| Dialysis | Kidney disease | Transplant

5 Beauty Products with Ingredients That May Harm Your Kidneys

August 08, 2023, 9:49am EDT

Two people shopping for beauty products

Beauty products can be used in a variety of ways. Some people are empowered by them, while others may feel like these products hide their true selves. Regardless of how you use or view cosmetics, it's important to be mindful of the different ingredients they use. It’s up to us to learn about potential risks associated with the products and make informed choices about what we apply to our bodies. 

Key takeaway

Many beauty products contain ingredients that could cause health issues. However, the dosage, exposure period, and how you are exposed all determine whether the user experiences adverse side effects. Staying informed, reading product labels, and seeking guidance from healthcare providers is the best way to prioritize your well-being when incorporating new products into your beauty routine. 

Did you know that 1 in 3 Americans are at risk of kidney disease? Take this one-minute quiz to find out if you are one of them

1. Deep chemical peels or phenol peel

The term “chemical phenol peel” currently has over one billion views on TikTok, with users giving the treatment rave reviews for its ability to remove wrinkles, treat some forms of acne, and create smoother skin. But what is it? A chemical peel uses a chemical solution to remove layers of the skin.

There are three types:

  1. Light: Removes the first layer of skin
  2. Medium: Removes first and middle layers of skin
  3. Deep: Removes all three layers of skin

What are the risks associated with chemical peels?

What users may not know are the risks associated with the treatment. The risks are mild for light and medium chemical peels, including redness, infection, and scarring.1 Deep chemical phenol peels, however, pose a much higher risk due to one of their key ingredients: carbolic acid or phenol. 

Phenol is known to cause issues with the heart and may damage the liver and kidneys since they are responsible for processing and excreting the chemical.1,2 As such, people with heart, liver, or kidney issues should not receive phenol peels.2 Regardless of preexisting conditions, everyone should speak with a healthcare practitioner before getting a phenol chemical peel to ensure they are healthy enough for the procedure.

Have questions? Contact NKF Cares, our patient information center.

2. Some anti-aging creams

You can find creams, lotions, serums, and more, boasting their ability to remove wrinkles and fine lines while improving complexion. While ingredients like Vitamin A (retinoids), Vitamin C, and some acids have been shown through research to provide some of these benefits, many products’ promises are not backed by science.3,4 

What are the risks associated with some anti-aging creams?

In most cases, users only risk choosing the wrong product for their skin type resulting in dry skin, breakouts, or inflammation. However, the FDA has been made aware that some anti-aging creams contain mercury, a toxic heavy metal that can cause many health problems, including kidney damage.5

While the FDA does not allow significant amounts of mercury in cosmetics, these products and ingredients do not need FDA approval before entering the market. As such, some anti-aging products containing unsafe levels of mercury make it onto shelves (especially on e-commerce sites) and are used until the FDA is alerted to their potential health risks. 

Check labels for:

  • Mercurous chloride
  • Calomel
  • Mercuric
  • Mercurio
  • Mercury

Since not all products will put mercury on their label, check the FDA’s list of known brands containing mercury

The best way to avoid fake anti-aging claims and mercury-filled products is by enlisting the help of a board-certified dermatologist. They can help create a safe skincare routine for you.

3. Skin-whitening creams

Skin-whitening creams are used across the globe to make darker skin appear lighter. Many people of color experience discrimination due to their skin tone. As such, some may wish to lighten their appearance to better-fit Colorist constructs in which lighter-skinned people receive privileges.6,7 

What are the risks associated with skin-whitening creams?

Many skin-lightening creams cause health issues because they contain high levels of mercury and hydroquinone. Mercury exposure can lead to mercury poisoning and kidney damage.7 Long-term exposure to hydroquinone can also damage the kidneys and liver.8 

Socially, the existence and advertising of these products negatively affect the mental well-being of people of color and perpetuate racist ideals of beauty. These products are not recommended for use due to the physical and emotional damage they create. 

Learn more about social determinants of health and their effect on kidney health.

4. Hair straightening treatments

Hair-straightening treatments are used to change the texture of hair, making it straighter. These products primarily target people of color and rely on natural hair discrimination which people with natural hairstyles like afros, locs, and braids face. Sadly, this discrimination remains rampant in the workplace, school, and public spaces. 

A recent study9 of 2,990 women who identified as Black, Hispanic, white, or multiracial/multiethnic found that:

  • Black women’s hair was two and a half times more likely to be considered unprofessional.
  • More than half of the Black women surveyed felt they had to wear their hair straight in a job interview to succeed. A quarter of the Black women surveyed believe they were denied a job because of their hair.
  • One-fifth of the Black women surveyed between the ages of 25 and 34 had been sent home from work because of their hair.

To avoid this discrimination, some people chemically straighten their hair. 

What are the risks associated with hair straightening treatments?

