Hi friends! Today we are going to chat about toxins in cosmetics and personal care products. There is a lot of buzz surrounding ‘clean cosmetics’ these days (for the record, clean cosmetics doesn’t have a true definition or any sort of regulation), so I thought just doing a brief overview of the various ways in which personal care products might be contaminated with chemicals, heavy metals, etc, might be useful and/or empowering to some.
I hope you enjoy! Please let me know if you have any questions.
Are there really ‘toxins’ in our cosmetics?
Yes, many there are potentially harmful substances, including toxic chemicals and heavy metals, in cosmetics, and many other personal care products, including shampoos, conditioners, body lotions, etc.
Before we take a deep dive into toxins in cosmetics, I just want to clarify that in this post, I am referring to ‘toxin’ as a harmful substance that is unnecessary to the product, and may be detrimental to human and/or environmental health.
I also want to acknowledge that the dose makes the poison, and yes, everything can be toxic at a certain amount, but for this post, again, I am using the phrase ‘toxin’ to represent a substance unnecessary to the product that may cary health risks at the a normal use exposure level.
I want to emphasize that there is a difference between toxins that are a result of contamination and/or poor manufacturing practices, and synthetic ingredients that are not necessarily bad for human health.
Furthermore, whether or not something is ‘natural’ does not necessarily have implications for its potential risks. Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury are technically all ‘natural’ heavy metals, but these are also found in some cosmetics, and too much exposure to these heavy metals can be detrimental to human health.
On the other hand, salicylic acid (a synthetic compound that acts as a medicine to treat acne) is an example of a synthetic ingredient that is intentional and not harmful in the controlled amount in which it is added to a designated product. There is a lot of greenwashing in the beauty world right now, and I just wanted to clear up any confusion about how I feel about ‘natural’ versus ‘unnatural’ versus ‘toxic’ products. I hope this makes sense. If it doesn’t, please let me know in the comments below!
Now that that is out of the way, let’s discuss toxins in cosmetics and other personal care products (PCPs).
Why do personal care products and cosmetics even have toxins?
Many personal care products and cosmetics are at risk for breeding bacteria. Thus, to extend their shelf-life and prevent them from festering lots of bacteria, manufacturers add preservatives to prevent microbial growth.
Currently, among the list allows many compounds including organic acids, triclosans, chlorhexidine, formaldehyde releasers, and parabens, among others. While these compounds may protect the products from bacterial growth, they may be toxic to consumers.
What sorts of chemicals and heavy metals might be in my product? What are the concerns about these compounds?
As I mentioned above, there are many chemicals and heavy metals that are often found in cosmetics and personal care products.
First, let’s chat about heavy metals. Compounds like arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, and nickel, can all been found in some cosmetics. In 2012, the FDA conduced a survey of 150 PCP including cosmetics, face paints, shaving creams, and lotions, and found:
“The amounts of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, mercury, and nickel that we found were for the most part very small. We currently do not have information indicating that the amounts we found would pose a health risk.”–FDA website
They acknowledge the presence of these compounds in PCPs, but have stated the amounts in the products they tested are within allowable limits.
They have also created an industry guide for cosmetic manufacturers, describing how they can take actions to reduce the amount of potentially harmful compounds in their products.
Despite the FDA’s reports, other institutions have expressed concern at the potential risks of these compounds in personal care products and cosmetics.
In 2013, scientists at UC Berkeley School of Public Health found lead, cadmium, chromium, aluminum, and other metals at levels that could ‘raise potential health concerns’ in 32 different lip products (like lipsticks and glosses) that were commonly found in drug and department stores.
Lip products are especially concerning when it comes to toxin or heavy metal exposure, as they are more likely to be ingested.
Why is this a potential problem? Let’s talk about lead as an example. Lead is found in many lipsticks. The FDA has guidelines for limiting lead in lipstick, but it is still found in many lip products.
Exposure to lead leads to accumulation of the substance in bones, blood and tissues. It can lead to short-term health effects, like abdominal pain, headache, and memory loss, and longer-term health effects like increased risks of heart disease, kidney disease, and cancer.
Prior to 2017, many hair dyes contained lead acetate. However, a petition was submitted to and approved by the FDA, and now the use of lead acetate in hair dye is not allowed.
Besides heavy metals, there are many other concerning compounds found in personal care products that pose health risks.
Phthalates, for example, are a group of widely-used chemicals often used to make plastics more flexible or used as solvent for other materials.
Phthalates are found in hundreds of commonly-used products, including vinyl flooring, children’s toys, packaging, food containers and wrappers, adhesives, pharmaceuticals, detergents, plastic clothes, and a variety of personal care and cosmetic products, including nail polish, hair spray, soaps, shampoos, perfumes, and lipsticks.
