Cosmetics and personal hygiene products | Breast Cancer UK

Cosmetics and personal hygiene products

What harmful chemicals might my cosmetics and personal care products contain?

The European Union undoubtedly has some of the best chemicals regulations in the world.  Cosmetics and personal care products (from herein referred to as “cosmetics”) sold in the UK must comply with these regulations. Despite this, they can still contain chemicals which are known or suspected to cause adverse health effects, with potential links to breast cancer (1).

Cosmetics contain a range of chemicals for specific functions. They include UV filters; colourants; hardeners; preservatives (to prevent the growth of microorganisms); fragrances (parfumes); antioxidants to help prevent skin damage and to improve product stability; emollients/moisturisers to soften skin by reducing evaporation;  surfactants used as foaming agents; and emulsifiers (which help water-soluble and oil-soluble ingredients mix). Ingredients can be synthetic or naturally occurring chemicals.

Why should we be concerned?

One reason why we should be concerned is the sheer number and combination of chemicals we are exposing ourselves to on a daily basis.  One US survey (2) found on average, American women use 12 personal care products and/or cosmetics a day. The total products they used contained 168 different chemical ingredients.  Cosmetic products are used on the body from birth (e.g. nappy rash creams) onwards, by men and women, teenagers and young children. A survey recently conducted in France (3) found an even greater use of cosmetics products than in the U.S., with on average 18 cosmetics being used daily by adult pregnant women, 16 by adult non-pregnant women, 8 by adult men, 7 by girls, 5 by boys and 6 for babies under 3 years. 

Of the numerous products used on a daily basis a large number are likely to contain chemicals that are known or suspected of being endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).   These chemicals are absorbed through the skin (4), through inhalation, and indirectly via their environment (e.g compounds (or their metabolites) excreted in urine, or those directly disposed of into the sewage system or to landfill, may enter the aquatic environment via discharged wastewater or landfill run-off (5).Consequently, exposures to cosmetics ingredients can occur through ingestion of contaminated food and water as well as from inhalation and skin absorption).

EDCs that are commonly used in cosmetics have been identified in human body fluids including urine (e.g phthalates (6), triclosan and parabens (7)), breast milk (e.g. UV filters, parabens and phthalates (8)) and blood (e.g. phthalates (9)). Ingredients that bio-accumulate (build up in fatty tissues) have also been identified in human tissues, including breast tissue (e.g. aluminium 10) and parabens (11)).

A number of cosmetics ingredients have been banned over the years because of concerns about their toxicity.   For example, some fragrance ingredients, including several synthetic nitro musks (used as alternatives to animal-derived musks), have been banned by the EU (12,13), due to their toxicity, their tendency to bioaccumulate and their environmental impact. More recently, several phthalates used as fragrances, including bis-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, dibutyl phthalate and benzyl butyl phthalate, were banned for use in cosmetics and children’s toys (14), following their classification as reproductive toxicants (15).  However, a number of other chemical ingredients with links to breast cancer and other adverse health effects continue to be used in cosmetics and personal care products.  Examples include short chain parabens (16) (used as preservatives) and phthalates (17) (used as fragrances).

How are they linked to breast cancer?

Some ingredients used in cosmetics may increase breast cancer risk. Of particular concern are those EDCs that mimic oestrogens.  Oestrogens stimulate breast cell growth and proliferation. They can also contribute to the proliferation of damaged cells and along with their metabolites (metabolic break-down products), increase the likelihood of mutations which may lead to breast cancer (18).

Certain chemicals found in cosmetics interfere with oestrogen levels in the body and may lead to changes in breast tissue, (similar to those caused by oestrogens), which have been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer (19). Some chemical combinations may be particularly harmful (20). Products as a whole, (ie  the entire combination of chemicals, not just individual ingredients), have also been shown to act as oestrogen mimics (21). 

Studies also show that hair and beauty salon workers who are exposed to numerous cosmetics on a daily basis may also be more likely to suffer from a range of health problems including an increased incidence of dermatitis, asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, lupus, cancers, including breast cancer, miscarriage and birth defects in their children.(22)

In the UK, hairdressers were found to experience higher levels of musculoskeletal problems and coughs (23), and mothers’ occupational exposure to hairspray increased the incidence of hypospadia (penis abnormalities) in sons, by 2.4 fold (24). A review (25) found hair and nail salon workers in Europe (including the UK) are at an increased risk of certain cancers, including a slightly elevated risk of breast cancer, although not all studies show a link between salon work and breast cancer risk.

Breast Cancer UK position

  • The regulation of chemicals to be strengthened and improved, based on the precautionary principle, to protect public health; 
  • The exposure to hazardous chemicals, including EDCs, to be recognised as preventable risk factors for breast cancer;
  • Revision of the EU cosmetics regulation to restrict EDCs from use in products, similar to carcinogens and reproductive toxicants;
  • An extension of EU Article 60 (26) of the REACH Regulation, to ensure EDCs are, by default, classed as Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC), for which no safe thresholds can be determined (88);
  • Use of UV filters be restricted to sunscreens and not permitted for use as a preservative in everyday cosmetics products, such as skin lotion; and
  • Cosmetics and personal care products no longer be exempt from the EU Regulation on Classification, Labelling and Packaging (89) and so will display hazard warnings.

