The Most Harmful Cosmetics On The Market

8. August 2017

Compared to medications, specifications about cosmetic substances in hair and skin care products are vague. Complaints about disturbing side effects are rapidly increasing, US dermatologists indicate. Despite known risks, these products often remain on the market.

Strong hair, a pore-deep cleansed skin or fewer wrinkles: many cosmetic products draw consumers with full-bodied promises. It’s true that US scientists have not tackled the subject of credibility of advertisements. They do however report that more and more adverse events are occurring due to their harmful components.

Number of complaints doubled


Dr. Steve Xu © Northwestern University

Dr. Steve Xu, dermatologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, has evaluated complaints from consumers about cosmetics. His analysis covered the US market. Many of the criticised products are also available in Europe.

Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recorded more than 5,000 cases between 2004 and 2016, this is probably only the tip of the iceberg, says Xu. As he found out, the number doubled from 2015 (706) to 2016 (1,591). In view of global turnover of 430 billion US dollars per year and millions of different products the expert is left unconvinced by FDA statistics.

The most frequent complaints in the database related to hair care products, skin care products and tattoos. Aromatic amines turned up in many colouration mixes. In addition, inks from which tattoos are created contained harmful dyes.


Increased number of known problems with cosmetics. Estimated do not exist. © JAMA

Despite the known risks, products often remain on the market, which is mainly due to legal quibbles. “The FDA has far fewer opportunities to withdraw cosmetics from the market than to recall medicines or medical devices, Xu crtiticises. “It is difficult to get harmful cosmetics off the supermarket shelves (…) If we were dealing with a medication, the story would be different”.

Alopecia by hair conditioner

Here is a controversial case. In 2014 FDA toxicologists sent letters to the cosmetics producer Chaz Dean, Inc, and to the direct marketing company Guthy-Renker, in response to 127 consumer reports. The matter at hand was the product “WEN by Chaz Dean Cleansing Conditioner”. It was only through their searches that representatives of the authorities learned that both companies had already received 21,000 consumer complaints. Those affected usually complained about scalp irritation and alopecia. Nevertheless the product series remained available. “Three or four people may be wrong. But it’s hard to ignore 21,000 cases”, the scientist says.

US laws give the FDA no authority to obligate cosmetics manufacturers to provide safety data. On the contrary, representatives of the authorities must prove that a particular product is harmful to health if used as intended. Further investigations are carried out at the FDA as well as before the court.

According to US media more than 200 women from 40 states have initiated a class action in order to assert liability claims against the manufacturer. Which of the ingredients may potentially be causing hair loss is from a scientific viewpoint unclear. The prosecution refers to “a corrosive substance” which destroys hair and follicles.

Critical cosmeceuticals

Dangers do arise however from many product groups. Xu warns specifically about so-called cosmeceuticals. These are cosmetic products with biologically active ingredients (pharmaceuticals). They act not only in upper layers, but pass the skin barrier.

All active substances must be well characterised in terms of their action and their toxicological properties. The delimitation from medicinal products is not always clear, despite numerous paragraphs. For instance regarding dexpanthenol: is the foremost matter here wound healing, or the skin care in itself?

This is also shown by other molecules in cosmeceuticals. Some examples from an unmanageably extensive variety:

  • Antimicrobial substances such as azelaic acid, salicylic acid, clotrimazole
  • Antioxidants such as vitamin C and vitamin E esters, or coenzyme Q10
  • Anti-inflammatory molecules, such as gamma and alpha-linolenic acids, panthenol or extracts of aloe vera
  • Itch-relieving substances such as urea or allantoin
  • Molecules that activate growth factors: retinoids, vitamins, echinacea extracts
  • Peelings based on fruit acids or salicylic acid
  • Phytohormones such as isoflavonoids
  • Molecules to activate collagen formation, such as vitamin C derivatives
  • Molecules with firming properties such as extracts of butcher’s broom, horse chestnut and horsetail

Dr. Steve Xu’s conclusion: “Although it is not explicitly examined in the published article, this cosmetic product class is becoming a growing problem in the USA”.

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Fantastic. Thank you for this article.

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