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The Not-So-Gentle Side Of The Beauty And Cosmetic Care Industry

Since 2009, 595 cosmetics manufacturers have reported using 88 chemicals, in more than 73,000 products, that have been linked to cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm.[1]

The innocuous cosmetic product that you have using can contain chemicals that are carcinogenic. And that’s not a shallow claim, but is based on evidence and scientific reports. The cosmetic market is growing in India and worldwide.  India is ranked fourth globally for generating the highest revenue from the beauty and personal care market in 2021. Honestly, one doesn’t need data but a quick look at one’s shelf is a good indicator of this fact. That’s good news. But with growing usage, there’s also a growing awareness of the presence of harmful chemicals in cosmetics across the globe. And we are talking about some of the renowned and global brands that have made their way into most supermarkets, local stores and households.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists  113 agents as known human carcinogens, out of which at least 11 are currently used in personal care products. If that isn’t alarming enough, the existing regulations aren’t strong enough to prevent these known carcinogens from entering our lifestyle. For instance, the FDA doesn’t pre-approve cosmetics or ingredients unless it’s a colour additives. The companies are expected to do proper tests and make sure their products are safe to use before they hit the market. They are also expected to disclose every ingredient, along with the quantity on the labels so as to announce that they are sticking to the agreed limits. A potential ground for the grey area for consumers. Like, lack of proper disclosure and hiding behind nomenclature. Mass awareness in such a scenario becomes all the more pertinent.

Below are some of the chemicals that are currently in use in personal care products.


 Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) are widely used in personal care products including nail polish, eye shadow, mascara, nail treatment, shampoo and blush. 

IARC, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) and California EPA’s Proposition 65 (Prop 65) classify formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. 


Used in personal care products as a stabilizer in products such as facial hair bleach, hair colour and women’s depilatories. 

IARC and Prop 65 identify phenacetin as a human carcinogen. 

Coal Tar

It is used in cosmetics containing hair dyes, shampoos, dandruff/scalp treatment and redness/rosacea treatment. Coal Tar is associated with cancers of the lung, bladder, kidney, and digestive tract. 


 Benzene is sometimes used in hair conditioner and styling lotion. IARC and NTP classify benzene as a known human carcinogen. 

Mineral oils (untreated and mildly treated)

 Mineral oils are common in a wide array of personal care products, including eye shadow, moisturizer, lip gloss, lipstick, conditioner, hair colour and bleaching, facial treatment, styling gel/lotion, blush and concealer.

IARC, NTP and Prop 65 classify untreated and mildly treated mineral oils as a known human carcinogens. 

Cadmium and its compounds

In addition to its carcinogenic properties, cadmium targets the cardiovascular, renal, neurological, reproductive and respiratory systems through inhalation and ingestion.[87] Standards for cosmetics in Japan and European Commission prohibit the use of cadmium compounds in cosmetics.[88][89]


Crystalline silica is widely used in lipsticks, lip gloss, eye shadow, eyeliner, foundation, sunscreen, lotion and shampoo.[101]

NTP and IARC both list crystalline silica of respirable size as a known human carcinogen. 

The above are only some of the chemicals used in cosmetics. Heavy metals like lead, arsenic, mercury, aluminium, zinc, chromium and iron are also found in a wide variety of personal care products including lipstick, whitening toothpaste, eyeliner and nail colour. The point is, we need to know what we are buying into, and not be drawn by glossy packaging and the false sheen created by huge spends in advertising based on a skewed narration. 

This is not to say that the cosmetics industry as a whole is unwholesome. Or that we should stop using cosmetics. Saying that would be making a sweeping statement and not factually correct. There are brands and products that are safe to use and are free of any harmful chemicals. Homeopathy and ayurvedic formulations are seeing an increase in demand because they are free of any harmful chemicals.

So how do we know what is good and what is not? Awareness is the key.

 Reading up from reliable sources can help. Educate yourself. Before picking a product, it’s important to read the label carefully. Homeopathy and Ayurvedic formulations are free of chemicals and hence free of any side effects. Homeopathy mostly uses plant extracts and minerals, while avoiding chemicals like parabens and formaldehyde. 

1. https://www.ewg.org/the-toxic-twelve-chemicals-and-contaminants-in-cosmetics

2. https://www.safecosmetics.org/chemicals/known-carcinogens/


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