In years prior, hair straightening treatments used formaldehyde. Due to the dangers of formaldehyde, it has been banned in many countries and replaced with glycolic acid derivatives. 

This move makes hair straightening treatments appear safer but glycolic acid derivatives may release formaldehyde when they come into contact with high temperatures. If breathed in or absorbed by the skin, formaldehyde can lead to various health problems, including kidney damage. A 2023 case study10 also found that glycolic acid absorbed through the skin may lead to the formation of oxalate, which can cause acute kidney injury. While this case study was small, it is important to know about these possibilities. Learn more about acute kidney injury.

Did you know there is a formula that “scores” kidneys from Black deceased kidney donors less favorably than kidneys from non-Black individuals? It’s called the Kidney Donor Risk Index (KDRI). We believe using race and ethnicity in clinical calculations harms patients and perpetuates racism in kidney care. Join us in telling the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) to remove race from the KDRI immediately. By advocating for KIDNEY EQUITY FOR ALL, we are helping to create a healthcare system that values diversity, promotes inclusion, and ensures that everyone has an equal chance at a healthy life, regardless of ethnicity or cultural background.

5. Some nail polishes

Many people love doing their nails because it lets them showcase their personality, engage in fun self-care, and follow the ever-changing fashion trends associated with nail art. Nail polish is an easy way to boost self-confidence and participate in nail art communities, but not all nail polishes are created equal.

What are the risks associated with some nail polishes? 

Some nail polishes contain potentially harmful chemicals like dibutyl phthalate and toluene. Long-term exposure to dibutyl phthalate11 may cause kidney damage, and toluene12 can hurt the kidneys if swallowed. While most people are not intentionally consuming nail polish, this could become an issue for nail biters. To avoid these chemicals, check nail polish labels before purchasing. Recent attempts to remove these chemicals from nail polishes should mean you’ll still have plenty of options to choose from. 

Share your story

Can your kidney disease be attributed to the use of a particular product? Share your story with us–it may be the one that gives others with kidney disease hope. 



1Soleymani T, Lanoue J, Rahman Z. A Practical Approach to Chemical Peels: A Review of Fundamentals and Step-by-step Algorithmic Protocol for Treatment. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2018 Aug;11(8):21-28. Epub 2018 Aug 1. PMID: 30214663; PMCID: PMC6122508.
2“CDC - NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards - Phenol.” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 30 Oct. 2019, www.cdc.gov/niosh/npg/npgd0493.html. 
3Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019 Aug;36(4):392-397. doi: 10.5114/ada.2019.87443. Epub 2019 Aug 30. PMID: 31616211; PMCID: PMC6791161.
4Catherine K. Huang, MD , Timothy A. Miller, MD, The Truth About Over-the-Counter Topical Anti-Aging Products: A Comprehensive Review, Aesthetic Surgery Journal, Volume 27, Issue 4, July 2007, Pages 402–412, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.asj.2007.05.005
5“Skin Lighteners Still Online despite Mercury Findings .” Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG), ywcaspokane.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/ZMWG-Skin-2022-Report-Final.pdf. Accessed 3 Aug. 2023. 
6Pollock S, Taylor S, Oyerinde O, Nurmohamed S, Dlova N, Sarkar R, Galadari H, Manela-Azulay M, Chung HS, Handog E, Kourosh AS. The dark side of skin lightening: An international collaboration and review of a public health issue affecting dermatology. Int J Womens Dermatol. 2020 Sep 17;7(2):158-164. doi: 10.1016/j.ijwd.2020.09.006. PMID: 33937483; PMCID: PMC8072511.
7Zota, Ami R., and Bhavna Shamasunder. “The Environmental Injustice of Beauty: Framing Chemical Exposures from Beauty Products as a Health Disparities Concern.” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, vol. 217, no. 4, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajog.2017.07.020. 
8“Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet .” Right to Know, Mar. 2016, nj.gov/health/eoh/rtkweb/documents/fs/1019.pdf. 
9“Dove Partners with Linkedin in Support of the Crown Act to Help End Race-Based Hair Discrimination in the Workplace.” Dove Partners with LinkedIn in Support of The CROWN Act to Help End Race-Based Hair Discrimination in the Workplace, 20 Feb. 2023, www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/dove-partners-with-linkedin-in-support-...
10Bnaya, Alon, et al. “Acute Kidney Injury and Hair-Straightening Products: A Case Series.” American Journal of Kidney Diseases, 2023, https://doi.org/10.1053/j.ajkd.2022.11.016. 
11“Dibutyl Phthalate.” DCCEEW, www.dcceew.gov.au/environment/protection/npi/substances/fact-sheets/dibu.... Accessed 28 June 2023. 
12“Department of Labor Logo United States Department of Labor.” Toluene - Overview | Occupational Safety and Health Administration, www.osha.gov/toluene. Accessed 5 June 2023.

Related content