Phthalates are considered weak endocrine disruptors and androgen blocking chemicals (meaning, they are hormone-blockers). When they are absorbed, they can either mimic or block female hormones, or in males, suppress hormones involved in sexual development.
Animal studies have suggested that exposure to phthalates is associated with numerous reproductive and development health problems, including early onset of puberty, disruption of male reproductive tract development, disruption of natural hormone system function, low testosterone in adolescent males, decreased sperm counts, as well as causing reproductive and genital defects.
Although some companies have committed to removing phthalates from products, studies from the CDC suggest most people have at least some level of phthalate metabolites in their urine.
Di-n-butyl-phthalate and di-isobutyl phthalate are found in a wide variety of lipsticks, hairsprays, nail polishes and soaps. Exposure to these common products in pregnant women has been linked to substantial reductions in IQ of children. Other studies have associated exposure to certain phthalates (DEHP and BBzP) with increased risk of allergic diseases including eczema and asthma.
Formaldehyde is another concerning chemical found in many cosmetics. Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical used as a fungicide and disinfectant. Exposure can cause watery eyes, burning through, cough, nausea, and skin irritation. It is also classified as a carcinogen (cancer-causing agents) upon extended or high exposure.
Considering its a skin irritant and may cause cancer, it’s best to avoid rubbing products with this onto your skin. Unfortunately, even some “non-toxic” nail-polishes have tested positive for formaldehyde.
In addition to heavy metals, phthalates, and formaldehyde, some cosmetic products have recently been recalled for containing asbestos. Asbestos is a dangerous substance that causes tiny fibers to get stuck in lung tissues, which may cause scarring and lung disease.
Symptoms of these diseases may not be present for 30-40 years, and there is no cure for lung diseases caused by asbestos exposure, making prevention essential. It is also known to cause cancer.
Therefore, it’s advisable to not rub cosmetics with asbestos on your face, and/or exposure yourself to powders that contain asbestos, which can easily be inhaled.
Unfortunately, asbestos in cosmetics is not uncommon. For example, Johnson & Johnson recalled their baby powder for containing the dangerous compound, and Jojo Siwa’s makeup line (which was available at Claire’s) was recalled by the FDA for the same reason. A longer list of other products recalled for asbestos can be found here.
The above list of examples is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it gives you a sense of all of the ways cosmetics may be contaminated. Now, let’s move on to chat regulations and personal protection.
How is it possible that we have so many products that have toxins in them?
When you read about toxins in products, it’s easy to quickly jump to “Well, shouldn’t we be doing something about this? Surely, the government must regulate this somehow…”
Well, they do. Sort of. In 1976, the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) was passed to protect consumers in the United States. This law regulates the introduction of new or existing chemicals in the US. The TSCA has a list of over 82,000 chemicals that are currently in use but have not yet been proven to be safe to stay on the market.
In fact, only about 200 of those chemicals have actually been reviewed and tested for toxicity by the EPA, leading to only about 11 chemicals being banned. For reference, over 1300 cosmetic chemicals are banned or restricted in the European Union.
Under current US law, cosmetic products and ingredients other than color additives do not require FDA approval before they hit the market. So, kind of like supplements, recall and regulations most often happen after-the-fact. This makes it difficult for consumers to navigate what is safe versus what may not be safe.
To complicate matters further, many cosmetics are manufactured in other countries, where regulations may be totally different.
Injustice in the beauty world:
Like many things in public health, certain groups impacted more than others when it comes to the dangers of toxins in beauty products and cosmetics.
A look at the data is sobering. A 2017 study published in American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynocology found that products marketed towards dark-skinned and African American women contained some of the most toxic chemicals found in the beauty industry.
It seems exposure to chemicals and heavy metals found in cosmetics impacts already marginalized groups: namely women and minorities, making this issue a justice issue, as well.
How can you protect yourself from toxins in cosmetics, hair, beauty, and other personal care products?
There are some actions you can take to reduce your exposure to toxins in cosmetics, hair, beauty and other personal care products.
First and foremost, when you can, read ingredient labels.
Try to avoid products that contain any of the following “Dirty Dozen” ingredients:
- Coal tar dyes
- DEA-related ingredients
- Dibutyl phthalate
- Sodium Laureth Sulfate
- PEG compounds
- Parfum (fragrances)
There are also some nifty online resources for avoiding phthalates. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database are useful tools for navigating the cosmetic aisles.
And if you have a smart phone, there are a couple apps that can help you navigate the aisles of your local retailer when shopping for personal care products. I suggest “Good Guide,” “Think Dirty” and “EWG Healthy Living.”
If you are concerned about the potential toxins in cosmetics and other personal care products you may be using, I hope you find this information empowering and the suggested resources useful. If you can afford to and find it important to you, I hope you can use the apps and websites to make informed purchases moving forward.
Thanks for reading and have a lovely day!
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