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Pretty Little Toxins: What’s Really in Those Makeup and Cosmetics?

Published on: June 18, 2013

makeup chemicalsYou feel pretty, oh so pretty . . . and maybe a little contrite.

Women typically reach for their cosmetic bags to highlight attributes, conceal imperfections and boost self-confidence (look good = feel good). But when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate the blush you’re reaching for, you could be adding more than a subtle shade of “dusty rose” to your cheeks.

According to the Cancer Prevention Coalition (CPC), cosmetics are the least-regulated products under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). In addition, the FDA estimates that less than 40 percent of the nation’s 2,000-plus cosmetic manufacturers are registered with the FDA.

“It’s hard to choose which cosmetic lines to stay away from, since many have harmful ingredients,” says Natalie Rubio, an aesthetician and former Aveda skin care therapist. “The products consumers should be most concerned with are those with a powder consistency.

Companies often use talc [talcum powder] as the base to create these products.”

While studies linking talcum powder and cancer have had mixed results, some studies have reported a slightly increased risk of ovarian cancer with talcum powder use, according to the American Cancer Society.

Risky business

Rubio says harmful ingredients in cosmetics can cause conditions ranging from acne, premature aging and allergic reactions to skin depigmentation and respiratory irritation.

“The consumer would be shocked to learn that most of the industry is not regulated. Yes, there is the FDA, but it doesn’t regulate what manufacturers are putting into the products,” Rubio says.

While women often reach for makeup to help improve the look and feel of their skin, Rubio says good skin care begins with diet. Money spent on expensive products will go to waste without proper hydration and nutrition, she notes. She suggests women pay attention to dietary allergies when shopping for makeup — if you are allergic to gluten, for example, purchase makeup that’s gluten-free.

While Rubio recommends using products that contain SPF (sun protection factor), sunscreens with SPF values of 50 or more contain harmful chemicals, she notes.

What cosmetics does Rubio recommend? She likes BareMinerals, Aveda and Gabriel cosmetics. “They help achieve and maintain healthy skin, rather than break it down from within,” she says.

Because it’s difficult to tell which skin products are damaging, be sure to rinse off creams, oils or lotions thoroughly at the end of every day. The CPC says using cold water can reduce the amount of harmful chemicals absorbed by the skin.

For information about specific products, visit Environmental Working Group.

Allyson Marrs is a Pacific Northwest native, which means she always has a great fleece nearby. A writer with a special interest in health and wellness, she loves to silence her mind with great movies and TV.

The List

  • Talc, closely related to asbestos. Typically found in powders (such as loose and pressed facial powders) and baby powder. According to the CPC, a 1993 National Toxicology Program report found that cosmetic-grade talc caused tumors in animal subjects. Studies are still divided on talc’s potential harms.
  • Paraben preservatives (methyl, propyl, butyl and ethyl). Look for it in foundation, concealers, mascara, sunscreen, hair dyes, conditioners, styling gel and nail creams, according to Green Living. Can disrupt your hormones as they mimic natural estrogens and have been linked to breast cancer and skin rashes.
  • Bronopol. It acts as a preservative in eye products, lip products, concealers, body care and hair care, according to the CRC Handbook of Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Excipients. Chemical use can cause redness and stinging of the eyes, sore throat, skin irritation, and can lead to the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines, according to the CPC.
  • Diethanolamine (DEA). It’s used as a wetting agent in shampoos, lotions, creams and other cosmetics, according to the CPC. When DEA reacts with other ingredients in cosmetics, it becomes harmful, and can form the carcinogen nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA), which is absorbed through skin and linked to stomach, esophagus, liver and bladder cancers.
  • Propylene/butylene glycol (PG). PG is commonly used in lipstick, lotion, body wash, conditioner and deodorant as a cheap substitute for glycerine, which retains moisture, according to Green Living. Possible link to brain, liver and kidney abnormalities; can cause central nervous system depression, respiratory irregularities and weakened cellular structure.

Go to and search for “six makeup chemicals” for more information.

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