In the never-ending search for beauty and youth, Americans spent $50 billion on cosmetics in 2009.1 It’s not unusual for men and women to use 10-20 different cosmetic items on a daily basis, an amount that exposes you to considerable amounts of the chemicals lurking therein.
In fact, using cosmetics on a daily basis is all it takes for your body to absorb nearly five pounds of makeup chemicals a year, chemicals that include carcinogens, pesticides, endocrine disrupters and reproductive toxins — often remaining on the market despite known toxic effects.2
Unfortunately, in the cosmetics world there exists a false veil of safety that leads consumers to believe their trusted makeup, toiletries and other personal care products are safe, when in reality lax regulations and questionable ingredients are the norm.
Considering that your skin is easily penetrated, and many of the cosmetics you apply to its surface will be absorbed right into your bloodstream, it’s important to know what you’re putting on your body — and the reality may surprise you.
Who’s Looking Out for the Safety of Your Cosmetics?
When you apply lipstick, eye shadow, nail polish … when you use hair dyes and straighteners … you probably assume those products, or at least the ingredients they contain, have undergone some type of safety testing or been approved by a regulatory agency as safe for consumer use.
Well, in reality “cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] premarket approval authority, with the exception of color additives.”3 What this means is that the cosmetics under your bathroom sink most likely were brought to market without any type of regulatory considerations whatsoever.
Instead, the FDA notes that “cosmetic firms are responsible for substantiating the safety of their products and ingredients before marketing.”4
So the cosmetics industry is acting as their own safety watchdog, and on top of that they can use virtually any material they want in the products you use on your body. As the FDA states, “With the exception of color additives and a few prohibited ingredients, a cosmetic manufacturer may use almost any raw material as a cosmetic ingredient and market the product without an approval from FDA.”5
In other words, it’s really an “anything goes” market when it comes to cosmetics, and this laissez-faire attitude could end up putting your health at risk.
As the Environmental Working Group (EWG) stated in their Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database:6
“While some companies make products that are safe to eat, other companies choose to use known human carcinogens or developmental toxins. Nearly all these chemicals can penetrate the skin, and some we ingest directly from our lips or hands.
More than one-third of all personal care products contain at least one ingredient linked to cancer. When risky and unstudied chemicals are used in cosmetics, the stakes can be high — unlike trace contaminants in food or tap water, chemicals in cosmetics are base ingredients.”
There’s a Good Chance Your Cosmetics Contain Toxins
EWG has been researching and advocating for safer personal care products for years now, and in their research they have uncovered some disarming findings:7
- Of the 10,500 ingredients used in cosmetics, the industry’s self-policing safety panel has reviewed just 11 percent for safety, and the FDA does no regular safety reviews.
- Ninety percent of the ingredients regularly used in U.S. cosmetics have never been evaluated for safety.
- Ingredients in personal care products account for one of every eight of the 82,000 industrial chemicals approved for use in the United States. Eighty percent of these industrial chemicals are approved in three weeks or less and may not have undergone safety testing.
So when it comes to choosing safe cosmetics and personal care products for you and your family, the odds are clearly stacked against you.
Toxic Cosmetics to Watch Out For
There is a virtually endless array of cosmetic products to choose from and knowing which are toxic and which are not can be daunting. But, since the FDA is not looking out for the safety of your cosmetics, and the cosmetics industry is not doing too great a job either, it’s up to you to monitor the products you buy.
A good start is to be aware of some of the top offenders in the cosmetics market, which include:
1. Hair Straighteners and Smoothers
A recent study by Oregon OSHA found that many hair-straightening products used in salons contain more formaldehyde than is used to preserve laboratory specimens … and some were even labeled “formaldehyde-free.”8
Formaldehyde, which may also be listed on labels as formalin or methylene glycol, is a known human carcinogen that has been linked to leukemia, lung cancer and cancer of the nasal cavities, along with asthma-like symptoms and dermatitis.
The hair-straightening products pose a potential risk not only to consumers but also to hair stylists who use the products while on the job.
At-home hair relaxers can also be problematic and may contain ingredients including:
- BHA: A preservative linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity and endocrine disruption.
- DMDM Hydantoin: An antimicrobial preservative that may release formaldehyde and is also toxic to your immune system.
- Lithium hydroxide: A pH adjuster that shows evidence of developmental, neurotoxic and reproductive toxicity.
2. Hair Dyes
Hair dye products contain more than 5,000 different chemicals, some of which have been linked to cancer in animals. This is particularly true of hair dyes used prior to 1980, after which manufacturers changed some ingredients due to cancer concerns.
