Throughout time – even before written history – cosmetic formulations have been used to promote beauty, power, and sexual allure. The ancients believed in the power of cosmetics to attract lovers, intimidate enemies, and disguise physical imperfections and the effects of aging.

“Egyptian papyri are filled with recipes for cosmetics,” write Lawrence Charles Parish, M.D., and John Thorne Crissey, M.D., in Clinics in Dermatology (July/September, 1988). They note that the Egyptians lived with an abundance of natural resources that they used for making cosmetics. The ancient Hebrews used oils of olives, almonds, and sesame seeds, and also fats from animals and fish both as emollients and as protection from the sun. Centuries later, in Athens, the use of cosmetics expanded and the number of cosmeticians proliferated so greatly that, according to Parish and Crissey, “Public outcry forced the passage of numerous laws to limit the industry.”

By the time of the Romans, cosmetics were known to sometimes cause larger problems than they solved. Although Roman women used safe, gentle walnut extracts to darken their hair, they also used toxic mercury compounds to tint their hair and lead to whiten their skin. Their pursuit was beauty – but at what cost? As the poet Juvenal mused: “This coated face which is covered with so many drugs and where unfortunate husbands press their lips, it is a face or a sore?”

So the issue then – as today – is how can we look our best without compromising our safety?

Safety, environmental awareness, and the humane treatment of animals are trademark qualities of the best natural cosmetics and personal-care products. Unfortunately, a claim of “natural” on a product is not an absolute guarantee of safety. Although most companies base their formulations on naturally-derived materials, some also use synthetic ingredients – including potentially irritating, allergenic, and carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds. And just because a product is “natural” doesn’t mean that it is completely safe. Many natural oils – sesame oil, for example – cause allergic responses in sensitive individuals. To buy the best cosmetics for your needs, you need to know yourself, both physiologically and philosophically. For example:

  • According to one estimate by the National Academy of Sciences, 15 percent of the population is chemically sensitive. Are you, like millions of others, sensitive to chemicals like formaldehyde or natural substances like lanolin and bergamot?
  • Do you worry about every new cancer risk? Or can you tolerate exposure to minute amounts of potential carcinogens?
  • Are you willing to accept some ingredients that are synthetic – even petroleum-based?

Once you know your preferences, then consider how a particular cosmetic will be applied. Will it be left on, as a lotion, or washed off, like a hair conditioner? The answer to this question affects the potential threat posed by a product. Suspected allergens or carcinogens are less likely to be a problem if they are quickly washed off the skin, whereas their potential to cause harm is greater when they’re left on.

Ultimately, problem ingredients may not be a major concern for many consumers, but they’re an unpleasant and unnecessary consequence of taking care of your appearance. The key to avoiding these risks is to find the most gentle ingredients available.

Allergens And Irritants

The most common allergens and eye and skin irritants are preservatives and fragrances.

Preservatives – Cosmetics are like many packaged foods: they require preservatives to prevent bacterial growth. Cosmetics manufacturers need to preserve a product long enough for it to be stored, marketed, sold, and used over a period of months, even years. The choice of preservatives is an especially important one because they are among the leading irritants and allergens in cosmetics.

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde “donors” (compounds that give off formaldehyde when they break down), while among the most effective preservatives, are also among the most troublesome irritants. In addition, formaldehyde is a carcinogen. The following ingredients found in natural cosmetics contain or sometimes release formaldehyde: Quaternium 15, Diazolidinyl urea, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1, 3-diol (also known as Bronopol), Imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin.

Studies have shown that the following ingredients, although they release no formaldehyde, have greater than normal potential to cause irritation and allergic reactions:

  • Methylisothiazolinone,
  • Methylcholoroisothiazolinone,
  • Parabens (butyl, ethyl, methyl, propyl).

The following preservatives cause the least irritation and fewest allergic reactions, although they may not be as effective preservatives as the above-mentioned compounds: Grapefruit seed extract,   Vitamins A and C (often called retinyl and ascorbic acid on ingredient labels,  Phenoxyethanol, Potassium sorbate, Sorbic acid, Tocopherol (vitamin E))

Fragrances – Even more than preservatives, natural and synthetic fragrances can cause irritation and allergic reactions, which range from sneezing, stinging eyes, and reddened skin to severe contact dermatitis.

Are natural fragrances any safer than synthetic? No, says Richard Ford, Ph.D., director of the Research Institute for Fragrance Material: “All available data support the conclusion that fragrances made with natural ingredients are no safer than those made from synthetic ingredients.”

Ford is wrong, according to Marie Ardita, a cosmetic chemist with Earth Science of California. She admits that several commonly-used natural ingredients are problems (like oil of bergamot or oak moss). She says that some synthetic fragrances can be composed of more than 100 ingredients, “but if you stick to one central oil or a blend of one or two, they are less likely to cause allergic reactions.”

For those concerned about fragrances, some companies offer fragrance-free lines.

Guidelines for Safe Use – All cosmetics need to be handled in a way that prevents bacterial contamination. This is particularly true for products preserved with milder ingredients and those used near the eyes. Don’t leave containers uncapped. Don’t use your fingers instead of an applicator, and don’t share cosmetics. Don’t store them near heat or leave them in the sun.

Some experts suggest that sensitive consumers perform their own patch tests to determine whether they are allergic to a product. Apply a small amount of the product to your inner arm, cover the area with a bandage, and leave it for 24 hours. The development of redness or soreness suggests that you are allergic to some ingredient in the product. If no redness develops, you can use the product with a reasonable degree of confidence that it will not cause an allergic reaction.

