Your cosmetics may not be as safe as you think. Experts weigh in on the health risks associated with certain ingredients in everyday makeup and other cosmetic products.
They say beauty is only skin deep. But the cosmetic products many women use to look their best every day could actually be causing damage far beyond that. Research suggests that many trusted makeup and personal care products may contain potentially harmful chemicals.
“The average woman uses 10 beauty products a day, exposing her to 126 chemical ingredients, many of which are linked to health risks such as diabetes, cancer, or reproductive harm,” says Lisa Archer, director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
Unlike the guidelines for foods, beverages, and medications put in place by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the safety rules governing cosmetic products aren’t nearly as strict. “Right now, the Federal Trade Commission is the body responsible for monitoring the safety of cosmetic and cosmeceutical products, and their only authority is to recommend that a product be pulled off the market after enough complaints have been logged,” explains Jessica J. Krant, MD, MPH, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York City.
This means it’s up to consumers to become label readers and to be aware of the ingredients in makeup and other beauty products that pose potentially significant health risks. Here are some of the most common and controversial chemicals:
“Phthalates are used to make products more pliable and are found in toys, food, and some cosmetic products, such as nail polish and soap,” says Adam Friedman, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology at Montefiore-Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
In fact, phthalates are so common that most Americans tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the “Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals” had evidence of phthalate metabolites in their bodies. The health effects of this level of phthalate exposure are still unconfirmed, but research is ongoing. One recent study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that women with high levels of phthalates in their urine were at an elevated risk for diabetes.
Phthalates may come with other health risks, too, including low hormone levels and small genital size in men whose mothers were exposed to the chemicals during pregnancy. “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added eight phthalate ingredients to their ‘Chemicals of Concern’ list, meaning the agency will keep a close watch on the chemicals with stricter limitations in the future,” Dr. Friedman says.
If you are concerned about phthalates, Friedman recommends you look for phthalate-free cosmetics and beauty products. “Or check the ingredients list for the terms dibutylphthalate, dimethylphthalate, diethylphthalate, butyl ester, or plasticizer,” he says.
“Parabens are preservatives used as ingredients in many cosmetic products, including deodorant, shampoo, makeup, lotions, and oral care products,” says Glenn Kolansky, MD, a dermatologist in Red Bank, N.J. “They protect against bacteria growth.”
Sounds good, right? But a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology revealed that the protection parabens offer against bacteria may come with a price: an increased risk for breast cancer. Researchers found that 99 percent of the tissue samples collected from women with breast cancer contained at least one paraben, and 60 percent of the samples contained no fewer than five parabens. Researchers suspect that the estrogen-like effects of parabens in the body may be partially to blame for the health risks they cause.
To avoid parabens, Dr. Kolansky recommends you look for products labeled “paraben-free” or “organic.” Beware of ingredients that include the word paraben, such as propyl- or methylparaben.
“Triclosan — an ingredient in a lot of antibacterial hand soaps, deodorant, and toothpaste — has been linked to antibiotic resistance and is a hormone-disruptor,” Archer explains. This means that it interferes with the production or regulation of natural hormones in the body.
Triclosan is classified by the EPA as a pesticide, but it’s used commonly as a preservative and as an antimicrobial agent. However, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says regular soap and water are just as effective as antibacterial soaps, so the health risks of triclosan seem to outweigh the benefits, ” Archer says.
Nanomaterials are tiny, engineered particles measured in billionths of a meter that can change the way many products, including cosmetics, operate. “Skin care products incorporating nanoparticles can change the way cosmetic ingredients interact with the skin,” Friedman says. For example, nanoparticle ingredients can help give makeup a more natural look and give moisturizers and sunscreens a smoother feel.
No obvious health risks have been associated with nanoparticles, but the FDA is keeping a close eye on them. Because of their tiny size, nanomaterials may be able to get into cells they wouldn’t normally have access to.
“The greatest concern is that nanoparticles have the potential to generate free radicals [molecules that can cause damage to human cells or DNA] when exposed to ultraviolet radiation,” Friedman explains. “More research is needed to fully understand the health risk associated with nanoproducts.”
If you would feel more comfortable avoiding these ingredients in the meantime, check out the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies’ online database of products that contain nanoparticle ingredients.
The ‘Toxic Trio’
“Many nail polishes contain what is referred to as the ‘toxic trio’ — toluene, a neurotoxin; formaldehyde, a known carcinogen; and dibutyl phthalate (DBP), a reproductive toxin and hormone disruptor, ” Archer says. To avoid these ingredients, she recommends that you look for nail polishes that do not contain them or that are water-based instead, particularly if you are pregnant. “Look for labels that say ‘three-free,’ ” she says. “OPI is one brand that does not contain these ingredients.”
A Smart Consumer Is a Beautiful Thing
So what’s a woman who loves her lotions and potions to do? Her homework. Being a safe consumer takes some research, Archer says. To keep the health risks from cosmetics ingredients as low as possible for yourself and your family, try these tips:
- Ask an expert. “The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that anyone concerned about health risks associated with cosmetics brings their actual product packages to their dermatologist and has a specific discussion about the ingredients, their own personal health risks, and the risk/benefit ratio of the cosmetic products they are using,” Dr. Krant says.
- Forego fragrance. “Under law, companies are required to disclose all ingredients in cosmetic products, except what is in the fragrance,” says Archer. “Instead, they are allowed to simply list the word ‘fragrance’ or the phrase ‘synthetic fragrance.’ These scents often contain hundreds of harmful chemicals, including phthalates.” To protect yourself, she recommends choosing cosmetic products that disclose all ingredients on the label and do not list “fragrance” ambiguously.
- Simplify your beauty routine. The fewer makeup products and lotions you use, the lower your health risk from cosmetic ingredients. “Use fewer products — and know what is in the cosmetics you do use,” Archer says.