Chemicals in Makeup and Skin Care: Their Role in Hormone Disruption and the Surprising Link to Cancer
Unless you’re shopping at some kind of petroleum plant for your lipstick you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find a bunch of toxins and cancer causing chemicals in your makeup and skin care products.
But the reality is that the cosmetics industry is big business – and where there’s big business there’s big money -$180 billion to be exact. And sometimes that means that the well-being of the customer plays second fiddle to the company’s profitability.
Since many women won’t even walk to the mailbox without their lipstick on (including my grandmother), it’s pretty safe to say that we women like our cosmetics and personal care products. In fact, women use on average 6 cosmetics and 13 personal care products every day. Men use about 10 total and 3 products are applied to the skin of children and babies each day (1).
Since what’s applied to the skin actually enters into the bloodstream, it’s important that what we’re slathering on our legs after we shower is as safe and non-toxic as possible. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as leaving it up to government agencies like the FDA to keep us safe. It’s quite the opposite actually,
The cosmetics and personal care product industry are not regulated well by the FDA. Manufacturers are allowed to sell products that contain carcinogens, hormone disrupting ingredients, allergens and a host of other toxins. If this was a rare occurrence I wouldn’t be as inclined to write this article. It’s not rare. It’s actually the norm and you need to be aware of the alarming level of chemicals in your makeup and skincare routine.
Walk in to your local drugstore and pick up virtually any conventional makeup or personal care product and you’ll be surprised that at least one (and just one is really good), but usually many more ingredients are toxins to the system. This is why we carefully select the products that we use in our family and we lean toward organic whenever possible.
Chemicals in Makeup and Regulation
Researchers in the US have discovered that one in eight of the 82,000 ingredients found in cosmetics and personal care are toxic, therefore, 10,500 ingredients are comprised of harmful industrial chemicals that cause negative effects on our health and the environment (2).
Despite this, beauty products are one of the least tested industries in the US. The FDA focuses mostly on food and drugs and very little to cosmetics and personal care products.
They don’t require that beauty companies perform safety testing before introducing them to the market. Furthermore, the FDA doesn’t review products before they are brought to market. They also have no clue how product ingredients impact long term health of consumers (you and me) that are purchasing them and using them on ourselves and our children (3).
The Top Chemicals in Makeup and Health Risks
Look on the packaging of any cosmetic item and you’ll find a range of ingredients that make you scratch your head. All ingredients may be listed and products that contain ‘fragrance’ often mask a host of hormone disrupting, allergy inducing ingredients that are not listed on the label.
How can this be? Well, the FDA lets beauty companies hide behind “trade secrecy.” Since they have proprietary ingredients, they don’t have to disclose what they are. This means that you and I also don’t get the full scoop on what exactly is in these skin care products.
Since it can become exhausting trying to scour every label, I’ve compiled a list of some of the worst offenders so you can at least know what to look out for.
Parabens are generally found in the form of methylparaben, propylparaben or butylparaben and are used in cosmetic products as a preservative to prevent bacteria from growing in your favorite items.
You’ll find them in all kinds of makeup, such as foundation and mascara, as well as in shampoos and body lotion. While they have been used for decades, there has been widespread concern about their health risks.
Parabens penetrate the skin with ease and have been found to mimic the hormone estrogen. Because of this, there is concern that parabens may be linked to breast cancer. Research conducted by Philippa Darbre at the University of Reading revealed that in 20 samples of tissue from breast tumor biopsies, parabens were detected in 18 of them (4).
Here’s a quote from Dr. Samuel Epstein, author of the book Toxic Beauty:
“Parabens’ presence in breast tissue on its own incriminates them as a possible cause of breast cancer, but they have also been shown to stimulate the growth of estrogen-sensitive breast cancer cells in lab tests.”
Furthermore, a study by Danish researchers on young males indicated that parabens were detected in their blood just hours after applying lotions containing parabens.
Parabens naturally occur in very small levels in specific foods, however, when these foods are consumed, they are metabolized which makes them less likely to mimic estrogen. In cosmetics, a synthetic version of parabens derived from petrochemicals are used which when applied, are absorbed into the bloodstream to mimic the hormone estrogen.
hile the European Union has restrictions over the concentration of parabens used in cosmetics, the US Food and Drug Administration maintains that parabens are safe to use at current levels (5).
