The 35 billion-dollar cosmetic industry is one of the nation's
largest and most profitable enterprises, spending more money on television
advertising than any other business. Contrary to what most consumers
believe, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) neither tests nor determines
the safety of cosmetics and toiletries. The cosmetic industry is self-regulating
through an independent panel of experts whom it appoints.1,2
"Skin Deep" is the title of an investigative report prepared in 2004
by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy organization based in Washington,
DC. The EWG examined 711 lipstick products and found that 28% contained ingredients
associated with cancer risk from chemicals like butylated hydroxytoluene, Nylon
6, ferric oxide, polyethylene, and titanium dioxide.2
Toxins in Makeup
All cosmetic products contain a certain amount of bacteria, prompting manufacturers
to add preservatives. Parabens are toxic and allergenic synthetic chemicals
used extensively as preservatives in cosmetic products. Aubrey Hampton, of
Aubrey Organic Cosmetics, informs us that preservatives are not added to
protect the consumer from bacteria, however, but to extend the shelf life
of the product.3
Toxic metals can be found in moisturizer, lotion, sun block, sunscreen, mascara,
eye shadow, rouge, face powder, lipstick, and theatrical and clown makeup.
Health effects may include nausea, cramps, vomiting, skin rash, joint and bone
pain, mouth sores, cancer, stillbirths, genetic damage, immune dysfunction,
brain and learning disorders, and impulsive and violent behavior.4 These toxins
in makeup are numerous and include the following:
Mercury compounds are permitted by the
FDA for use in eye makeup at concentrations up to 65 parts per million (p/p/m).
Awareness of mercury contamination in fish,
vaccines, and dental amalgams is increasing. Old mercury-filled thermometers
are being phased out and substituted with new mercury-free thermometers to
avoid environmental and health risks. (Several schools have even been forced
to close down because of mercury spills from broken thermometers.) Yet with
all the evidence about mercury's toxicity, how many women and teenagers
have been warned about toxic mercury in eye makeup?5
Mercury is both a deadly poison and a heavy metal. The skin easily absorbs
mercury, and it accumulates in the body.3
Mercury exposure also may cause allergic reactions, skin irritation, or neurotoxicity
problems. Phenyl mercuric acetate is a highly toxic chemical used as a preservative
in eye makeup, even though it does not protect the consumer from bacteria in
products that have become contaminated by use.
Bronopol is used in mascara and other
cosmetics. A skin irritant, bronopol has caused blindness and death in laboratory
animals at concentrations much
higher than used in cosmetic products.3
Formaldehyde-releasing ingredients are
found in nearly all brands of skin, body, and hair care products, antiperspirants,
and nail polishes. Imidazolidinyl
urea and DMDM Hydantoin are just two of many preservatives that release formaldehyde,
irritate the respiratory system, cause asthma, allergies, or skin reactions,
trigger heart palpitations. Formaldehyde exposure can cause joint or chest
pain, depression, headaches, fatigue, dizziness, immune dysfunction, and cancer.6
Hexamethylenetetramine is a carcinogenic
formaldehyde-compound used in lotions and creams, and must carry a warning
label if used in concentrations greater
than 0.05%. Trade names: Aminoform, Formid, Uritone, and Cystamin.3
Lanolin, a fatty secretion from sheep's
wool, is found in many cosmetics. Although lanolin is a natural product, it
may be contaminated with DDT and
other pesticides used on the animals.1
Mineral oil is used as an emollient
to prevent water loss from skin, but can be toxic and actually dries out skin.3
1-Naphthol and 2-Naphthol are coal tar
derivatives used as dye intermediates. They can be absorbed through skin and
are skin irritants. Oral doses larger
than one teaspoon can be fatal.3
Nitrosamines are a class of carcinogenic
compounds that can be absorbed through skin. Nitrosamines are by-products created
by the chemical reactions of many
cosmetic ingredients including 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-l,3-diol, cocoyl sarcosine,
Diethandamine (DEA), Imidazolidinyl urea, formaldehyde, hydrolyzed animal protein,
Lauryl sarcosine, Monethanolamine (MEA), Quaternium-7,15,31,60, etc., Sodium
Lauryl (or Laureth Sulfate), Sodium methyl cocoyl taurate, Triethanolamine
(TEA). However, vitamins C and E act as blocking agents, inhibiting the toxic
effects of nitrosamines, and some manufacturers add vitamins C and E to their
products for this purpose.3,7
p-Hydroxybenzoic Acid Benzyl Ester (PHB
Esters), are widely used preservatives more commonly known as methyl paraben,
propyl paraben, ethyl paraben, and butyl
paraben. They are highly toxic, causing skin rashes and can behave as xenoestrogens,
raising the risk of breast cancer in women and low sperm count in men.3,7
Petrolatum (petroleum and paraffin jelly)
is a type of mineral oil used in baby oil, creams, lipstick, makeup remover,
and lip-gloss. This type of waxy
mineral oil sits on top of the skin, clogging the pores which leads to blackheads,
whiteheads, and eventually, enlarged pores.7
Propylene Glycol is a petroleum derivative
found in most forms of makeup and other cosmetics as a humectant (moisture
retainer), surfactant (oil emulsifier),
and solvent. Its industrial uses include hydraulic brake fluid and antifreeze.
