Are Your Cosmetics Hazardous to Your Health?

I recently bought the Coppertone SPF 50 Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion from a local Target out of the whim. It is not one specifically for the face, but I use it for my body, neck and face - and I love it. It is oil-free, waterproof and long lasting. It does not feel dry or greasy and most importantly, does not break me out. The sunscreen costs only a few dollars, but to me is worth gold.

That got me thinking: Why is something "worth gold" sold for so little when there are many expensive, high-end sunscreens selling well? Surely there is something wrong with mine. I began to investigate the ingredients: The particular bottle I bought was paraben-free (though not all Coppertone sunscreens are).

I decided to dwell deeper and look up all of the ingredients on If you are unfamiliar with EWG's Skin Deep, it is a cosmetics database that lists the health risks, toxicity, and safety of many common cosmetics ingredients.

EWG's Hazard Score Key

Looking through the database, I noticed that my particular sunscreen lotion is listed with an overall rating of 4, which would make it fall under moderate hazard. (To put things in perspective, Aussie Shampoo also has a rating of 4.) The most hazard of ingredients listed is oxybenzone, which scores a 7 on the EWG hazard scale. Benzyl alcohol and triethanolamine respectively scored 6 and 5, which the rest of the ingredients scoring from 0-4.

As it seems, there is nothing especially wrong with my lotion. The most dangerous ingredient turns out to be the sunscreen itself. Accumulation of what seems like innate chemicals can lead to serious health issues - but that is a risk we take to avoid sun damage, aging and cancer.

Ingredients: Homosalate, Oxybenzone, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Avobenzone, Water, Styrene Acrylates Copolymer, Propylene Glycol, Neopentyl Glycol Diheptanoate, Bis Stearyl Ethylenediamine, Stearyl Hydrogenated Dimer Dilionleate Copolymer, Benzyl Alcohol, Acrylates/C10 30 Alkyl Acrylate, Crosspolymer, Oleth 3, Tocopherol (Natural Vitamin E), Triethanolamine, Chlorphenesin, Disodium EDTA

In the end, I am still a fan of my Coppertone SPF 50 Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion. It isn't obviously more toxic than the food I eat or lifestyle I live. Looking through the cosmetics database though, there seems to be a lot of sunscreen lotions that are less hazardous because they contain physical sunscreen such as titanium dioxide instead of chemical sunscreens. (Read about physical vs. chemical sunscreens.) I will try some of them after I am through with my Coppertone.

I hate looking up ingredients and studying their toxicity. It is troublesome and possibly unnecessary as many ingredients can't be avoided entirely. But it is scary that there are too many toxins to avoid. Most chemicals pose some threat or another - and that is only based on small studies of some ingredients. Can you imagine the dangers brewing behind the chemicals we have not had time or resources to thoroughly research?


  1. This has been a really interesting post! I'm starting to be careful about what I put in my skin and try to use natural products, but it's quite difficult for example to find a fluid make up 100% natural. I'm sure there are brands that only produces natural stuff but they are difficult to find and they don't usually publicize... Thanks for the database! I'll have a look. Kisses xxx

  2. i know right, its awful. what scares me the most is food though, it gets into your system faster and to me that feels like the body just gets attacked without warning :/ like 'fresh' orange juice by tropicana.. u cant call a juice 'fresh' if it has been sitting in a warehouse waiting for a month to be shipped.. scary.. and off point hehe

    shampoo is one of the worst things aahhh

    BreezeyBee Blog

  3. la tía maruja,
    Yes, I agree. It is really difficult to be safe, but worth it if you have to time to be a little more careful.

  4. BreezeyBee,
    I had a friend who had to rush to the ER because of a severe allergic reaction to shampoo. Scary stuff!

  5. it really irritates me when companies try and pump fear into people over ingredeints that have had sound research with what they have in them. Chemical SS are not dangerous and are certainly not toxic and like you said, the pros of guarding yourself against sun damage greatly outweighs the chances of every becoming ill from your body lotion.

    While it's such a big topic right now, natural doesn't always mean better for your skin. Just because something grows out of the ground doesn't mean that it's going to be the best option.

  6. also too, this should help clear up any confusion about the synthetic agent Avobenzone as an SPF agent.

