What you may have heard
Cosmetics and their ingredients are frequently discussed in the media as being associated with cancer.
What science tells us
The FDA defines cosmetics as “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced to, or otherwise applied to the human body… for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance” (FDA). This includes a wide range of products from moisturizers to soaps and nail polish.
Some ingredients in cosmetics have been identified as toxic (for example, certain hair dyes). The ingredients in cosmetics are routinely tested for short-term health problems, such as skin and eye irritation and allergic reactions. The FDA mandates that cosmetics be safe for consumers, but it does not have the authority to require companies to test cosmetic products before they are put on the market (FDA). Short-term effects often become clear once a product reaches the market, and the FDA can request that the company recall the product.
However, cosmetics are seldom tested for long-term health effects. As a result, it is sometimes unknown if the individual ingredients cause health problems alone or when combined in cosmetic products. It can take many years or even decades after exposure to a carcinogen for cancer to develop (FDA). It is not always feasible for researchers to conduct studies that extend this long on particular products, and even then, scientists don’t usually test each combination and dose of cosmetic products to establish a causal link to cancer. Ingredients and combinations also change frequently.
It is still unclear whether the ingredients in cosmetics increase cancer risk because most ingredients and combinations of ingredients in cosmetics have not been thoroughly tested in well-designed epidemiological studies. In part, the inability to accurately assess or measure what cosmetic products were used limits this area of research.
Laboratory Evidence/Supporting Evidence
Many (but not all) cosmetic ingredients have been tested in animals for short-term health consequences. Additional research is also needed to determine the effects of certain ingredients on cancer risk.
IARC Carcinogen Classification: Not classified
How to reduce your risk
There are many gaps in research, including how ingredients in cosmetics can be absorbed and built up in the body. The FDA requires that products that have not been tested carry the label, “Warning—The safety of this product has not yet been determined” (FDA). If you would like to reduce your potential risk, keep an eye out for these warnings. You may choose to avoid products with certain ingredients, reduce the number of cosmetics you use, or avoid cosmetic use altogether. There are a number of websites that can help inform your cosmetic choices. For example, some websites list either cosmetics that are known to contain harmful ingredients (such as the California Safe Cosmetics Program) or cosmetics with safe ingredients (such as Skin Deep and Clearya). The smartphone app Detox Me includes many tips to help you choose safer products.
Research has shown that certain hair dyes are linked with cancer, and other cosmetic products may contain carcinogenic chemicals. Uncertainties remain because of lack of testing for carcinogenicity by companies and regulatory agencies, and lack of information about products’ chemical (for example endocrine disruption) effects that may be related to cancer. All cosmetic products should only be used as designated on the label.
Learn More From These Trusted Sources
American Cancer Society (ACS): Cosmetics
Food & Drug Administration (FDA): Cosmetics
California Safe Cosmetics Program: List of all cosmetic products sold in California that contain any ingredients known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm.
Skin Deep: A website created by the Environmental Working Group (an environmental and public health advocacy group) that allows consumers to look up products of interest.
Published: June 24, 2021
Verified/updated: August 22, 2022