This additive causes allergic and toxic reactions in some individuals. Surprisingly,
it is an ingredient in many products claiming to be "natural." Because
of Propylene Glycol's ability to quickly penetrate skin, the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) requires workers to wear protective clothing, gloves,
and goggles when working with this toxic chemical. The Material Safety Data
Sheets (MSDS) warn against skin contact because of possible brain, liver, and
kidney abnormalities. Unfortunately, consumers are neither protected, nor warned
against health risks. Stick deodorants have concentrations higher than most
Quaternium-15 is a toxic agent used
in cosmetic creams. Quaternium-15 can cause skin rashes and allergic reactions.
Trade names: Dowicil 200, Dowicide Q, and
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is a surfactant,
detergent, and emulsifier used in thousands of cosmetic products and industrial
chemicals as a cleansing agent.
It has a degenerative action on cell membranes and is damaging to hair and
skin. High levels of skin penetration may occur at even low-use concentrations.
Because it is derived from coconuts, SLS is implied to be "natural," but
it is mixed with sulfur trioxide or chlorosulforic acid and then neutralized
with aqueous sodium hydroxide (lye). SLS is often combined with triethanolamine
(TEA) which may be contaminated with the potent carcinogen, nitrosamines.8,3
SLS is used in labs around the world as a skin irritant to evaluate the healing
potential of ingredients used on the SLS-irritated skin. Permanent eye damage
has been observed, as well as residual levels of SLS in the heart, liver, lungs,
and brain from skin contact. It may be damaging to the immune system. SLS's
protein-denaturing properties can inflame and separate skin layers.8 SLS is
used in nearly every shampoo, cleanser, and toothpaste, including many products
sold in health food stores.
Sodium Laureth Sulfate (shortened from
Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate or SLES) is a yellow liquid detergent similar to
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, with higher
foaming ability. SLES is considered slightly less irritating than SLS.3,8
Talc – used in face powders and baby powders – can
cause lung problems. Talc may be contaminated with asbestos.3
Triethanolamine (TEA) is widely used
throughout the cosmetic industry and is frequently found in so-called "natural" products
as an emulsifier, pH adjuster, and preservative. TEA is a synthetic chemical
that can be contaminated
with potent carcinogens called nitrosamines.3
Color Additives date back as far as
5000 years. The desire to improve one's
appearance is not a modern concept. Artificial colors and dyes are now included
nearly every cosmetic product. The FDA lists two categories of color additives:
coal-tar dyes derived from petroleum, and colors exempt from certification – primarily
obtained from mineral, plant, or animal sources.9
Many coal tar derivatives are suspected carcinogens, and most artificial colorants
have not yet been tested for cancer risk. About 76 D&C (approved for use
in Drugs and Cosmetics) color pigments, and approximately 19 FD&C colors
are used in food and toiletries. Ext. D&C approved colors are approved
only for use in externally applied drugs and cosmetics. Six FDA "certified" colors
are suspected carcinogens. Others may cause hives, eye irritation and permanent
blindness, behavior problems, emotional outbreaks, attention deficit disorder
(ADD), chromosome damage, and reproductive mutations. Absorption of certain
colors can cause oxygen depletion of the body resulting in death.1,4,6,9
Certification in regard to coal tar pigments only regulates the amount of metallic
impurities from lead and arsenic, and is not intended to protect the public
from toxic synthetic chemicals. Dyes may also be contaminated with aluminum
and other toxic metals to give a shine to makeup.1,4,9
Exposure to color additives and dyes is a 24-hour experience in modern society,
including multiple uses of soap, skin cream, shampoo, conditioners, shaving
cream, toothpaste, body lotions, and makeup (including lipstick, mascara, eyeliner,
face powders and more). The FDA assures consumers that color additives are
safe for their intended purposes, despite removal of some questionable colors
in the past.9 FD&C yellow No. 5 (listed as tartazine on medicine labels)
is used in beverages, desserts, drugs, makeup, and many other product, and
has caused itching and hives in some sensitive individuals. Since 1980 (for
drugs), 1981 (for foods), the FDA has required all products containing No.