Cancer-Causing Chemicals

Some natural personal-care products contain potential carcinogens. Three troublesome compounds are known by the acronyms DEA, MEA, and TEA. A few other compounds, like polyethylene glycol, have caused cancer in experimental animal subjects at extremely high doses. Even some natural substances like oils of lime and orange have shown “suggestive” evidence that they can cause cancer.

The challenge is to put these risks into perspective. In most cases, as in that of orange and lime oils, the risks are minuscule, much smaller in magnitude than from ingesting cancer-causing pesticides found in the food supply. Many substances simply do not have chemical properties that would allow them to penetrate the skin, or they have proven to be weak carcinogens. I have limited the discussion to those substances that seem to pose a more serious risk.

MEA, DEA, and TEA – All too many products contain either monoethanolamine, diethanolamine, or triethanolamine, abbreviated on labels as MEA, DEA, and TEA, and sometimes bound to other compounds as in cocamide DEA or lauramide MEA. These substances are used as detergents and emulsifying agents in cosmetic products. Their presence in cosmetics – especially that of DEA – can cause a chemical reaction during formulation, or while products sit on store shelves, that leads to the formation of cancer-causing nitrosamines. More than 100 N-nitroso compounds (which bind with amino compounds to form nitrosamines) have been examined for their potential to cause cancer; about 80 percent have been proven to be carcinogenic.

One such cancer-causing N-nitroso compound found in cosmetics, with the tongue-twisting name N-nitrosodiethanolamine (NDELA), has demonstrated the ability to penetrate human skin. One natural cosmetic product recently analyzed by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was found to contain NDELA at a concentration of 1,200 parts per billion. “That’s a lot,” says Stan Milstein, associate director of the division of cosmetics for the FDA.

Measures to prevent the formation of NDELA are being taken by some manufacturers. The cosmetic industry now has a form of TEA with about one percent contamination by DEA, the most likely of the ethanolamines to cause formation of nitrosamines. However, this form of TEA is expensive. “Maybe it could be argued that many companies use the purest TEA available,” Milstein says, “but to assume that would be optimistic.”

Before you throw out all products containing these compounds, however, consider the limits of the risk. When MEA, DEA, and TEA are included in products that will be washed off, like shampoos, there is only limited time for absorption through the skin.

Personally, I take a more stringent position on this issue. Cancer strikes one in three Americans, and the trend of cancer incidence in the U.S. continues to creep upward at a rate of about one percent annually. Each individual runs the risk of developing cancer, and every exposure to a carcinogen increases that risk. Substances that can potentially form nitrosamines are widely found in personal-care products – shaving cream, hand lotion, shampoo, hair conditioner – and some nitrosamines cause cancer in the laboratory at low concentrations. Add your exposure to carcinogens in personal-care products to the exposures you inevitably accumulate during the day – from food, the air, building materials, even natural sources like sunlight. When do many small exposures become a lot?

Fortunately, consumers have a choice. Products are available that are free from potential nitrosamine-forming ingredients or that contain ingredients that inhibit the formation of these cancer-causing chemicals.

Vitamins C (ascorbic acid) and E (tocopherol) or disodium EDTA (a preservative) and propyl gallate (an antioxidant) will help prevent the formation of nitrosamines. A balanced pH is also important, as it slows the rate of nitrosamine formation.

Making the Smart Choice – In addition to MEA, DEA, and TEA, which have been discussed, the following compounds, all found in some so-called “natural cosmetics,” can form nitrosamines or act as catalysts for their formation:

  • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1, 3 diol (preservative),
  • Cocoyl sarcosine (detergent/emulsifier),
  • Imidazolidinyl urea (preservative),
  • Formaldehyde (preservative),
  • Hydrolyzed animal protein (hair detangler),
  • Lauryl sarcosine (detergent),
  • Quaternium 7, 15, 31, 60, etc. (preservative),
  • Sodium lauryl or (laureth) sulfate (detergent).

These ingredients are so pervasive in personal-care products that it is difficult to keep all of them out of your line-up, but you might want to find products that limit your exposure to these compounds.

Colors – Synthetic colors are rarely found in natural cosmetics. Some that are used, like Blue #1, have been shown in animal experiments to be carcinogens. FDA supervisory pharmacologist Robert Bronaugh, Ph.D., says that for many synthetic colors, skin absorption is limited. Colors listed on labels that include the term lake, as in Yellow 5 Aluminum Lake, are unable to pass through the skin in significant concentrations. Still, for a product like lipstick, which is near your mouth, you may want a completely natural product.

Lanolin – Some products contain lanolin, a natural oil from sheep’s wool, which can be contaminated with small amounts of cancer-causing pesticides. These chemicals are likely to migrate through the skin into the bloodstream. Milstein says that the FDA believes that the risk of developing cancer from exposure to pesticides in lanolin appears so small that the agency has not done a risk assessment. But, he adds, “Given all the carcinogens in the environment that the consumer is bombarded with, do we need to be increasing our exposure even incrementally?”


For the guide that follows, I analyzed several hundred natural cosmetics and personal-care products, and, from those, selected the products with the fewest ingredients likely to cause eye or skin irritation or allergic reactions. After allowing for the presence of some form of preservative, which regulators, dermatologists, and formulators believe to be absolutely necessary, and occasional fragrances, which are used pervasively, I have attempted to choose products that contain no more than one potential allergen or irritant. (Occasionally, I have listed a product with two.) I have attempted to eliminate from the list of recommended products those that include any currently known carcinogens.

Despite these criteria, even brands listed here may cause problems for a few people. An ingredient that is completely safe for one person may be an allergen to another.