Why a cosmetic chemist should learn about toxicology

I recently got a request from a website to write an article about the dangers of parabens. At first, I declined because I do not believe that parabens are dangerous to use as cosmetic preservatives. When the website owner told me it would be fine to write about parabens in any way that I wanted, I changed my mind and wrote the following article.

Are chemists trying to kill you?

While interesting, this article is not about parabens but rather about toxicology and why cosmetic chemists need to learn a little bit about it.


First, you need to know that toxicology has traditionally been considered the study of poisons. A more modern definition is the study of adverse effects of chemicals on living organisms. Basically, toxicologists are the scientists who determine whether those cosmetic raw materials are safe to use or not.

Cosmetic chemist and toxicology

If you got your degree in chemistry or chemical engineering, it is unlikely that you took any courses in toxicology. It may have been covered briefly in some biology course but you probably don’t know much more about toxicology than your consumers. This should not be.

Perhaps the most important reason for you to know something about toxicology is that people will frequently ask you why you are using some specific raw material. They may have read some rumor on the Internet that a raw material is dangerous or their hairdresser may have told them that chemicals are killing them. You should know whether these things are true or not. You should be the expert on the subject among your peers and at your company. If you work for a small to medium sized company, no one else will be trained in it.

The other reason to know something about toxicology is that you should not formulate with ingredients you don’t know to be safe. And how would you know whether something is safe to use or not? Sure, the supplier will give you safety testing but you need to know what it means. The responsibility for product safety ultimately lies with the cosmetic chemist.

Where to learn about toxicology

There are lots of sources for learning toxicology but one of the best that I’ve seen is this one put out by the National Institute of Health. It is the Toxicology Tutor and is free to go through.

In it you will learn a brief history of toxicology and be introduced to the primary principle that the dose of an ingredient is what makes it poisonous or not. You’ll also learn some of the key terminology, testing methods, risk assessment and exposure standards and guidelines. I really like the fact that they have short quizzes after each section.

And if you want to get even more advanced you can move on to the Toxicology Tutor II and Tutor III series.

It should not take you too long to get through these free resources and if you are serious about being a cosmetic chemist, you really need to make it a point to get up to speed on this topic.

Where have you picked up your information about Toxicology? Leave a comment below.

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