Dangerous makeup. These are two words no one wants to hear in the same sentence. Yet there are harmful ingredients in the cosmetics we use to help enhance our appearance. Despite the dangers, these products are heavily marketed and hailed as being the answer to our desire to look and feel beautiful.
In response to that marketing and social pressures, women spend a significant amount of time applying makeup that may contain dozens of chemicals and other ingredients known to harm the body. These substances are absorbed by the skin and membranes (we absorb 60% of what we put on our body), enter the blood stream, and have the potential to cause notable short-term and long-term harm.
The story of dangerous makeup revolves around the industry and government regulations, or one could say, the lack of such regulations. Consumers are buying and applying skin toner, facial creams, blush, exfoliating agents, and other cosmetics that have ingredients never listed on the label. Some of these secret ingredients hide under the term “fragrance.”
Manufacturers currently do not have to reveal what constitutes a fragrance, and there are a lot of possibilities. In fact, the International Fragrance Association lists 3,059 substances used in fragrance compounds. Some of those ingredients are petroleum or alcohol based while other are derived from natural items. Of the more than 3,000 ingredient possibilities, some have been linked to cancer, reproductive issues, hormonal imbalances, developmental toxicity, allergies, and sensitivities.
In addition to the ambiguous ingredient “fragrance,” makeup typically contains a laboratory of chemicals with names challenging to pronounce. In many cases these chemicals have not undergone adequate testing for their impact on the health of humans, although some have been tested in the lab and in animals.
Attempt to control dangerous makeup
Currently there is an attempt to require cosmetic and personal care product manufacturers to reveal the ingredients in “fragrance” as well as a call to ban the worst of the chemicals used in makeup and personal care products. The bill, known as the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2018, was introduced by Representative Jan Schakowsky on September 26, 2018 and is the only federal cosmetic safety legislation that would put a stop to secret fragrance formulations.
In addition, the bill would direct the Food and Drug Administration to evaluate 300 cosmetic ingredients for safety within two years of the bill’s enactment. It would also create a safety standard for ingredients in cosmetics based on “a reasonable certainty of no harm.”
Dangerous makeup ingredients
So what are some of these dangerous makeup ingredients? Makeup can contain a wide spectrum of substances, from things that make them smell good to those that provide the desired beneficial effect (i.e., smoother skin, reduced wrinkles, bolder eyes), preserve the integrity of the product, or make the product easier to apply.
Acrylates. Artificial nail products are the main places you will encounter acrylates, although they are also used to apply artificial eyelashes. Acrylates include ethyl acrylate, ethyl methacrylate, methyl methacrylate, and similar chemical names. Use of acrylates has been associated with adverse eye, skin and throat reactions. The International Agency of Research on Cancer and the Environmental Protection Agency classify ethyl acrylate as a possible human carcinogen.
Most states ban the professional use of methyl methacrylate in nail salons, but consumers can still buy products with acrylates in them. Even though the FDA banned the use of 100 percent liquid methyl methacrylate in 1974, there are no specific rules that prohibit its used at concentrations lower than 100 percent in cosmetics.
Benzophenones. You can find benzophenones (benzophenones-1, -3, -4, -5, -9, -11) in nail polish, lip balm, foundations, moisturizers, and some personal care products. When shopping, look for the words benzophenone, BP2 (or other numbers), oxybenzone, sulisoenzone, and sulisobenzone sodium on the label.
Benzophenones have been associated with cancer, organ system toxicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, and endocrine imbalance in animal studies. The European Food Safety Authority has classified benzophenones as a known toxicant because it can cause liver enlargement in rats at low doses. Oxybenzone can enter the blood stream and accumulate in the kidneys, liver, and blood.
Butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are preservatives used in cosmetics (e.g., lipstick, eye shadow) as well as food (they are both on our Scary 7 list). Both BHA and BHT have been linked to endocrine disruption and organ system toxicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, cancer, and irritation in animal studies. The National Toxicology Program lists BHA as anticipated to be a carcinogen in humans, and the California EPA’s roposition65 states BHA is a possible human carcinogen.
Carbon black. Carbon black is the result of the incomplete combustion of carbon-containing materials. It may be listed on makeup labels as D&C Black No. 2, channel black, lamp black, or acetylene black. It can be found in blushers, rouge, foundation, eyeliner, mascara, eye shadow, and brush-on brow, among other cosmetics. It has been linked to an elevated incidence of cancer and organ toxicity, including lung disease and cardiovascular disease.
Ethanolamines. Ethanolamines include triethanolamine (TEA), diethanolamine (DEA), and various variations. They are found in eyeliners, mascara, eye shadow, blush, foundations, fragrances, and makeup bases. TEA is used as an emulsifying agent and fragrance while DEA is an emulsifier. When ethanolamines are used in the same product, they can form nitrosamines, which are possible carcinogens.
DEA also may react with other ingredients to form nitrosodiethanolamine, a known carcinogen that is absorbed through the skin. This ethanolamine accumulates in the kidney and liver, causing organ toxicity and may also result in tremors.