    "Avonenzone is sometimes cited as an endocrine-disrupting agent and this has some consumers concerned about using sunscreens with avobenzone. The facts: Ironically, the endocrine-disrupting potencies of sunscreen ingredients, including avobenzone, “are several orders of magnitude lower than that of the natural estrogens” (Source: Environment International, July 2007, pages 654–669). Other human endocrine-disrupting sources have a plant origin, such as marijuana (Source: Toxicology, January 2005, pages 471–488), or are found in medicines such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) (Source: Water Research, November 2008, pages 4578–4588). In the grand scheme of things, avobenzone’s endocrine-disrupting ability is inconsequential.

    Research has also shown that avobenzone is safe for topical use and does not have a negative effect on skin cells. Some in vitro studies have indicated that there is a possibility that certain sunscreen ingredients can be absorbed into skin, and there are a handful of in vivo studies as well. However, there are still many researchers who believe that most sunscreen ingredients stay on the surface of skin (where skin cells are dead) and do not penetrate into the lower layers of skin where the real damage occurs. If that’s the case, it means the negative effects seen for surface skin in test tube studies may be irrelevant. Even when absorption has been shown, the related risk has not been demonstrated (Sources: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, August 2008, pages 570S–577S; Environmental Health Perspectives, July 2008, pages 893–897; Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, May 2008, pages S155–S159; Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, April 2008, pages 456–461; and Skin Pharmacology and Applied Physiology, July-August 2005, pages 170–174)."

  7. David,
    Thanks for taking the time to provide such relevant information! While it's true that many chemicals we try to avoid are actually less dangerous than - say, a cheeseburger, I think it's good to take caution in products we use daily.

    Most studies only follow short term effects while long term effects are not noted or poorly understood. This poses a huge and unforeseen risk. I like to play safe whenever it is convenient and affordable to do so.

    The problem is that a lot of misinformation is thrown around by natural companies trying to market their product. The most important thing I would like to point out is that most studies are bias one way or another. Unless something is blatantly poisonous, there will be no clear truth. No one has the time or resources to deeply study the risk of random chemicals. (Even if they did, we still have technological limitations.) Most studies are made for a purpose and for a profit. Scientists can only do research when they have a budget - and money trickles from the big business guy trying to sell us something. If ten studies say something is safe and one says it isn't, I would most likely believe the ten studies, but also take note of that single study. That isn't to say companies are lying when they say something is "completely safe," but perhaps they missed something.

    You are right when you say that natural is not always better. Everything synthetic, after all, derives at some point from something natural. The reason that natural is so preferred, I believe, is that most natural ingredients have been around and used longer and the dangers of such things are usually better understood.

    Even though science has come so far, we still know too little.

  8. Great post Katherine and good reminder for us to check our product ingredients. Most ingredients at the small doses in the formulations in our skincare products are harmless. It only becomes a problem for those who have reactions to the said ingredients.

    There is another camp that says small quantities are harmless but over time, it may accumulate in the body and cause health issues. There is no concrete evidence yet as no such long term studies have been conclusively performed. I guess we just have to watch out with everything we use and opt for more natural alternatives if there is that option.

  9. lilpil,
    I try to switch my products up a bit. It might help avoid accumulation, but it definitely is proven to make products more effective whether it be shampoos, skincare products, etc. In the end, switching up a little is probably a good idea.

  10. Entire post should have a [citation needed] attribution. Don't pretend you know science when you clearly don't.

  11. Anonymous,

    This is not Wikipedia - which is where the [citation needed] attribution comes from. Anyway, if you have read the post at all, you will know that it is about my exploration of my own cosmetics safety: particularly my sunscreen. I briefly discussed commonly avoided ingredients - and more importantly, introduced EWG to readers who might be interested in their database.

    I am no science expert, but I do work in a chemical lab and am gaining a Chemistry degree as well as ACS certification. All of that is irrelevant to this discussion of course, because this is not a science paper. I do not discuss the harms of the ingredients on a molecular level or dissect the mechanisms of the chemicals.

    Please try to read before you comment - although I appreciate the courtesy of you leaving a comment even when you do not have the time to read.

    I am also looking for guest writers if you would like to contribute with a more scientific point of view. Feel free to send me an email.