For more information and a full list of references download our Background briefing on Cosmetics and Personal Hygiene Products.

Reduce your Risk :  Find out more about what chemicals to look out for and what to avoid


  1. Konduracka, E. et al. (2014). Relationship between everyday use cosmetics and female breast cancer. Polish Archives of Internal Medicine 124 (5): 264-269.
  2. EWG (2015). Why This Matters - Cosmetics and Your Health. Washington, DC: Environmental Working Group (2015).  [Accessed June 2, 2015]
  3. Ficheux, A. S. et al. (2015). Consumption of cosmetic products by the French population. First part: Frequency data. Food and Chemical Toxicology 78: 159-169.
  4. Bos, J. D. and Meinardi, M. M. (2000). The 500 Dalton rule for the skin penetration of chemical compounds and drugs. Experimental Dermatology 9: 165-169.
  5. Grassi, M. et al. (2011). Endocrine disruptors compounds, pharmaceuticals and personal care products in urban wastewater: implications for agricultural reuse and their removal by adsorption process. Environmental Science and Pollution Research International 20(6): 3616-3628.
  6. Hartmann, C. et al. (2015). Human biomonitoring of phthalate exposure in Austrian children and adults and cumulative risk assessment. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health 218(5): 489-99.
  7. Larsson, K. et al. (2014) Exposure determinants of phthalates, parabens, bisphenol A and triclosan in Swedish mothers and their children. Environment International 73: 323-33.
  8. Schlumpf, M. et al. (2010). Exposure patterns of UV filters, fragrances, parabens, phthalates, organochlor pesticides, PBDEs, and PCBs in human milk: Correlation of UV filters with use of cosmetics. Chemosphere 81: 1171-1183.
  9. Chen, J. A. et al. (2008) Analysis of di-n-butyl phthalate and other organic pollutants in Chongqing women undergoing parturition. Environmental Pollution 156: 849–853.
  10. Exley, C. et al. (2007). Aluminium in human breast tissue. Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry 101: 1344-1346.
  11. Barr, L. et al. (2012). Measurement of paraben concentrations in human breast tissue at serial locations across the breast from axilla to sternum. Journal of Applied Toxicology 32(3): 219-232.
  12. European Parliament (1976). Council Directive of 27 July 1976 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to cosmetic products (76/768/EEC).  [Accessed June 15, 2015].
  13. European Parliament (2011). Commission regulation (EU) No. 143/2011 of 17 February 2011 amending Annex XIV to regulation (EC) No 1907/2006 of the European parliament and of the Council on the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals (‘REACH’).  [Accessed June 15, 2015]
  14. ECHA (2015). Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC) Opinion on an Annex XV dossier proposing restrictions on four phthalates. ECHA/RAC/RES-O-0000001412-86-07/F. Adopted 15 June, 2012.
  15. SSCP (2007). EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Products SCCP: Opinion on phthalates in cosmetic products. 21 March 2007.   [Accessed June 9, 2015]
  16. Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel (CIR) (2008). Final amended report on the safety assessment of methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, and benzylparaben as used in cosmetic products. International Journal of Toxicology 27 (4): 1–82.
  17. Janjua, N. R. et al. (2007). Systemic uptake of diethyl phthalate, dibutyl phthalate, and butyl paraben following whole-body topical application and reproductive and thyroid hormone levels in humans. Environmental Science and Technology 41(15): 5564-5570.
  18.  Santen, R. J. et al.  (2015). Estrogen metabolites and breast cancer. Steroids 99: 61-66.
  19. Darbre, P. D. and Charles, A. K. (2010). Environmental Oestrogens and Breast Cancer: Evidence for Combined Involvement of Dietary, Household and Cosmetic Xenoestrogens. Anticancer Research 30: 815-828.
  20. Kortenkamp, A. (2006). Breast cancer, oestrogens and environmental pollutants: a re-evaluation from a mixture perspective. International Journal of Andrology 29(1): 193-198.
  21. Myers, S. L. et al. (2015). Estrogenic and anti-estrogenic activity of off-the-shelf hair and skin care products. Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology 25(3): 271-277.
  22. Scranton, A. (2014). Beauty and its Beast. Unmasking the Impacts of toxic chemicals on salon workers. Women’s voices for Earth, November, 2014.  [Accessed June 17, 2015]
  23. Bradshaw, L. et al. (2011) Self-reported work-related symptoms in hairdressers. Occupational Medicine 61: 328-334.
  24. Ormond, G. et al. (2009). Endocrine Disruptors in the Workplace, Hair Spray, Folate Supplementation, and Risk of Hypospadias: Case-control Study. Environmental Health Perspectives 117(2): 303-307. h
  25. Takkouche, B. et al. (2009). Risk of Cancer Among Hairdressers and Related Workers: A Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Epidemiology 38: 1512-1531.
  26. REACH Online, Authorisations: Chapter 2 Article 60 Granting of authorizations.  [Accessed June 16, 2015]

Page last updateJuly 1, 2015

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