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What is it?

Coal tar is a very thick, dark liquid, and is one of the by-products when coal is made into coke and coal gas. It is a complex mixture of phenols, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heterocyclic compounds.” Wikipedia

What are the effects?

This substance belongs to the groups:

“Coal tars crude and refined” are prohibited for use in cosmetic products in Canada. It is also banned in the European Union by CosIng, the European Commission database for information on cosmetic substances and ingredients.

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) identifies that coal tar pitch “may cause genetic defects, may cause cancer, may damage fertility and may damage the unborn child, is very toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects.”

Coal tar pitch is on ECHA Candidate List of “Substances of very High Concern.”

Coal tar is on the Red List* from Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a project of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (previously the Breast Cancer Fund). They classify coal tar as a known carcinogen and that it contains impurities from benzo(a)pyrene.


Even though it is not listed on the ingredient labels, products with coal tar may contain toxic impurities from:

  • Benzo[a]pyrene (type of benzopyrene) – linked to cancer, damaged fertility, developmental toxicity, environmental hazards, allergies and immunotoxicity. Benzopyrene is on ECHA’s candidate list of Substances of Very High Concern.

* “The Red List includes chemicals found in personal care products that pose serious, chronic health concerns including cancer, hormone disruption, and reproductive and developmental harm. The list also flags chemicals that are banned or have use restrictions by the U.S. or other world governments, ingredients that adversely impact worker health, and ingredients that are widely used in products marketed to women of color.” – Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

How is it used?

Coal tar is used as an anti-dandruff agent, cosmetic biocide (disinfectant in products), and denaturant (makes cosmetics unpalatable, added to cosmetics containing alcohol) in cosmetics products. It’s possible to find it in products like hair dyes, shampoos, dandruff/scalp treatments, and in products for redness/rosacea treatment.

We use the European Commissions definition of Cosmetics:
“Cosmetics range from everyday hygiene products such as soap, shampoo, deodorant, and toothpaste to luxury beauty items including perfumes and makeup”.

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