Cosmetics and Cancer Risk

Ingredients used in consumer products, including cosmetics, have garnered increased attention due to concerns about their potential effects on human health and the environment. With the proliferation of information on the internet about the chemicals in these products, the American Cancer Society aims to inform and educate the public about the possible health effects of cosmetics.

What are cosmetics?

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cosmetics are products intended for beautifying, cleansing, promoting attractiveness, or altering appearance. Examples include skin moisturizers, perfumes, lipsticks, nail polishes, makeup, shampoos, hair colors, toothpastes, and deodorants. However, products used solely as soaps are not considered cosmetics.

It’s important to note that cosmetics differ from drugs, which are intended for the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of diseases or to affect the structure or function of the body.

Do cosmetics cause health problems?

Cosmetics encompass a wide range of products, and some individuals may experience health problems such as skin or eye irritation and allergic reactions. However, these issues are usually short-term and resolve once the product is discontinued.

In terms of more subtle or long-term health problems, the evidence is not entirely clear. Many cosmetics and their ingredients have not undergone extensive testing. Even when certain ingredients have been tested, the results may not be straightforward. While some ingredients have shown toxicity in large amounts, the concentrations used in cosmetics are typically much lower. Additionally, the way an ingredient is used in a cosmetic may differ from its use in tests. Furthermore, there is limited information on the extent of ingredient absorption into the body during product use, making it difficult to assess their potential health effects.

It’s worth mentioning that most cosmetics, with the exception of hair dyes, have not been extensively studied for their long-term effects on cancer risk. Although there are no long-term studies, it’s important to note that the health effects of prolonged exposure to many cosmetic ingredients remain largely unknown. Thus, it is difficult to definitively claim that these products do not pose health risks to certain individuals.

How can products be tested for safety?

Cosmetic ingredients are routinely tested for short-term health effects such as skin and eye irritation and allergic reactions. However, the actual cosmetic products themselves are often not tested comprehensively for short-term health effects. Consequently, it may be unclear whether the combined ingredients in a cosmetic product may cause problems that were not observed during individual ingredient studies.

Assessing the long-term health impacts of cosmetic ingredients or products is challenging. Testing cosmetics for potential long-term health problems like cancer is difficult because the development of cancer often takes many years after exposure to a substance. Furthermore, it is not practical to test every combination and dose of ingredients used in cosmetic products, especially considering that ingredients and formulations frequently change over time.

Therefore, scientists employ other types of tests, often using higher doses and different routes of exposure than typical cosmetic use, to assess the potential carcinogenicity of chemicals. Laboratory studies involving cell cultures and animals are valuable for obtaining data on potential carcinogens; however, it’s important to recognize that not all substances that cause cancer in animals will necessarily cause cancer in humans.

Epidemiologic studies, which analyze human populations to identify potential links to cancer, also contribute valuable information. However, they have limitations, as humans are exposed to various substances simultaneously and it can be challenging to isolate specific exposures that definitively cause cancer.

In summary, a combination of laboratory and epidemiologic studies assists scientists in evaluating the potential cancer-causing abilities of substances. Nonetheless, definitive conclusions may be difficult to reach due to limited information. Regulatory agencies classify exposures as known human carcinogens, probable carcinogens, or possible carcinogens based on available evidence. It’s worth noting that most chemicals fall into the “possible carcinogen” category, where potential cancer risk exists but evidence in humans is either limited or nonexistent.

How are cosmetics regulated?

Both cosmetics and drugs in the United States are regulated by the FDA. While drugs require demonstrated safety and efficacy prior to market approval, cosmetics do not undergo such requirements. Although the FDA mandates that cosmetics be safe, it lacks the authority to mandate pre-market testing (with the exception of certain color additives). Instead, cosmetic companies are responsible for ensuring the safety of their products and ingredients prior to marketing. Products that have not been tested must carry a label stating, “Warning – The safety of this product has not been determined.”

Cosmetics intended for retail sale must list their ingredients on the label, except for flavor, fragrance, or trade secret ingredients. However, professional-use products and free samples are exempt from this requirement.

The FDA can take action when it receives reliable information indicating that a product on the market is unsafe. While it cannot mandate recalls, it can request that companies recall products. In California, the California Safe Cosmetics Act requires companies to report cosmetics sold within the state that contain ingredients known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

Different Perspectives on Cosmetic Safety

Information about cosmetics often presents varying perspectives on potential health problems associated with their use.

Some argue that cosmetics are adequately regulated and consider them safe since no apparent problems have been identified. However, data gaps exist, particularly regarding ingredient absorption and retention in the body during normal usage. Additionally, the absence of evidence of harm does not guarantee safety.

Most scientists and regulatory agencies believe that the low doses of cosmetic ingredients, limited areas of application, and restricted absorption through the skin make serious health effects highly unlikely. However, these assumptions may not always hold true. For instance, benzophenone-3, an ingredient found in some sunscreens, can be detected in the urine of a majority of people in the United States.

Others advocate for caution when substances are linked to cancer, regardless of exposure dose or route. These individuals support the banning of such substances whenever possible. This perspective is particularly relevant to chemicals classified as “endocrine disruptors,” which mimic the hormone estrogen. The effects of lower exposures to estrogen-mimicking chemicals remain contentious, as certain naturally occurring foods, like tofu and soy milk, also contain these compounds.

The Need for More Data

The American Cancer Society takes its role as a credible provider of information on cancer-related issues seriously. It recognizes the importance of reliable information for individuals and regulatory agencies when making decisions regarding the safety of consumer products. Further research is necessary to ascertain the extent of ingredient absorption and retention in the body during normal cosmetic use, particularly among vulnerable groups such as infants, pregnant women, and the elderly. The American Cancer Society supports transparent regulatory oversight of cosmetics and advocates for continued scientific research to explore potential links between cosmetic use and cancer risk. The need for a robust FDA in ensuring the safety of food, medicines, and consumer products has never been more critical.

In the interim, individuals concerned about the potential health effects of cosmetics may wish to visit relevant websites to learn more about specific products and their ingredients. It’s important to note that products labeled as “natural,” “organic,” or “green” do not necessarily guarantee safety compared to products without these labels.

The American Cancer Society continues to endorse the use of sunscreen products as one of the measures to limit skin exposure to ultraviolet radiation. It also supports ongoing research on the safety and efficacy of these products.


Q: Are cosmetics regulated differently from drugs in the United States?

A: Cosmetics and drugs are regulated by the FDA in the United States. However, drugs require demonstrated safety and efficacy before they can be sold, whereas cosmetics do not undergo these requirements.

Q: Are cosmetics tested for safety?

A: Cosmetic ingredients are routinely tested for short-term health effects such as skin and eye irritation and allergic reactions. However, comprehensive testing of cosmetic products themselves for short-term health effects is often lacking.

Q: Can cosmetics cause cancer?

A: The long-term effects of most cosmetics on cancer risk have not been extensively studied. While there is little evidence to suggest an increased cancer risk from using cosmetics, there are no long-term studies to definitively assert that these products are entirely risk-free.


The effects of cosmetics on human health remain an ongoing subject of study and debate. While cosmetics can sometimes cause short-term health issues, determining their long-term impacts is challenging due to limited testing and data. The American Cancer Society emphasizes the importance of continued research, transparent regulation, and access to reliable information to address concerns about cosmetic safety. Individuals should stay informed and make informed choices regarding their use of cosmetics, keeping in mind that the evidence on their long-term effects is still evolving.