While beauty may only be skin deep, the cosmetics you apply to your face aren't. They're absorbed into your body, and they don't stop there: when you wash your face, chemicals in your makeup—including plasticizers, coal tar, and formaldehyde—go down the drain, affecting soil, water, and wildlife. With eco-conscious women everywhere waking up to the fact that what you put on your body is as important as what you put in it, sales of natural and organic cosmetics are skyrocketing, with projected revenues of $7 billion in the US in 2008—up from $1 billion in 2007—making it the fastest-growing segment of the cosmetics industry.
Chemicals in cosmetics
The average woman uses about 12 body care products a day, each containing about 10 different chemicals. Only a small percent of the 10,500 chemicals used in beauty products have ever been tested for safety, however one-third of these are known to cause cancer. Research shows that skin can absorb as much as 60 percent of whatever is applied to it.
When reading the ingredient list on your newest make-up purchase, keep in mind that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that ingredients in food, drugs, and cosmetics be listed in descending order of quantity. While deciphering these labels can be confusing, here are a few of the most common—and most toxic—chemicals to avoid in cosmetics:
Phthalates are used as plasticizers in lotions and cosmetics to make them smooth. They're also used to "fix" fragrances and make them last longer and help products penetrate the skin better. Phthalates are found in lip products, eyeliners, eye shadows, blushes, nail products, and fragrances. A 2002 test of 72 name-brand beauty products found almost three-quarters contained phthalates.
Phthalates are linked to endocrine disruption; neurotoxicity and neurodevelopmental disorders; toxicity of the brain, kidneys, liver, and lungs; and birth defects in the male reproductive system. Research shows a probable link between phthalates and asthma as well as allergies. Phthalates are just one of the chemicals that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found polluting the San Francisco Bay. Check out EWG's phthalates cheat sheet for more info.
What to look for on the label: Phthalates don't have to be called out on the label: any product that lists "fragrance" in its ingredients can contain phthalates. Choose products with fragrances made from plants and essential oils, and those that spell out what's in their fragrance. Avoid cosmetics listing Diethyl phthalate (DEP) as an ingredient.
Parabens—preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria—are found in about 75 to 90 percent of cosmetics. They're in shampoos, conditioners, and styling products; soaps and body washes; moisturizer; shaving creams and gels; cosmetics and makeup; and toothpastes.
Parabens can affect the endocrine system, which produces hormones. Acting like estrogen in the body, they increase the risk of breast cancer, with recent studies finding parabens in breast tumors. Skin exposure is more of a risk than parabens in food, since the digestive system breaks them down. Parabens have been found in breast milk, blood, and body tissues, and can enter a developing fetus. Parabens can also cause contact dermatitis (skin rashes). In addition, when cosmetics containing parabens are washed off, they're discharged through wastewater systems and end up in waterways, where they also appear to have estrogenic effects on fish.
What to look for on the label: Look for cosmetics that say paraben-free on the label. Avoid products that list methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, or butylparaben as ingredients.
While formaldehyde isn't usually listed as an ingredient on cosmetic labels, formaldehyde is released by many common preservatives found in makeup, such as imidazolidinyl urea, which is used in foundations, powders, eye shadows, and mascaras. Formaldehyde was at one time banned by the FDA for use in cosmetics. It's a known carcinogen and has been strongly linked to asthma. Even at low doses it can cause burning, watering eyes; burning of the throat, and difficulty breathing. Imidazolidinyl urea is linked to contact dermatitis, mutagenic effects, cell toxicity, and skin toxicity. Quaternium-15, which contains and/or releases formaldehyde, is also used in cosmetics and is linked to allergic reactions, skin sensitization, reproductive effects, and birth defects.
What to look for on the label: Formaldehyde often isn't listed on the label. Avoid makeup containing formaldehyde-releasing preservatives such as imidazolindinyl urea and quaternium-15.
Coal tar colorants
Coal tar colorants are commonly used in cosmetics, hair dyes, and food, and are certified by the FDA. Coal tar is a byproduct of the distillation of bituminous coal and is harmful to the environment, is a known carcinogen in animals, and can cause skin rashes and hives. If the color's name is preceded by FD&C, it's certified for use in food, drugs, and cosmetics; if it's D&C, it can't be used in food; External D&C and it's only for external use in drugs and cosmetics, and can't be used around the eyes or inside the mouth.
What to look for on the label: Look for safe, natural colorants including annatto, beet powder, beta carotene, caramel, cochineal, grapeskin, and henna. Especially hazardous coal tar colorants to avoid include azo dyes, Ext. D&C Violet #2, nitro dyes, quinoline (including D&C Yellow #10 and #11), triphenylmethane dyes (including FD&C Green #1, #2, and #3, and FD&C Blue #1), and xanthenes (including FD&C Red #3, D&C Red #2, and #19, and D&C Orange).
Titanium dioxide is a white pigment used in eye makeup, foundation, face powders, and lipsticks. Titanium dioxide shouldn't be inhaled, and can cause lung damage in high concentrations. Titanium is extracted from open mines—some in Georgia and Florida—and processed using chlorine, which releases large amounts of carcinogenic dioxins into the atmosphere and persists in the environment. Dioxins can accumulate in animals and people and have been found in shellfish in St. Louis Bay, Mississippi, close to a titanium dioxide refinery.
What to look for on the label: Avoid products that list titanium dioxide as an ingredient.
