


You must be logged in to post a comment Login