Are Your Skincare Products Toxic? Makeup and Cosmetics

Are Your Skincare Products Toxic? Makeup and Cosmetics.

by Chris Kresser

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Is your makeup increasing your toxic burden? Find out which common chemicals found in cosmetics you might want to avoid.

toxic makeup
Could the toxins in your makeup adversely affect your health? istock.com/MrLonelyWalker

Last month, we talked about why you might want to rethink some of the soaps, shampoos, and lotions you use, and I gave you a rundown of some of the most frequently used chemicals in those products that might be harmful.

Many of those ingredients, including phthalates, parabens, and triclosan, are also found in makeup and other beauty products, along with a whole host of additional chemicals. In this article, I’ll cover some of the major ingredients in cosmetics to try and avoid, and of course, some more natural products that you can use instead.

PEG Compounds

Polyethylene glycol (PEG) compounds are almost always found on lists of “cosmetic chemicals to avoid,” but most research indicates that they don’t penetrate the skin and they’re actually quite safe. The problem is that, like SLS and other cosmetic additives, they’re frequently contaminated with chemicals that are harmful, such as ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. (1)

The FDA does not regulate the level of 1,4-dioxane in consumer products, and although they recommend that companies perform a manufacturing step to remove the dioxane from their products, it’s not required by law. (2) Studies have shown that dioxane can penetrate the skin (albeit in small amounts), and toxicity studies have branded it as a potential carcinogen.

Are the ingredients in your makeup making you sick?

Additionally, some PEG compounds can enhance the penetration of other chemicals through the skin, which is problematic considering how many other chemicals are found in personal care products.

Heavy Metals

Speaking of contaminants, make-up and cosmetic products are also frequently contaminated with heavy metals. One study conducted in Helsinki tested 88 eyeshadows for heavy metals, and 75% of the colors tested contained at least 5ppm of one or more heavy metals. (3) The highest levels of cobalt and nickel they found were 41 and 49 ppm, respectively, and the highest level of chromium was nearly 5500ppm, with two other products near 2500 ppm. The highest value for lead was 16.8ppm, but luckily most values were much lower.

Lipsticks also frequently contain lead, which is concerning because although inorganic lead is not readily absorbed by the skin, you’ll probably swallow small amounts of it. (4, 5) Lead exposure from lipstick is considered below the “safe limit,” but I believe the less lead you ingest, the better.

Some metals, such as chromium VI (as opposed to chromium III, which is a vital trace mineral), are purposefully added as colorants in cosmetics. Unfortunately, Cr(VI) is more absorbable by the skin than Cr(III), and it’s often found in eye shadow, where it’s in contact with the extremely thin skin around the eye. (6) It has also been detected in eye shadow in toy make-up kits, where potential for harm is much greater because it’s being used on children.

A recent survey of a variety of cosmetic products by the USDA found low median values for the heavy metals tested (arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, mercury, and nickel), but the wide variation seen between brands and products and overall lack of regulation is concerning, because you can never quite be sure what you’re being exposed to. (7)

Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are another class of potentially harmful chemicals found in many cosmetics. There’s no data on the dermal absorption of formaldehyde from cosmetics, but one small study suggests that exposure due to inhalation – the primary mode of exposure for formaldehyde – from personal care products is low. (8) Even so, formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen, and formaldehyde in cosmetics is a common cause of contact dermatitis. (9) In the US, about 20% of all cosmetics and personal care products contain some type of formaldehyde-releasing preservative. (10)

Siloxanes

Some evidence indicates that siloxanes can mimic estrogen and otherwise interfere with reproduction and the endocrine system, and large amounts administered to mice cause fatal liver and lung damage. (11) Studies have generally found the skin absorption to be low, but the study authors point out that given the interactions between siloxanes and other chemicals found in personal care products, actual absorption might be higher than predicted. (12)

Siloxanes are also very volatile, so inhalation is another relevant route of exposure. Additionally, they have relatively long half-lives in humans, so the small amounts that are absorbed might not be degraded or eliminated right away. (13)

TEA, Tetrasodium EDTA, and Other Preservatives

Triethanolamine (TEA) shows some carcinogenic potential in animal tests, and can react with other cosmetic ingredients to form nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens. (14) Manufacturers are advised to not use TEA compounds in conjunction with other reactants that can form nitrosamines, but we already know the regulation of cosmetics is loose. According to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel, 89% of the 10,500 ingredients used in personal care products have not been evaluated for safety. (15)

Tetrasodium EDTA is a preservative that is genotoxic and cytotoxic in animal studies using high oral dosing, but the main concern is probably its ability to increase dermal absorption of other chemicals. (16) Other cytotoxic and genotoxic preservatives found in cosmetics include phenoxyethanol, ethylhexyl glycerine, and benzoyl alcohol. (17)

Hair Dye

It can be easy to forget, but your scalp is part of your skin too. The potential link between hair dye and cancer has gotten a decent amount of media attention, and one review cites associations between hair dye use and various types of cancer, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, acute leukemia, and bladder cancer. (18)

On the other hand, a meta-analysis conducted in 2005 did not conclude that hair dye use is a strong risk factor for cancer, and anyway, we all know how harmful it can be to put too much stock in epidemiological associations. (19) Even so, animal studies have shown that certain components of hair dye, particularly those derived from coal tar, have mutagenic and carcinogenic potential. (20)

What Should I Use Instead?

One option is always to just forego cosmetics altogether. Many people find that emphasizing a nutrient-dense, whole-foods diet improves their skin quality and overall appearance, and might discover that they don’t want to use as much makeup as they used to.

But for those who still enjoy using makeup and other cosmetics, there are plenty of good resources. Some sources for non-toxic makeup and cosmetics include 100% Pure, Primal Life Organics, Alima Pure, and Aubrey Organics. A popular choice for natural hair dye is henna, which is a plant dye with a long history of use. Henna for Hair is a good resource to get started.

I’m definitely not an expert on hair dye or makeup, so if you have a favorite non-toxic product, please share in the comments! Thanks for reading.

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  1. I’d love to get your opinion on a new company that is launching microbiome-friendly skin care line in February, TruAura Beauty. I tried the skin care line that you use, Annmarie, and I like that it is safe and very enjoyable to use. I think this new company’s products are less expensive, just as safe, but are far more innovative and will deliver results that Annmarie’s cannot. I thought you would be able to speak to the microbiome of the skin, and how important it is to not damage it, but rather to nurture it. You are my “go to” resource for research and analysis, so I value your opinion. I’ve been sharing your latest book with friends and family, including a med school student.
    https://truaurabeauty.com/lizf