Lack of regulation of chemicals in cosmetics
The FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of cosmetics, which it describes as all products "intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body ... for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering appearance. Included in this definition are moisturizer, makeup, perfume, lipstick, nail polish, shampoo, hairspray, hair coloring, toothpaste, and deodorant, as well as the ingredients included in these products.
Despite the fact that the FDA is charged with ensuring the safety of cosmetics, neither cosmetic products nor cosmetic ingredients are reviewed or approved by FDA before they're sold to the public. It's up to the manufacturer to ensure that a cosmetic is safe, and to theoretically attach a warning label if it isn't. Clear safety guidelines are lacking, and no independent third-party safety testing is required. Submitting product formulations is voluntary, and according to the FDA, only about 35 percent of cosmetic companies do so. While the European Union (EU) approved a cosmetic ingredient listing of over 1,000 prohibited substances, the FDA list only prohibits eight. Several industry and grassroots efforts have emerged to address the lack of safety standards in cosmetics.
- Natural Seal for Personal Care Products On May 1, 2008, the Natural Products Association announced a new certification program that defines "natural" and includes an easily-identified seal.
- Skin Deep, a project of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), provides consumers with a comprehensive database of cosmetic products and their ingredients. Note that the site doesn't differentiate between food-grade versus cosmetic-grade, and organic versus non-organic ingredients, however, and some of the ingredients it cites for health effects are essential oils. Nevertheless it's a very useful tool.
- The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics urges manufacturers of cosmetics and personal care products to sign the Compact for Safe Cosmetics pledge and assess the environmental and health impacts of their products, making changes as needed.
Big box stores make big cosmetic changes
Big box stores like Target and Wal-mart are jumping on the natural and organic cosmetic bandwagon. Target announced in March of 2008 that it will carry Alba, Avalon Organics, Burt’s Bees, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, Giovanni Organic Cosmetics, Jason Natural Products, Juice Organics, Kiss My Face and Weleda cosmetics in all 1,591 of its US stores.
Even CVS Caremark, the largest US retail pharmacy chain, announced in May of 2008 that it's replacing chemicals in it's store-brand products that are linked to health problems and substituting safer ingredients, making it the first large drugstore chain in the US to institute a cosmetics safety policy.
On May 14, 2008, the US House of Representatives Energy and Commerce panel held a hearing which addressed an added wrinkle: the growing number of imported cosmetics. Lawmakers are considering sweeping legislation requiring drug and device makers, food manufacturers, and cosmetic companies to register with the FDA and pay for mandatory inspections of foreign factories. This follows on the heels of tainted products imported from China, including pet food, toothpaste, and the blood thinner heparin. Each year, $62 billion worth of personal products are sold in the US. Imported products have tripled since 2000, and more growth is anticipated. The FDA rules governing cosmetics haven't changed in 70 years, and during that time only 11 percent of cosmetic ingredients have been evaluated.
The number of counterfeit beauty products that mimic pricey designer brands continues to grow. In 2006, 1.6 million counterfeit cosmetics were seized in 2006; in the US, many can be found on eBay.
Nanoparticles are a source of debate for sunscreens, mineralized makeup, and soon mascara and shaving cream. The applications of nanoparticles—tiny, microscopic subatomic particles—are seemingly endless. A new patent issued in April 2008 claims that nanoparticles can also make eyelashes curl, hence their proposed addition to mascara.
Nanoparticles have been proclaimed as the next industrial revolution, destined to change everything from our cars and clothes to our cancer therapies. Nano products are being rushed to market, even though there are no regulations for labeling or use. The biggest concern raised with nanos is that these particles are so tiny, they can easily penetrate the skin and that many cosmetics contain ingredients that speed up the absorption of these nanoparticles into the blood stream, where they can then end up in the brain, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and other organs. The effects of nanoparticles on human organs has yet to be determined.
- endocrine glands: Organs that secrete hormones directly into our bloodstreams, including the thyroid, adrenal, and pituitary glands.
- The Green Makeup Artist - "Saving the planet one face at a time" Find out what's new in green cosmetics and skincare products from Aimee Valentine, a professional makeup artist who works with Bay Area Sustainable Brides.
- Breast Cancer Action - Think Before You Pink This campaign addresses growing concern about the overwhelming number of pink ribbon products and promotions on the market. It calls for corporate accountability, and highlights “pinkwashers”— companies that claim to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon campaign, while manufacturing products linked to the disease.
- The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies The mission of this project is to ensure that, as nanotechnologies advance, risks are minimized, consumers are involved, and the potential benefits of these new technologies are realized.
- The Boston Globe - Cosmetics firms heed calls for organics
- Riley, Trish (2007) The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Green Living. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.: 156-159
- Loux, Renée (2008) Easy green living: the ultimate guide to simple, eco-friendly choices for you and your home. New York: Rodale Inc.: 168-176
- Ashton, Karen and Green, Elizabeth Salter (2008) The Toxic Consumer: Living Healthy in a Hazardous World. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.: 40-81
- The Green Guide - Lip and Eye Makeup
- Sustainable is Good - Target to Launch Nine Natural/Organic Product Brands
- The Boston Globe - Cosmetics firms heed calls for organics: Big and small makers' sales growing quickly
- Reuters - Congress tackles FDA cosmetics oversight
- Hampton, Aubrey (1995) What’s in Your Cosmetics?. Tucson, Arizona: Odonian Press: Chapter 1 - An encyclopedia of ingredients and terms