Many women think that makeup is just a bit of harmless feel-good fun and that the makeup they put on their faces each day - and wear for long hours at a time - is just a benign enhancement to beauty. Yet, by the time a woman has made up her face, she will have covered her skin with carcinogens and preservatives, mutagens (substances that cause genetic mutations), allergens, central nervous system disruptors, toxic heavy metals and poisons.
Makeup is a particularly insidious form of pollution because its chemical ingredients enter the body through multiple routes. We can swallow, inhale and absorb them through the skin as well as through the mucous membranes of the eyes, mouth and nose. In addition, cosmetics commonly contain moisturisers in the form of wetting agents (such as propylene glycol) and humectants (such as glycerine) which, while relatively harmless in themselves, increase the skin’s permeability, thus allowing more of these toxic ingredients to be absorbed into the body.
Many assume that the government oversees the safety and efficacy of cosmetics. But makeup manufacturers are not required by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) or the UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to demonstrate that their products are either safe or effective.
Fragrance is a particularly thorny issue for consumers as most of us will never know which fragrance chemicals are in the products we use. Manufacturers are allowed to list them under the catch-all heading of ‘fragrance’, which belies the often hundreds of different ingredients involved in a single scent (even the simplest ones use 40 to 50 ingredients). Most of these are neurotoxic chemicals associated with central nervous system (CNS) disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and sudden infant death syndrome. Many have even been labelled ‘toxic waste’ by the FDA.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency report Health Hazard Information (EPA, 1991), the 20 most common fragrance ingredients constitute a toxic soup that no thinking person would wish to be exposed to. Of these chemicals, seven - 1,8-cineole, beta-citronellol, beta-myrcene, nerol, ocimene, beta-phenethyl alcohol and alpha-terpinolene - are completely lacking in safety data.
As for the rest:
- Acetone is on the hazardous waste lists of several government agencies. It is a CNS depressant which can cause dryness of the mouth and throat, dizziness, nausea, lack of coordination, slurred speech, drowsiness and, in severe exposures, coma.
- Benzaldehyde acts as a local anaesthetic and CNS depressant, and can cause irritation to the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, lungs and GI tract, causing nausea and abdominal pain. It can also cause kidney damage.
- Benzyl acetate is an environmental pollutant and potential carcinogen that has been linked to pancreatic cancer. Its vapours are irritating to the eyes and respiratory airways, and it can also be absorbed through the skin, causing systemic effects.
- Benzyl alcohol is irritating to the upper respiratory tract, and can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, falls in blood pressure, CNS depression and, in severe cases, death due to respiratory failure.
- Camphor is a local irritant and CNS stimulant that is readily absorbed by body tissues. Inhalation can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, and cause dizziness, confusion, nausea, muscle twitches and convulsions.
- Ethanol is on the EPA hazardous waste list as it causes CNS disorders, and irritates the eyes and upper respiratory tract even at low concentrations. Inhalation of its vapours has the same effect as ingestion, including an initial stimulatory effect followed by drowsiness, impaired vision, loss of muscle coordination and stupor.
- Ethyl acetate (on the EPA hazardous waste list) is a narcotic that is irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract. It can cause headache and stupor, and has a defatting effect on skin which may lead to drying and cracking. In extreme cases, it may cause damage to the liver and kidneys, and anaemia with high white cell counts.
- Limonene is a carcinogen as well as a skin and eye irritant and allergen. *Linalool is a narcotic known to cause CNS disorders, and may lead to sometimes fatal respiratory disturbances, poor muscle coordination and reflexes, and depression. Animal tests show that it may also affect the heart.
- Methylene chloride was banned by the FDA in 1988, but no enforcement is possible due to trade-secret laws protecting the chemical fragrance industry. Occupying the hazardous waste lists of several government agencies, it is a carcinogen and CNS disruptor absorbed and stored in body fat; it metabolises to carbon monoxide, reducing the amount of oxygen in the blood. Other adverse effects include headache, giddiness, stupor, irritability, fatigue and tingling in the limbs.
- alpha-Pinene is a skin-sensitising agent that is damaging to the immune system.
- gamma-Terpinene causes asthma and CNS disorders.
- alpha-Terpineol is highly irritating to mucous membranes. Breathed into the lungs, it can lead to pneumonitis or even fatal water retention. It can also cause nervous excitement, loss of muscle coordination, low body temperature, CNS and respiratory depression, and headache. Scientific data warn against its repeated or prolonged skin contact.
The most commonly used cosmetic preservatives are alkyl hydroxy benzoates - methylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben and propylparaben, either alone or, more often, in combination.
Parabens are well recognised as skin sensitisers (causing skin reactions), and the UK’s Brunel University has found parabens to be oestrogen mimics as well.
Sunscreens are also easily absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream, the effects of which are still unknown. Screening chemicals in sun creams, lipsticks and other cosmetics have been revealed by Swiss researchers to be hormone-disrupting chemicals.
Most of us avoid foods that contain artificial colours yet, every day, women paint their faces with a range of artificial colours known to cause health problems. Artificial colours may be carcinogens (such as all coal-tar dyes) whereas others may contain hidden carcinogenic impurities.
While use of a single makeup product may be ‘safe’, your total daily exposure to coloured products - in soap, shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, toothpaste, deodorant, juices, cereals, pastries, coffee, creamer, even vitamins - may add up to an unacceptable risk.
Mascara - especially those that claim to extend your lashes - can contain any number of carcinogenic plasticisers like polyurethane. The silica commonly used in cosmetics may be contaminated with the carcinogenic crystalline form, but it is impossible to tell which silica-containing products are contaminated. Using any silica-containing product is simply playing cosmetic Russian roulette. Most makeup - even powder formulations - contain mineral oil to bind the ingredients together, and to provide the base for liquid formulas and lipsticks.
Mineral oils were first recognised as carcinogens in 1987. Listed as ‘parafinnum liquidim’ (the stuff that baby oil is made from) or ‘petrolatum’ (petroleum jelly), these highly refined oils have a chequered history. Mineral oils are also thought to increase skin photosensitivity, making it more prone to sun damage.
When considering the things that influence good health, most of us recognise that environment has an increasingly strong influence on our day-to-day health. We understand pollution from factories and cars, in our water and on the food we eat. But there is still a lack of awareness of the contributory effects of household and personal-care products, especially cosmetics.
Women who wear makeup are exposing themselves for most of the day, and often seven days a week, to an ugly cocktail of allergens, carcinogens, and hormone and CNS disruptors - all in the name of beauty.
Pat Thomas is the author of Cleaning Yourself to Death (Gill & Macmillan, 2001), a comprehensive guide to the toxins in toiletries and cleaning products.