Studies linking hair dye use with cancer in humans have been conflicting, but at least one study showed an increased risk of follicular lymphoma among women who began using dark-colored dyes after 1980.9
According to the National Cancer Institute:
“It is not known whether some of the chemicals still used in hair dyes can cause cancer. Given the widespread use of hair dye products, even a small increase in risk may have a considerable public health impact.”10
EWG has also identified numerous toxic chemicals common in hair dyes, including:
- P-PHENYLENEDIAMINE: A hair colorant linked to cancer, immune system toxicity and other health effects. This chemical has been restricted for use in Canadian cosmetics and recommended for restrictions in the United States by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) (the cosmetic industry’s review board).
- Resorcinol: Another common ingredient in hair dye that is toxic to the immune system and may cause allergic reactions. In animal studies it has been found to disrupt thyroid function.
Dark hair dyes may be particularly problematic, EWG notes, as many contain coal tar ingredients that have been linked to cancer.
3. Nail Care Products
Nail polish can contain an array of toxic chemicals, and one of the most common is Dibutyl phthalate (DBP). This plasticizer is used to make nail polish less brittle and prone to cracking, but it is a known developmental and reproductive toxin. In animal studies, DBP has been found to cause birth defects and reproductive problems especially when exposure occurs while in utero or shortly after birth.11
Damage appears to persist for the animal’s life, and includes problems with sperm count, testes, the penis, the epididymus, and the skeletal system. DBP may also cause loss of pregnancy or prevent implantation of the egg, all effects that raise serious concerns for women who may become pregnant while using the products.
Further, DBP is only one chemical of concern common in nail products. Nail polish may also contain:
- Toluene: A petrochemical solvent (aka paint thinner) that’s been linked to cancer, immune system problems, developmental and reproductive damage, neurotoxicity and more. Exposure to toluene vapors during pregnancy may also cause damage to the fetus.12
- Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde or toluene sulfonamide–formaldehyde resin is commonly used as a nail hardener in various nail care products. Linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity and more, this is one ingredient you’re better of avoiding.
If you can’t imagine giving up the look of polished nails, there are non-toxic alternatives available. Look for water-based brands that use non-toxic colorants, and skip the regular nail polish remover (also filled with toxins) in favor of natural alternatives from your health food store.
Four More Ingredients to Avoid
If your cosmetics contain a paragraph’s worth of ingredients you can’t pronounce, there’s a good chance more than a handful of them may be linked to health concerns. Ideally, choose only cosmetics with simple ingredients that are safe enough to eat, as when you apply the cosmetics to your skin, it’s similar to ingesting them as you would food.
At the very least, however, begin to scan your cosmetics for the hazardous ingredients mentioned earlier as well as those that follow. This is only a sampling, but it can serve as a starting point to finding healthier cosmetics:
1. Phthalates: Used widely in nail polish, fragrances and other personal care products, phthalates may cause reproductive and developmental problems.
2. Petroleum byproducts: From the cancer-causing 1,4-dioxane, found in baby shampoo, to coal tar, petrolatum, and other petroleum products common in lip gloss, eye shadow and more, petroleum byproducts are better off avoided.
3. Kohl: Eye cosmetics may contain an ingredient called kohl, kajal, al-kahl, or surma; this material is often contaminated with lead, aluminum, antimony, and more. The FDA has noted several instances of kohl-related lead poisoning in U.S. children, which can lead to neurological damage, learning and behavior problem, seizures, anemia, kidney problems and other health risks.13
4. Hydroquinone: A skin-bleaching ingredient used to lighten skin, this ingredient may be linked to cancer, immune system toxicity and developmental/reproductive toxicity. It’s also been linked to a potentially disfiguring skin disease called ochronosis.14
For more information about what types of toxins may be lurking in your cosmetics, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database. It offers a searchable platform for you to find out what types of contaminants and toxins may be lurking in your favorite brands, as well as options for safer, non-toxic alternatives.
The U.S. FDA also keeps an updated list of cosmetic recalls and alerts which you can check periodically for more information.
1. Environmental Working Group “EWG Urges FDA to Focus on Cosmetics in 5-Year Plan” October 28, 2010
2. Telegraph “Body absorbs 5lb of make-up chemicals a year” June 21 2007.
3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration “Cosmetics Q&A;: FDA’s Authority, What is FDA’s authority over cosmetics?”
4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration “Cosmetics Q&A;: “Personal Care Products”
5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration “Cosmetics Q&A;: Prohibited Ingredients”
6. Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database FAQs
7. Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database “Why This Matters”
8. Oregon Health & Science University Press Release October 29, 2010
9 & 10. National Cancer Institute “Hair Dyes and Cancer Risk”
11. Environmental Working Group “Health Effects of Dibutyl Phthalates (DBP)
12. Environmental Working Group “Toluene”
13. U.S. Food and Drug Administration “Kohl, Kajal, Al-Kahal, or Surma: By Any Name, a Source of Lead Poisoning” October 16, 2006
14. Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database “What Not to Buy”