Toxic Beauty: what's lurking in your cosmetics – Kavanaskincare

Toxic Beauty: what's lurking in your cosmetics


Are the lists of ingredients on the back of personal care products and cosmetics a total mystery to you? Does the questionable safety of said mysterious and potentially toxic ingredients, worry you? Is women's health important to you?

If you answered yes to any or all of these questions you’re not alone. In the last 15 years or so, a growing movement led by women, has led the way in bringing attention to this topic, demanding and creating change in meaningful ways. 

Along with notable female journalists, authors, filmmakers and scientists who advocate for safer personal care products and stricter cosmetics regulations, women owned business owners - aka 'wiznesses',  have done their part to raise awareness around the issue and advocate for change by creating safer, healthier products for women.

Canadian documentary Toxic beauty Poster ad

Award winning Canadian documentary, 'Toxic Beauty' poster.

When it comes to wiznesses with a conscience, Gregg Renfrew, the founder of Beauty Counter, is a standout amongst the goop. Her company's central mission is to advocate for an increase the amount of toxic ingredients on the American list of ingredients that are not allowed in cosmetics, while creating safer products.

Prestige brands and shops have finally caught on too, however belatedly. Following suite with somewhat safer offerings, prestige brands and leading retailers are slowly ditching toxic ingredients in their formulations and in their stores, because it's become profitable. Sadly, the tide turns slowly and these profits are accompanied by a ton of greenwashing and pinkwashing by said brands and retailers.  


Greenwashing, is the practice of making false claims and misleading consumers via marketing, that claims the product/ service is 'green' (ie: non-toxic, sustainable and eco-friendly), when it still contains toxic chemicals that can be carcinogenic, endocrine disrupting or cause reproductive harm. While a little, round green "Clean and Planet Positive" badge may accompany some of the products listed on Sephora's website for example, which is an indication that the company is considerate of the environment. Further searches for what Sephora means by this badge, yield a 404 response: This page could not be found! Even if it did exist, the regulatory criteria for this categorization, are set by Sephora, not exactly an impartial third party!


Pinkwashing, like greenwashing but a different colour! is also a misleading marketing tactic, promoting a product or brand to raise money for breast cancer research via a pink ribbon campaign, while still including ingredients in the products that likely contribute to the disease.

Spreading the good word and the good cream to fight green and pinkwashing, is a guiding intention at Kavana. Helping women make informed decisions for themselves, about their personal care and health, is a guiding directive at Kavana.

One of the main motivations for the Kavana blog, the  'Toxic Tuesday' posts on the Kavana Instagram and my 7 part interview about toxins in skincare on french radio (Radio Canada) this past summer, is for women to understand and feel empowered about the decisions they make on a daily basis- informed consent- with regards to the products they buy and apply. It is a continuation of my 20 years of work as one of Canada's first eco-beauty professional makeup artists.

Why are toxins in beauty products so worrisome for women?

The average North American woman uses around 12 products (source) before leaving the house every day, a pre-pandemic statistic. These include everything from hair care products to skincare, fragrance, nail polishes and makeup to name but a few, each with a cocktail of up to 130 ingredients listed on each label. These cocktails have not likely, or necessarily been tested alone or in concert for long-term safety, simply because governmental regulatory bodies do not currently require this. (source)

The responsibility for long-term, safety testing of beauty products, is placed squarely on companies and this is problematic for a few reasons.


The first reason placing the responsibility on brands to safety test their products is problematic, is because consensus of what is toxic, varies by country and government; strict and consistent testing is still not enforced or regulated in a universal way. What is outlawed in cosmetics in Japan, is likely legal in cosmetics in the United States.

In the United States, where the world’s biggest cosmetic producers are based (source), only 11 ingredients are banned (source). Comparatively, Canada’s governing body ‘Health Canada’ bans 500 ingredients (source) and keeps a ‘hot list’ of others that are under surveillance for potential toxicity. Meanwhile, in the European Union (EU) and Japan, more than 1300 ingredients are banned from being used in cosmetic and toiletries (source), more than double the amount Canadians are subjected to.

The second reason the onus placed on the companies to regulate themselves is problematic is simply because companies are not voted in to care for public health; their bottom line is to make a profit, in this case by appealing to vanity.

Toxic ingredients like chemical by-products from the petroleum industry, are usually cheaper to produce, refine, distribute and sell under undisrupted (ie: a global pandemic) circumstances and supply chains, allowing for greater profit margins.

A pie graph showing the largest personal care and cosmetic producers in the world, by revenue. American brand Johnson & Johnson leads the way, over Procter & Gamble, followed by Unilever, L'Oreal, Kao, Estee Lauder, Shiseido, Coty, Beiersdorf and Amore Pacific.

