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Phthalates are used as plasticisers and solvents, and can be found in fragrances, hair products, skin lotions, nail polish and nail hardeners. They have been found to have endocrine disruption effects, and have been linked with endometriosis and early puberty in girls, and reproductive organ abnormalities and reduced fertility in males. They can also act on the thyroid, and have been linked with obesity.
In light of these concerns, several phthalates have been banned for use in cosmetics in Australia: dibutylphthalate, diethylhexylphthalate, diisobutylphthalate and di (methyloxyhexyl) phthalate.
Parabens are preservatives used in many cosmetic and personal care products, with methyl paraben being the most commonly used. In lab testing on animals and tissue culture, parabens have been found to have endocrine disruption effects.
Titanium dioxide or zinc oxide found in some mineral make-up and sunscreen products may contain particles in the nano range, which have been linked with cellular damage – including damage to DNA – in lab studies.
Formaldehyde and formaldehyde donors
Formaldehyde is a preservative that can irritate skin, eyes, nose and the respiratory tract, and can cause cancer among those with high levels of exposure. Small amounts are permitted for use in cosmetics, and it's mainly found in hair straighteners and nail polish/hardeners..
Hair colour restorers may contain lead acetate. Once a common ingredient in products such as Grecian Formula, lead acetate was banned in Europe and Canada and many products have been reformulated with safer but less effective bismuth citrate and silver-based salts.
Coal tar is a known carcinogen used in psoriasis and dandruff treatments, and some colouring dyes are also derived from coal tar. Some colourings have been banned in certain cosmetic products in various countries, and have also been banned in soaps and shampoos in Europe and some Asian countries. Shampoos and soaps containing coal tar in Australia are required to carry warning labels and are not recommend for prolonged use.
Triclosan is a preservative and antibacterial agent found in personal care products such as antiperspirant, soap, hand wash and toothpaste. Tests on mammals and other animals have shown endocrine disruptor effects. There are also concerns that it may contribute to antibiotic resistance.
Resorcinol is used as an antiseptic and disinfectant found in topical treatments for acne, seborrhoeic dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, corns and warts. It's also found in hair dyes. It can irritate skin, and has been linked with thyroid dysfunction when used in large quantities on broken skin over a long period of time.
Found in some nail polishes, toluene has been linked with short-term neurological effects such as dizziness, euphoria, hallucinations and headaches – it's what gives a "high" from glue and petrol sniffing. There are also concerns that high concentrations may affect a developing foetus in pregnancy. However, the typical levels of exposure aren't considered dangerous, although manicurists working in poorly ventilated salons may be susceptible to higher levels of exposure.