Harmful chemicals in your cosmetics

Harmful chemicals in your cosmetics

The article below appeared in the January 30  issue of Health with Perdana, a regular column in The Star by Perdana University faculty members. This week’s article is contributed by Dr Radha Kodiappan, a senior lecturer in molecular genetics and biochemistry, and Dr Wendy Yeo Wai Yeng, a lecturer in biochemistry and medical biotechnology at the Perdana University Graduate School of Medicine.


For many centuries, the obsession towards beauty has been known to entice women to enhance their appearance with cosmetics.

With the impressive array of cosmetic products in the market today, we have also been witnessing an upsurge in the number of men who use cosmetics.

While cosmetic products are supposed to make us look and feel beautiful, some of the ingredients in these products aren’t “pretty”.

Hazardous ingredients in cosmetic products are not something new, as this ugly side of cosmetics can be traced back to ancient civilizations.

History shows us how ancient Egyptian and Greek women suffered for beauty with the use of antimony sulphide – a toxic, semi-metal substance – to contour or darken their eyelids, lashes and eyebrows.

In the 19th century, arsenic-based cosmetics were the vogue to create the appearance of white skin with pink cheeks among Victorian era women.

Present danger

The peril of toxic ingredients in cosmetic products still continues.

In a June 2021 study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, researchers at the University of Notre Dame in the United States tested more than 230 commonly used cosmetics.

They found that 56% of foundations and eye products, 48% of lip products and 47% of mascaras contained high levels of fluorine – an indicator of prefluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

PFAS are toxic chemicals that are widely used in industrial products such as firefighting foam, rugs and cookware.

They are added to cosmetics to increase their durability, skin absorption and water resistance.

These chemicals never break down, and once applied, will continue to persist in the human body – hence, they are known as “forever chemicals”.

Similar to PFAS, researchers have identified many other toxic and carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemical ingredients in cosmetics, which may accumulate in the body and lead to various health concerns.

If you were to look at your vanity case right now, chances are that you might find some of the hazardous chemicals listed in the graphic below.

The chemicals in cosmetic products can enter the our body through three main routes:

  • Absorption – products that we apply on our skin and eyes can penetrate deeper into our skin and enter our bloodstream.
  • Inhalation – products like powders and blusher, which are made up of fine particles, can be inhaled into our lungs through our nose and mouth.
  • Ingestion – lip products in particular can enter the body through our mouth.

Synthetic chemicals such as polyacrylamide also pose harmful effects to animals and plants.

The degraded polyacrylamide may result in significant environmental harm.

Meanwhile, the extraction of lead for the manufacturing of conventional cosmetic products requires mining that produces large amounts of waste and has negative impacts on the surrounding environment.

Natural ingredients

With increasing awareness of the health risks posed by these toxicants, we are seeing a shift in the cosmetic industry towards using plant extracts and other natural ingredients to produce natural and organic cosmetics.

These ingredients help in protecting and nourishing our skin in a natural manner.

Recent studies have shown that consumers in Malaysia have a positive perception towards natural cosmetic products, compared with conventional cosmetic products.

The ingredients in natural cosmetic products are beneficial, free of irritants, and essentially avoid the adverse effects caused by synthetic chemicals.

The use of a diverse range of natural and organic materials contributes to biodiversity preservation and sustainable sourcing.

Furthermore, the quality of natural cosmetic products gives them an edge over conventional cosmetics.

However, the availability of natural cosmetic products in the current market needs to be improved through more competitive pricing.


Malaysia’s PREMIER University
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