Sourcing, producing and distributing non-toxic ingredients is far riskier and profit-threatening. Natural ingredients are far more subject to fluctuations in availability, due to weather, soil conditions, natural seasonal supply, traditional, slower or less-mechanized workforce practices, ethics, regulations and global market demand. Woe! And now you know.


Women are at the forefront of the fight against toxins, both as warriors and worriers. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of female fatality around the world and has surpassed lung cancer as the most commonly diagnosed cancer (source). Breast cancer is responsible for more new cases of cancer and more cancer deaths among women than any other type. This is a sobering and scary statistic.

Breast cancer is a cancer that can be susceptible to the body's hormones: estrogen and progesterone. Susceptible in this case, specifically means that "cancer cells have receptors on their 'outside walls' that can catch specific hormones like estrogen and progesterone circulating throughout the body. Depending on the type of cancer, different hormones can be 'caught' or not caught." (source) In simple terms, when different hormones are 'caught' by cancer cells, they can have different effects- most notably, contributing to the growth or proliferation of cancer in the body. 


Toxins that mimic estrogen, also known as xeno-estrogens, or 'false' estrogens, mostly come from the petrochemical and plastics industry, and are also called hormone or endocrine (hormone system) disruptors. These can also be 'caught' by cancer cell receptors. (source)

Xeno-estrogens wreak havoc on the body and while a direct- causal link between xeno-estrogens and cancer has yet to be proven, xeno-estrogens may be the cause of high and increasing rates of hormone receptor positive breast cancer around the world. (source)


As a professional makeup artist for the last 20 years, I have watched the 'plastification' aesthetic of women's beauty rise: botox, lip fillers, an ideal of hairless bodies, contoured and caked on makeup, and wondered if the plastics or petrochemical industry's rise, which parallels that of breast cancer, is connected to this phenomenon.

This may be an argument about a cultural trend that is hard to prove, but what of the link between the rise of the petrochemical industry and global production of plastics, and breast cancer?

Given that petroleum by-products include a mixture of potentially carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting compounds, and that many petroleum by-products are the basis for many cosmetics and personal care products and their packaging, it is not a reach to look for a link between the role these specific chemicals play in breast cancer aetiology, since women are disproportionately exposed to them.

Although direct causal links have not yet been made between environmental exposure to xeno-estrogens via cosmetics, and breast cancer, this 2012 NCBI article states that:

"...Currently there are some 160 xenoestrogens that may be involved in breast cancer development [-]. Women are the largest consumers of cosmetic products which may be a significant source of xenoestrogens. Some, such as metalloestrogens (e.g., aluminium salts), parabens, cyclosiloxanes, triclosan, UV screeners, phthalates, Aloe Vera extracts, and musk are present in numerous cosmetics products. Humans are exposed to these chemicals transcutaneously and measurable levels have been detected in human breast tissue []."

A 2015 study on workplace exposure to petrochemicals and breast cancer risk also researched  whether "...the ubiquitous nature of these compounds, along with the increased prevalence of industrial chemicals in the environment during the last part of the 20th century [], has led to the hypothesis that chemical exposures may explain trends in breast cancer incidence." (source)

A Healthy Path Forward:  

Women shouldn't have to choose between looking good and getting sick. While xeno-estrogens are nearly impossible to avoid, there are ways to minimize exposure and one of the simplest ways is to reduce toxic load, or the number of toxins the body is exposed to. 

Reducing one's consumption of toxic cosmetics and choosing cleaner, safer beauty products, is becoming easier, as more resources become available and awareness grows. Brands, like Kavana,  choose to be more transparent around the ingredients in formulas and actually choose premium, non-toxic, hormone safe, eco-friendly and organic ingredients, not only because a discerning public demands it, but because it's the safe and right thing to do where women's health is concerned.

There are many toxins in cosmetics to be weary of that may or may not be xeno-estrogenic, and they are variously known as the 'Toxic Ten', "Dirty Dozen' and 'Mean 15.'

Stay tuned for upcoming Kavana Blog posts- direct to your inbox if you signed up (see that annoying pop up?!)- which will explore the main toxins to look out for and avoid. If you don't know how the skin works, how skincare works and how both change throughout a woman's life when exposed to hormone altering toxins, stay tuned! 

Have questions? Comments? Funny, related cartoons to share? Please send me an email at: or DM me on IG @Kavanaskincare

(i)  Here in Canada, a vast array of journalists authors and NGO’s, including Gillian Deacon (There’s Lead In Your Lipstick), Adria Vasil (Ecoholic and Ecoholic Body), Not Just A Pretty Face (Stacy Malkan) David Suzuki’s Queen of Green and the Think Dirty App and EWG (Environmental Working Group), have been at the forefront of the movement, educating people about toxins in cosmetics and personal care products, and their nefarious effects on women, children, babies and the planet.  The documentary Toxic Beauty is an excellent resource for those who prefer to watch films.