5 to be listed on labels.9
Fragrance chemicals are added to cosmetics
and toiletries. Fragrance on a label can indicate any of 4,000 individual ingredients,
nearly all synthetic. Fragrance
exposure can affect the central nervous system, causing depression, hyperactivity,
irritability, inability to cope, and other behavioral problems. "Fragrance-free" and "unscented" products
may still contain fragrance chemicals without listing them on the label. Eight
to 90% of fragrance chemicals are petroleum derivatives that can enter the
body through inhalation, skin, or ingestion, and go directly to the brain.
The EPA considers fragrance, second-hand smoke, and formaldehydes as triggers
for asthma, while the FDA lists fragrance as the primary cause of allergic
skin reactions to cosmetics.1,9
Rodney Dangerfield, the comedian, might
have said, "Skin gets no respect." And
that would be no joke. We expose our skin to harsh weather conditions and products
containing toxic petroleum derivatives that are drying, irritating, and pore-clogging.
Alcohols and solvents destroy the skin's pH balance, stripping away the
skin's defense barrier to infection while contributing to wrinkles, fine
lines, spots, red veins, or other discolorations. Dr. Susan Lark reminds readers
of her Health Letter that skin is a "living, breathing, blood-circulating
organism" that must be treated with the same care we'd give our
heart, liver, and lungs. In fact, Chinese medicine considers skin to be the "third
Contrary to previous beliefs that skin was impermeable, we now know that skin
easily absorbs chemicals, hence the nicotine patch, nitroglycerine patch, and
birth control patch. Toxic chemicals in makeup, personal care products, commercial,
industrial, hobby, and household products are also absorbed into the bloodstream
through dermal contact. Skin is a two-way membrane, and the body's largest
organ of elimination via perspiration, which is why saunas are so healthful
in ridding the body of unwanted toxins.11
Skin is composed of three layers: the epidermis, the dermis (cutis), and the
subdermis (subcutaneous). The epidermis has no blood vessels, but contains
many small nerve endings, and its outermost layer is constantly shedding and
being replaced. The middle layer, dermis or cutis, is highly sensitive with
a vascular layer of connective tissue containing blood vessels, lymph vessels,
nerve endings, sweat and oil glands, hair follicles, arrector pili muscles,
and papillae. The subcutaneous tissue
makes up the third layer of skin. It is adipose (fatty) tissue, necessary for
energy. The subcutaneous tissue acts
as a protective cushion for the outer skin, hair, and nails.3
Sebum is a complex oil released onto skin to slow down water evaporation while
preventing excess moisture from penetrating into the skin. Exposure to wind
and cold have a drying effect on skin. Mineral-oil based creams appear to be
helpful, but eventually inhibit the skin's natural moisturizing process,
which is also adversely affected by solvents, detergents, and chemicals in
makeup including sodium lactate, sodium pyrolidone, carboxylic acid (NaCPA),
and collagen amino acids.3
Exposures to toxic chemicals add up. According to a survey by the EWG and a
coalition of health advocacy organizations, the average American adult uses
nine personal care products daily containing a total of 126 unique chemical
ingredients. The survey also revealed the following:
- 12.2 million adults are
exposed to known or probable human carcinogens through daily use of personal
- 4.3 million women are exposed daily
to toxic ingredients linked to fertility impairment and fetal development
- 20% of all adults are exposed daily
to the top seven carcinogens commonly found in personal care products:
nitrosamines, PAHs, and acrylamide.
