Harmful Chemicals In Cosmetics And What To Look For

By:    Published: September 26, 2011

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When people buy makeup, they are highly unlikely to read the ingredient label. Typically, they choose the best brand, test the color and check the price, only. This is a bad habit that quickly needs to be broken.

When shopping for makeup, people need to be aware of the harmful chemicals in cosmetics that aren't commonly known. Some are disguised by clever terminology and others may not even be listed. However, none of these chemicals belong anywhere near you or your face.

The Truth About Cosmetics

The truth about cosmetics is that many people don't know the full truth of what these products are really made from. And if you think that the government is regulating the ingredients that cosmetics are made from, think again. That's a common cosmetic myth, and just one of many. Here's the truth behind that myth and others:

  • The government does not regulate cosmetics. In fact, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), cosmetic manufacturers do not have to seek approval for use of any ingredient or raw material except for some prohibited chemicals and color additives. Additionally, the FDA does not have the authority to require cosmetic companies to test their products for safety or to recall products that contain harmful ingredients.
  • The amount of harmful chemicals in cosmetics isn't enough to do any real damage, is it? Yes, it is. Those chemicals can be breathed in through the nose or absorbed through the skin. And when those chemicals do find their way into the body, they can disrupt hormones and have been known to cause low birth weight in girls. Since these chemicals are found in many personal care products and not just makeup, men can also see side effects like an increased risk for sperm damage and feminization of their reproductive system.
  • If it's labeled "organic," then it's OK, right? Wrong. The FDA regulation on organic ingredients can fall into a grey area, especially with cleaning products or cosmetics. So if the label says "organic," "natural," or even "hypoallergenic," it doesn't necessarily mean that those products are safe. They still might contain skin irritants or artificial preservatives.
  • Even if the ingredient is harmful, it still has to be listed, doesn't it? Not necessarily. EWG states that if the ingredient is a nanomaterial or a trade secret, it does not have to be disclosed on the label.

Ignorance may seem like bliss sometimes, but in this case, it's more important to know what you are putting on your face and the damage those ingredients could potentially cause.

Common Ingredients to Avoid

Cosmetic ingredient labels can be tricky to decipher. If you can barely pronounce the word, how are you supposed to know what it is? Here are some of the most common chemical ingredients found in makeup and other personal care products:

  • Oxybenzone: This ingredient is most commonly found in sunscreen and is known to be a hormone disrupter. Oxybenzone has also been associated with allergies and irritation and may cause low birth weight in girls and high birth weight in boys.
  • Hydroquinone: This ingredient is a skin lightener and can cause ochronosis, a skin condition in which black-colored lesions develop on the skin.
  • Parabens: These chemicals are found in many personal care products, from makeup to lotion to sunscreen. Parabens mimic estrogen and are typically found in breast cancer tumors. They can cause reproductive and developmental disorders as well as disrupt the endocrine system.
  • DMDM hydantoin, Bronopol, Urea compounds: These are all preservatives found in cosmetics and other personal care products. When they decompose, they release formaldehyde, a carcinogen that has also been used in hair products, particularly hair straighteners. Both the preservatives and formaldehyde have been linked to allergic reactions.
  • Fragrance: If you see this word listed on any ingredient label, think of it as a red flag. The term "fragrance" is very deceptive as more than 3,160 chemicals fall under the fragrance category - and none of them are required to be listed on the label. Fragrances are known to be hormone disrupters and are considered to be one of the top five allergens in the world. Phthalates, another chemical found in makeup, tend to be found in fragrances and can disrupt the male reproductive system.
  • Petroleum distillates: Yes, petroleum is found in makeup products, particularly mascara. It can cause contact dermatitis and may contain cancer-causing compounds.
  • PEG/Ceteareth/Polyethylene compounds: These chemicals are synthetic and typically contain 1.4-dioxane, a carcinogen that penetrates the skin.

Choosing Safer Cosmetics

So many products contain harmful chemicals that it can be difficult to tell the good from the bad. Here are some tips to keep in mind during your next trip to the makeup aisle:

  • Look for simpler ingredients. A good rule of thumb is if you can't pronounce it, don't buy it. Look for ingredients you are familiar with such as aloe or lavender.
  • Avoid fragrances. There are products that are fragrance-free or that contain natural oils instead of fragrances.
  • Check the Environmental Working Group's database. EWG has researched an extensive list of makeup and personal care products and you can find out just how hazardous your makeup may be.

You can also get creative and make your own cosmetics from natural ingredients. You can make face masks from avocado and carrots or honey and eggs. Or, you can make lip gloss from beet juice, beeswax, castor oil and sesame oil or honey, beeswax and carrier oil.

Although many cosmetic companies are deceptive about the ingredients they use, that doesn't mean that you have to fall for their tricks. Knowing how to read the ingredient label and what to avoid when purchasing makeup products will protect your health in the long-run.

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