12 cosmetic ingredients legal in the US but banned elsewhere

Many of the most commonly used personal-care products in the US contain ingredients that are banned elsewhere.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health

Women are exposed to an average of 168 ingredients per day in their personal care products, while men encounter about 85, says the Environmental Working Group, a leading American environmental health research and advocacy organization. You might expect all those ingredients to be safe. But are they? Hundreds of ingredients are legal in the U.S. but banned elsewhere.

“The European Union, they certainly do a lot of testing,” says Tony Vargas, who spent 30 years as a cosmetic chemist for Elizabeth Arden and other major brands before launching Tilth, his own line of cosmetics. "If they think there’s something wrong with an ingredient, there’s got to be something there. The EU is probably the top, and a lot of other countries watch what they’re doing.”

Many studies bear contradictory results. But these are some ingredients to consider carefully when purchasing personal care products.

-- By Teresa Bergen for MSN Healthy Living

1 of 14 Banned cosmetic ingredients (Peter Dressel/Getty Images)


Parabens are an extremely common preservative in lotions, shampoos and all kinds of cosmetics. Denmark first banned them in products made for young children in 2010, and the rest of the EU announced it was following suit in 2012. Parabens are absorbed into the bloodstream and can lead to hormonal disruption. They’ve also been linked to breast cancer.

Dr. Michele Brown, a Connecticut OB/GYN and founder of the Beauté de Maman cosmetic line, worries about the estrogenic activity of parabens commonly found in maternity products. Parabens prevent the breakdown of estrogen, she says. “The placenta makes a lot of estrogen. Here, you’re applying products that also have estrogen in them.” Brown is especially troubled by the lack of knowledge regarding how parabens and other chemicals affect the developing fetus. “There’s no aisle in the pharmacy where pregnant women can go and say, ‘Aha, this is safe and effective for both myself and my child.’”

2 of 14 Parabens (4FR/Getty Images)


A solvent used in both perfumes and pesticides — and countless other products —  phthalates have been linked to disorders in male reproductive systems. Phthalate exposure may also correlate to an increased risk of breast cancer, childhood obesity and premature births. Several types of phthalates have been banned in children’s toys in the U.S. since 2008, but they’re still a common cosmetic ingredient. Even more troubling, phthalates are often lumped together with other mystery chemicals under “fragrance” on the ingredient label. “It’s just a material you don’t want to have in there,” says Vargas.

3 of 14 Phthalates (Rolf Bruderer/Getty Images)


Formaldehyde is sometimes used as a preservative in cosmetics. An additional formaldehyde threat comes from other chemicals, known as formaldehyde donors, which release formaldehyde into products. Either way, it’s a big problem in the U.S., according to Dr. Debra Jaliman, American Academy of Dermatology spokeswoman and author of "Skin Rules." “Formaldehyde causes a lot of allergic reactions,” she says. Canada bans its use in personal care products.

In addition to lurking in nail polish, hair straighteners and other products, formaldehyde can hide in unexpected places. “We had to be very careful, because sometimes we’d buy raw materials that were preserved with those materials,” says Vargas, who was VP of global research and development at Elizabeth Arden. “You’ve got to check everything.”

4 of 14 Formaldehyde (Laurence Dutton/Getty Images)

Petroleum distillates

Oil refineries pump out heating oil, automobile fuel, chemical feed and … mascara ingredients? Petroleum distillates, used as inexpensive emollients, are banned in the EU. In the U.S., you’ll find them in eye shadow, lotions, creams, hairspray, foundation makeup and wart remover. Petroleum distillates may cause contact dermatitis or be contaminated with carcinogenic impurities.

5 of 14 Petroleum distillates (Lambada/Getty Images)


Many clients at New York’s Spatique Medical Spa specifically ask for treatments that don’t contain hydroquinone, says Spatique founder and dermatologist Dr. Marina Peredo. “In our derm world, I think that’s the biggest controversy,” she says of the chemical. Hydroquinone effectively lightens skin, but has been linked to lung irritation and tumors in mice. Unfortunately, products made with natural ingredients aren’t as effective for treating melasma and hyperpigmentation, Peredo says, adding that severely uneven skin tone is a devastating condition for a lot of women. Canada and some Asian and African countries ban hydroquinone.

6 of 14 Hydroquinone (Quatre Saisons/Getty Images)


Like many cosmetic ingredients, octinoxate is controversial. Some studies claim it’s perfectly safe; others warn that octinoxate is an endocrine disruptor that can mess up your thyroid and interfere with brain signals. This popular ingredient works as a chemical sunscreen. That is, it acts as a filter to limit the amount of radiation that reaches your skin. Octinoxate is also used in some foundations. Peredo recommends that people who want to avoid this ingredient use sunscreens featuring zinc or titanium as active ingredients.

7 of 14 Octinoxate (PhotoAlto/Sandro Di Carlo Darsa/Getty Images)

Methyl cellosolve

A solvent used in anti-aging creams, moisturizers and serums, methyl cellosolve has been banned in Canada, restricted in the EU and reviled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the Environmental Working Group, this chemical is a neurotoxin and irritant that may cause DNA mutations. It’s another ingredient that sometimes gets lumped into “fragrance” when listed on labels.

8 of 14 Methyl cellosolve (Moodboard/Getty Images)

Butylated hydroxyanisole

Butylated hydroxyanisole, commonly known as BHA, is used to extend shelf life in lipsticks, moisturizers, shaving creams, fragrance and other personal care products. The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists BHA as a possible human carcinogen. The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption cites it as a priority substance for interfering with hormone function. It also adversely affects the environment, as it bioaccumulates in aquatic species. The EU prohibits the use of BHA in fragrances, and California requires a warning label on products containing BHA.

9 of 14 Butylated hydroxyanisole (Rubberball/Getty Images)


Another preservative, quaternium-15, is a formaldehyde donor used in body wash, cosmetic powders, shampoo, conditioner and eye shadow. While many cosmetic chemists insist quaternium-15 is safe, environmental health groups have listed it as a carcinogen. But there’s no doubt it frequently irritates users’ eyes and skin. “It’s a very common allergen,” says Peredo. “When we patch test people to allergies, a lot of times quaternium-15 comes up.”

Johnson & Johnson made headlines when activists questioned why they were selling two different formulations of their baby shampoo. The shampoo included quaternium-15 for the U.S., Canada, China, Australia and Indonesia markets, but the ingredient was excluded from formulations sold in some other countries.

10 of 14 Quaternium-15 (Adrianna Williams/Getty Images)