Formaldehyde. Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) are used to prevent microbes from growing in water-based products. These chemicals can be absorbed through the skin and are associated with cancer and allergic skin reactions. In fact, formaldehyde is considered a known human carcinogen by the United States National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Although the levels of formaldehyde in makeup and personal care products are low, they are high enough to cause reactions in people who are sensitive to the chemical. Individuals can develop a sensitivity to formaldehyde over time if they are repeatedly exposed to the chemical, such as daily use of makeup.
Formaldehyde and FRPs are found in nail polish, color cosmetics, eyelash glue, and various personal care items. The label may list formaldehyde, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, or quaternium-15, among others.
Heavy metals. You can find heavy metals such as aluminum, arsenic, chromium, iron, lead, mercury, and zinc in some makeup products, including foundations, eye shadows, blush, concealer, lipstick, and nail polish. Some of these metals are added intentionally while others are contaminants. Chromium, aluminum, and iron oxides, for example, are sometimes added as colorants in products such as blushes, concealers, lip glosses, lipsticks, and eye shadows.
Check labels for words such as lead acetate, thimerosal, hydrogenated cotton seed oil, and sodium hexamataphoshate. Contaminant metals are not listed on ingredient labels. Exposure to heavy metals has been linked to immune and nervous system toxicity as well as reproductive problems.
Lead, for example, is associated with language and learning problems as well as hormonal changes and menstrual irregularities. Mercury (thimerosal) is associated with toxicity of the nervous, reproductive, and immune systems as well as respiratory problems. Although the United States passed the Minamata Convention, which curbs mercury emitted from appliances and coal-fired power plants, it does not restrict the metal used in mascara.
Homosalate. This chemical is found in cosmetics and skin care products that have SPF. In addition to sunscreen, many makeup products contain SPF, such as foundations, anti-aging creams, moisturizers, and lip balm. Names to look for on the label include homosalate, homomenthyl salicylate, HMS, and HS-3,3,5-trimethyl-cyclohexyl-salicylate. Homosalate may disrupt hormone levels, especially estrogen, as well as increase the absorption of pesticides in the body.
How to choose safer makeup options
Here are some tips to help you steer clear of dangerous makeup products.
Read ingredient labels. Although the ingredient list won’t give you the entire menu of substances in the product, it will give you a good idea. Ideally you want a product that contains only certified organic and/or all-natural ingredients.
Avoid fragrances. Any makeup that lists "fragrance" or "parfum" on the label should be avoided. These are a cocktail of harmful chemicals in disguise.
Change your beauty routine. It’s time to reevaluate your beauty routine and see which products contain harmful ingredients and how you can exchange them for safe ones. You don’t need to go cold turkey! Perhaps choose to find a safer product for the one that you need to purchase next and do it gradually (we recommend Beatycounter makeup. They have better options, cleaner ingredients, and their makeup works and feels amazing!).
Use safe nail and hair salons. If you frequent nail and/or hair salons, you want them to be using the healthiest products possible. You have two choices: you can bring your own products from home like I do (e.g., nail polish, shampoo, conditioner) or you can look for a healthy salon in your neighborhood. Ask the owners about the products they use or if they have cleaner options available.
Examine natural and organic claims. Because the cosmetic and personal care products industry is largely unregulated, manufacturers who use the words “natural” and “organic” on their labels and in their advertising should be questioned. After all, heavy metals are “natural” yet they are not safe.
Do your own research. There are numerous websites and apps that can help you avoid dangerous makeup. Some of them include Good Guide, Skin Deep (from the Environmental Working Group), and ThinkDirty. You also can look for the MADE SAFE® seal on cosmetics, which means the products are certified to contain ingredients not known or suspected of doing harm to human health.
Make your own. The internet has scores of sites where you can learn how to easily create your own makeup products. This is one way to guarantee you are exposing yourself to safe ingredients.
Sources for information on clean beauty
You can avoid dangerous makeup by shopping for products that have been shown to be safe. Fortunately the number of healthy, safe cosmetic makers has been growing. Here are a few sources for you to consider:
Environmental Working Group’s list of safe cosmetics manufacturers, Skin Deep
Made Safe, a partner of Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
What we use
We've looked long and hard for beauty brands we trust. Here is a list of some cleaner brands we use:
Makeup is supposed to help us feel better about ourselves physically and emotionally while not inflicting any type of harm. Yet many of the cosmetics on the market today are fraught with harmful ingredients. You can avoid dangerous makeup by following the tips presented here and always being willing to take a few extra moments to read labels, question manufacturers, and choosing certified natural products.
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Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Regulations
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Makeup
Cosmetics Info. Benzophenone
Environmental Protection Agency. Minimata Convention on mercury
European Food Safety Authority. EFSA Panel on food contact materials, enzymes, flavouring and processing aids (CEF). The EFSA Journal. The toxicological evaluation of benzophenone. 2009 Jun 11
Gamer AO et al. The Inhalation toxicity of di-and triethanolamine upon repeated exposure. Food and Chemical Toxicology 2008; 46(6), 2173-83.
International Agency of Research on Cancer. Ethyl acrylate
Methylacrylate Producers Association Inc. The Methacrylate Producers Association’s position on use of methacrylic acid and unreacted methacrylate monomers liquid form in artificial nail products. April 2012