- Women use more cosmetics and
personal care products than men and are exposed to more unique
The cosmetics law requires that product labels list ingredients in descending
order of predominance in a manner easily read and easily understood under
normal conditions of purchase. In reality, labels are not easy to read or
understand. Labels include complicated scientific terms for myriad synthetic
ingredients, terms intelligible only to a chemist.13
The EWG found 13,900 unique ingredient names listed on the labels of 14,200
products. Misspellings and synonyms reduced the actual number of ingredients
to just over 9,800 unique chemicals. Approximately half of all ingredients
were mislabeled. The EWG found 22 different spellings of the botanical ingredient, "witch
hazel." The EWG also revealed that several cosmetic companies failed
to disclose ingredients for products sold online via their web sites.13
Drugs are heavily regulated; cosmetics are not. Both share common intentions
and, often, common ingredients as well. Many cosmetic ingredients are designed
to penetrate skin, and many drugs and cosmetics contain the same biologically
active ingredients. Indeed, many cosmetics fall into a gray area FDA calls "cosmeceuticals," products
that are half drug, half cosmetic.13
The cosmetic industry spends billions advertising what ingredients have intentionally
been added to their products, but does not provide consumers with accurate
information alerting them to carcinogenic contaminants or preservatives that
release formaldehyde. The FDA acknowledges that many cosmetic companies lack
adequate data on safety tests and that some companies have even refused to
disclose test results. Out of approximately 5,000 cosmetic distributors a miniscule
three percent have filed reports with the government of injuries to consumers.14
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health claims 884 chemicals
available for use in cosmetics are toxic substances. The FDA has no resources
for assessing the safety of these chemicals, which cause genetic damage, biological
mutation, and cancer. Mainstream brands of personal care products and makeup
contain a wide range of undisclosed carcinogenic ingredients and contaminants.14
Despite the FDA's failure to adequately regulate the safety of personal
care products, the industry assures the public that its voluntary self-regulation
ensures the safety of products available in the marketplace. A major provision
of the cosmetics law claims the following: "Each ingredient used in a
cosmetic product and each finished cosmetic product shall be adequately substantiated
for safety prior to marketing. Any such ingredients or product whose safety
is not adequately substantiated prior to marketing is misbranded unless it
contains the following conspicuous statement on the principle display panel:
Warning – The safety of this product has not been determined."13
When asked by EWG volunteers if any product labels carry this warning, industry
spokespeople replied in the negative, indicating companies are not allowed
to sell products with unsafe ingredients and would not risk violating the law.
However, the FDA admits it has little to no authority to enforce provisions
of the law requiring manufacturers to substantiate the safety of products being
sold. Safety testing is optional, and companies can operate for the most part
without fear of retribution.13
The EWG spent two years reviewing more than 20,000 product labels and did not
find even one product that carried a warning.13 Considering the FDA's
repeated failure to protect consumers from the side effects of patented drugs,
including death, how can the public possibly retain confidence in the agency's
ability to protect against harmful ingredients in personal care products and
FDA Admits Failure in Cosmetic Safety
The EWG filed a cosmetic safety petition in June 2004. In September 2005, the
FDA issued its written response revealing serious deficiencies in its power
to protect public health, admitting its inability to require warning labels
on products with safety concerns. The FDA even lacks the ability to recall
harmful products, relying solely on voluntary company actions.15
Consumers are generally shocked to learn that cosmetic ingredients have not
been tested or proven safe. To say the American public has been misled in this
regard is an understatement. A coalition of grassroots organizations is finally
spearheading a movement to protect American consumers from toxic ingredients
in personal care products and makeup.
Next month's column will cover
some of the worst and best brands of makeup, a review of new laws
being adopted in other countries and
some states in our own country, and actions consumers can take to protect
1. Williams RM. Cosmetic chemicals
and safer alternatives. Townsend Letter
for Doctors & Patients.
#247/248, Feb/Mar 2004.
2. Goldstein D. Dangerous cosmetics. The Herald.
Miami, FL (www.herald.com), Mar. 29, 2005.
3. Hampton A. Natural Organic Hair & Skin
Tampa, FL: Organic Press, 1987.
4. Silver N, PhD. The Politics of Poison.
Stone Ridge, NY (845.687.0963), 1999.
5. United States Food and Drug Administration. Prohibited Ingredients
and Related Safety Issues. Available
6. Morrocco A. The 10 most unWANTED list. The
Grain & Salt
800-867-7258). Winter 2005.
7. Lark, S, MD. Are you dying to look good. The Lark Letter.
Vol. 11, No. 6, (firstname.lastname@example.org,
877.437.5275) June 2004.
8. Liebert M, Inc., Publisher. Final report on the safety assessment
of sodium lauryl sulfate. Jrnl. Am. Coll. Tox.
Vol.2, No. 7, 1983.
9. Henkel J. Color additives fact sheet. Food and Drug Administration
web site. Available at www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/cos-221.html.
Accessed Nov. 27, 2005.
10. O'Bannon Baldinger, K. Natural Cosmetics, Nature's
Impact (Jrnl), Aug/Sept 1998.
11. Chenery, N. Organic cosmetic for natural beauty. Organic
and Natural Living, Issue One, Australia,
(email@example.com), Feb 2004.
12. Environmental Working Group. Exposures add up. SKIN DEEP.
Available at: www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep.
Accessed Nov. 15, 2005.
13. Environmental Working Group. Labels. SKIN DEEP.
Available at www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep.
Accessed Nov. 15, 2005.
14. Epstein S, MD. The Politics of Cancer Revisited.
Freemont, NY: East Ridge Press, 1998.
15. Environmental Working Group. FDA fails cosmetic safety. SKIN
Available at: www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep.
Accessed Nov. 15, 2005.
Rose Marie Williams,
156 Sparkling Ridge Road
New Paltz, NY 12561