Risks Linked to Chemicals in Cosmetics


By Kylie Wolfe

A study conducted in Taiwan revealed that makeup-counter workers had elevated amounts of phthalates in their systems. Phthalates are chemicals commonly used to make plastics and lock in the fragrances of cosmetics. Increased levels of these types of chemicals are especially concerning since certain types of phthalates have been listed as endocrine disruptors and their cumulative effects on reproductive health have been warranting more attention lately.

Assessing the Risk

Study participants included pregnant women working at makeup counters. Researchers tested the levels of phthalates in their urine samples and found that they showed higher levels of these chemicals than people working in other departments of the store.

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), diethyl phthalate (DEP) and di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) are commonly used in cosmetic products. They can be absorbed through skin contact and inhalation and are therefore linked closely with lotion and perfume use. Because retail cosmetic workers are regularly exposed to these chemicals they have an increased chance for health risks related to their use.

Although the FDA does not list phthalates like DEP as a health risk, recent studies have found that using products that contain phthalates poses a risk to our endocrine systems by interfering with hormone production, ultimately affecting our reproductive health. Hormones like estrogen and testosterone are critical during prenatal development, and regular exposure to phthalates has been found to hinder testosterone production. Lower testosterone levels impact male development and differentiation, and can result in possible feminization, decreased sperm quality and even infertility later in life.

Minimizing the Risk

Every day we use products that contain a wide range of chemicals, including many we don’t recognize. However, phthalates are not always included in the list of ingredients on cosmetic products. According the FDA, consumers should look for the ingredient “fragrance” on packaging to avoid using products with phthalates.

In 2010, the FDA reported that phthalates are not used as frequently as they once were. The use of DBP and DMP in cosmetics is now very minimal, although DEP is still frequently used.

In light of recent studies, researchers suggest that women of reproductive age avoid excessive exposure to cosmetics that contain these chemicals, especially retail cosmetic workers who are at a higher risk due to their increased exposure to these substances.

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever looked at the list of ingredients on a bottle in your shower or on your sink?
  • Activity: Have students bring in a bottle of product and read the list of ingredients to see if any are familiar. For a longer activity, have them research the ingredients on the FDA or CDC website.
  • In what other ways do chemicals in our environment positively and negatively impact our daily lives? 


  • Endocrine System
  • Phthalates
  • Reproductive Toxicity