Combining Chemicals in Cosmetic Products May Increase Risk—Study

Cosmetic Collection

Look at the back of most skin care and cosmetic products and you’re likely to see long, convoluted chemical names that you can’t pronounce. But no worries, right? The beauty industry assures us they don’t use much of each of those ingredients. There’s just a tiny bit in each product, and they assume that such small amounts are safe for our skin and for our health.

In fact, they often say they’re using the amounts recommended by such agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has tested some (but not nearly all) of these individual ingredients for safety.

A new study suggests that all these assumptions may be wrong. Researchers from Texas Tech University found that two chemicals, even at levels low enough to be considered “safe” for humans when used alone, can cause cancer when used together.

Combination of Chemicals Twice as Dangerous

For this study, which was published in the scientific journal The Prostate, researchers treated human prostate cells in the lab once a week for six months with arsenic, estrogen, and a combination of the two. Many of the tests involved levels of arsenic, estrogen, or both at levels considered safe by the EPA.

The results showed that the combination of the two chemicals was almost twice as likely to create cancer in prostate cells. The chemicals stop certain genes from doing their job, which allowed cancer cells to proliferate. Researchers noted that their findings suggest our government agencies need to take a second look at what constitutes a “safe” dose of these and other chemicals.

“The majority of cancers are caused by environmental influences,” said Kamaleshwar Singh, assistant professor at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech. “Only about 5 to 10 percent of cancers are due to genetic predisposition. Science has looked at these chemicals, such as arsenic, and tested them in a lab to find the amounts that may cause cancer. But that’s just a single chemical in a single test. In the real world, we are getting exposed to many chemicals at once.”

Our Health is at Risk

What does this mean on the grander scale of things? Hormone disruptor chemicals like phthalates and parabens exist in our skin care and cosmetic products. These chemicals act like estrogen in the body, where they can disrupt normal functions and cause health problems.

This study indicates that combining estrogen with arsenic can increase risk of cancer. The researchers themselves stated they focused on estrogen because estrogen-like compounds are rampant in our everyday lives. These include BPA—which is found in our food containers and plastics—phthalates, parabens, pesticides, food preservatives, formaldehyde, and even some food dyes.

Meanwhile, we find arsenic in our everyday lives as well. It’s in cigarette smoke, some drinking water, and in pressure-treated lumber. Families who live near agricultural or industrial sources may be exposed, and residues from currently banned pesticides that included arsenic are still found in soils used to grow food, including rice. In 2011, the FDA even found arsenic in some chicken meat.

Does this mean that we could have this cancer-causing combination of chemicals in our bodies right now? We don’t really have studies to say, but the CDC has noted that there is widespread exposure to BPA and phthalates in the U.S. population, and has also found measurable levels of arsenic in the urine of various populations around the country.

We’re Lacking Research on Chemical Mixtures

This research highlights the gross error our manufacturers are making when they assume that they’re using “safe” levels of chemicals. The EPA tests only one chemical at a time to determine these levels, but fails to look at chemical mixtures and synergistic effects, which is a huge error, considering we are all exposed to hundreds of chemicals every day.

Watch your labels. Buy from reputable sources. Avoid potentially harmful chemicals in your products. Reduce your toxic load. It matters!

What do you think of this study? Please share your thoughts.


John Davis, “Researchers Find Cancer Risks Double When Two Carcinogens Present at ‘Safe’ Levels,” Texas Tech Today, June 28, 2013,

Treas, J., Tyagi, T. and Singh, K. P. (2013), Chronic exposure to arsenic, estrogen, and their combination causes increased growth and transformation in human prostate epithelial cells potentially by hypermethylation-mediated silencing of MLH1. Prostate. doi: 10.1002/pros.22701,

“Mix of Arsenic and Estrogen Increases Risk of Prostate Cancer,” EcoWatch, July 15, 2013,

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  • Mme Verdurin

    This is the kind of we-don’t-really-know-but-be-scared-anyway piece that makes it impossible to meaningfully change one’s purchasing decisions, unless of course you’re ready to start buying ultra-expensive “all-natural” makeup or give it up for good.

  • Grrrrrrrrr

    This entire article is speculative, and is exactly why misinformation spreads like wildfire on the internet. Unqualified people are quick to pull “facts” out of their butts, because everyone has wikipedia, facebook and some relative with cancer, and everything on the internet is true, obviously, so everyone is suddenly an expert on chemistry and anatomy. Where are the sources supporting any of the conclusions to which you are leaping based on this irrelevant study? What qualifications do you even have to be writing about this? Did you read some books written by other people who are doing the same thing that you’re doing?

    Parabens have been repeatedly proven safe, and are FAR less significant than people writing these articles would like them to be. Hey, why not talk about the fact that parabens are naturally produced by plants? And the fact that you eat them, which SHOULD be more shocking, but somehow isn’t? And oh yeah, soy–how does eating soy compare to applying minuscule amounts of parabens to the skin? Find a real study showing that parabens are dangerous, and then write about them. Oh wait, you can’t.

    None of us want to be sick because of chemicals, but that doesn’t mean that you get to just make things up.

  • All over the world hazardous industrial chemicals are used as cosmetic ingredients, many of which are carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, endocrine disruptors, plasticizers, degreasers, surfactants and these go directly onto your skin and into the environment. It has been estimated that only 20% of ingredients in cosmetics have been tested for their safety. You can get more natural antibiotic skin care option at Defensesoap DOT COM.

  • Bianca

    The European Union has the highest standards. As a matter of fact, the European Union has a list of over 1400 toxic and unsafe ingredients that are banned from cosmetics and the like. You might be surprised to know that of these 1400 banned ingredients the FDA has only banned 8! Truly disgraceful. It stands to reason then that if you’re using two or more products that individually have so called “safe” levels of toxic ingredients that when combined together you get a cumulative effect of each toxic ingredient that exceeds the “safe” level of the individual toxin. We are what we absorb, whether it’s through our mouth or our skin. And while we don’t have direct control over what companies put in their products or what policy makers deem as “safe” levels, we do have absolute control over what we choose to buy. Ignorance is not bliss, especially not when it comes to your health. I buy and use ultra-premium swiss formulated products, but I don’t pay an ultra-premium price. Knowledge is power and when combined with more options you can make better choices. I’m living healthier by buying smarter. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to learn more :)

  • Michele

    This is so important to keep in mind – the results of all these chemicals mixed together is still undetermined. And also… there’s a scientific journal called ‘The Prostate’?

  • John

    Yeah…..uh huh….someone is just bored and decided to write something completely made up for the heck of it. Yeah, uh huh, right….sure……….. You know, you should research MCS and it’s devastating implications on the brain and nervous system. When MCS are exposed to “innocuous” everyday chemicals, they have severe brain and nervous system reactions. And yes, this could be just from some little ole “insignificant” chemical in their shampoo or makeup. I think it is you who should research and show proof for your view. You have NONE! Case closed.