This is one of the big ones when it comes to chemicals in makeup. Many makeup products contain fragrance to give them a pleasant aroma. However, even unscented products may contain synthetic fragrance. On a label, the word ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ may cover a wide list of undisclosed ingredients.
Almost 3,000 chemicals can be used as fragrance in products. These chemicals can cause allergies or asthma and disrupt hormones. While the majority of synthetic fragrance ingredients have not been tested, most of them are considered irritants that can result in sensitive skin including breakouts and rashes.
Some have even been linked to cancer and reproductive issues. For example, synthetic musks have been found in breast milk with studies demonstrating that they may disrupt hormones and be toxic to the development and reproductive systems (6).
Manufacturers are not required to reveal their fragrance chemicals due to them being viewed as the manufacturers trade secret. While the European Union has restrictions on specific fragrances like nitromusks, the FDA legal restrictions on synthetic fragrance are the same as other ingredients in that no testing is required.
Dibutyl Phthalate is found in nail products and prevents polishes from becoming brittle as well as providing shine. Phthalates are regularly hidden from cosmetic labels under the guise of ‘fragrance’ so they don’t need to be officially listed.
Dibutyl phthalate is absorbed via the skin and can cause varying health problems, such as reproduction and hormone issues. According to the Environmental Working Group, DBP was found at its highest levels in those of child-bearing age and may contribute to developmental problems of babies in the womb (7).
Furthermore, DBP isn’t the only toxic ingredient in nail polishes. Toluene, made from coal tar or petrolatum gives nail polish a smooth consistency. It has been linked to fetal development problems, anemia, and kidney damage. Another toxic ingredient, formaldehyde, is used as a preservative within nail polish and has been linked to leukaemia.
Dibutyl phthalate has been classified as toxic to the environment by the European Union due to its impact on aquatic organisms. It’s also listed as a chemical for priority action by the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic.
The FDA notes that the exact extent of DBP on human health requires more research. But what they have done to actually do the research – or at least require companies to do so remains to be seen.
Butylated hydroxyanisole as well as butylated hydroxytoluene are used as preservatives in many makeup products like lipstick. They have been linked to cancer and interfere with hormones.
Both toxic ingredients can cause allergic reactions and long term exposure of butylated hydroxytoluene has been shown to cause liver and kidney problems in rats. The National Toxicology Program have determined BHA/BHT as a potential carcinogen and its use is banned in Europe (8).
Furthermore, the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic list BHA as an ingredient of potential concern due to it being toxic to aquatic organisms.
California requires a warning to be placed on labels of products containing BHA, however, the FDA maintains that BHA is recognized as safe for food preservation and consumer products.
Formaldehyde releasing agents may be listed as diazolidinyl urea, methenamine or imidazolidinyl urea and are linked to cancer. They are usually used as preservatives in cosmetic products, however, formaldehyde is used in the production of plastics, vinyl flooring, and toilet cleaners.
Formaldehyde is a well-known carcinogen, though, the FDA doesn’t prohibit the use of formaldehyde in cosmetics. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review suggests that formaldehyde should not be used in amounts greater than 0.2 percent (9).
Petrolatum is used as a moisture barrier to keep the skin hydrated and it’s often found in lipsticks and hydrating cosmetic products. Petrolatum can be contaminated with PAHs or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which have been linked to cancer. For this reason, the use of petrolatum in cosmetics is restricted in the EU.
Mineral oil is a by-product of petrolatum and can clog pores, promote acne, and cause premature aging. It is used in cosmetics as a preservative and hydrating property. However, it’s also found in engine oils and pesticides. Its widespread use in beauty products is due to its cheap cost.
In terms of toxicity, it may be contaminated with PAHs which are linked to cancer. The U.S Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances classes mineral oil as carcinogenic. However, this is linked to prolong use and poorly refined mineral oil.
In terms of effects on the skin, mineral oil may prevent the skin from breathing properly, and on entering the skin, the liver is required to work harder in order to break it down.
What to Do
I know that when you learn about all of the chemicals in makeup and skincare for the first time it can feel completely overwhelming. If you want to know what to do about replacing some of your most toxic products, including what brands are safe, check out the best organic makeup brands that don’t compromise on quality.