Killer cosmetics:Dying to look good

Every time you make up, you lather your face with a deadly cocktail of carcinogens, preservatives, mutagens, allergens, toxic heavy metals and other poisons that slip through the loose regulatory net.

Many women think that makeup is just a bit of harmless feel-good fun and that the makeup they put on their faces each day – and wear for long hours at a time – is just a benign enhancement to beauty.

Yet, by the time a woman has made up her face, she will have covered her skin with carcinogens and preservatives, mutagens (substances that cause genetic mutations), allergens, central nervous system disruptors, toxic heavy metals and poisons.

Makeup is a particularly insidious form of pollution because its chemical ingredients enter the body through multiple routes. We can swallow, inhale and absorb them through the skin as well as through the mucous membranes of the eyes, mouth and nose.

In addition, cosmetics commonly contain moisturisers in the form of wetting agents (such as propylene glycol) and humectants (such as glycerine) which, while relatively harmless in themselves, increase the skin’s permeability, thus allowing more of these toxic ingredients to be absorbed into the body (Walters KA and Hadgraft J, eds, Pharmaceutical Skin Penetration Enhancement, New York: Marcel Dekker, 1993; Hseih DS, ed, Drug Permeation Enhancement: Theory and Applications, New York: Marcel Dekker, 1994).

Many assume that the government oversees the safety and efficacy of cosmetics. But makeup manufacturers are not required by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) or the UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to demonstrate that their products are either safe or effective.

What regulations there are do little to protect the consumer (Erickson K and Epstein SS, Drop Dead Gorgeous, New York: Contemporary Books, 2002). While more than 3000 ingredients are approved for cosmetics use in Europe, many more find their way into products via loopholes in the law – such as those that allow traces of banned substances if they cannot reasonably be removed during or after manufacture.

The only way to know if a cosmetic is safe is to trawl through its ingredients. Unfortunately, manufacturers are very inconsistent in listing these. Some print them on the container or on peelaway labels on the underside of the pro-duct. Others list them on the box (which is often thrown away without a glance) or just don’t list them at all as it’s not required by law. So, it is very difficult for consumers to make good decisions about what products are safe.

Allergies and more
While generally underreported, cosmetic makers know that 10-30 per cent of adults experience skin reactions (Contact Derm, 1988; 19: 195-201). The worst reactions are due to fragrance and preservatives (Contact Derm, 1987; 17: 26-34; Contact Derm, 1984; 11: 265-7). In one study, 80 per cent of those who developed makeup reactions had had no prior skin problems (Contact Derm, 1999; 40: 310-5).

European studies show that the fragrance part of a product accounts for as much as 15 per cent of all allergic reactions in those with eczema (Contact Derm, 1997; 36: 57-86; Ned Tijdschr Geneeskd, 1997; 141: 571-4). Although synthetic fragrances are most commonly implicated, emerging evidence suggests that natural fragrances may also cause allergic reactions (J Invest Dermatol, 2000; 115: 129-30).

Fragrance is a particularly thorny issue for consumers as most of us will never know which fragrance chemicals are in the products we use. Manufacturers are allowed to list them under the catch-all heading of ‘fragrance’, which belies the often hundreds of different ingredients involved in a single scent (even the simplest ones use 40 to 50 ingredients). Most of these are neurotoxic chemicals associated with central nervous system (CNS) disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and sudden infant death syndrome. Many have even been labelled ‘toxic waste’ by the FDA. Adult cosmetics are not the only problem. Play makeup and perfumes for children also often contain unacceptably high levels of these substances (Contact Derm, 1999; 41: 84-8).

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency report Health Hazard Information (EPA, 1991), the 20 most common fragrance ingredients constitute a toxic soup that no thinking person would wish to be exposed to. Of these chemicals, seven – 1,8-cineole, beta-citronellol, beta-myrcene, nerol, ocimene, beta-phenethyl alcohol and alpha-terpinolene – are completely lacking in safety data. As for the rest:

*Acetone is on the hazardous waste lists of several government agencies. It is a CNS depressant which can cause dryness of the mouth and throat, dizziness, nausea, lack of coordination, slurred speech, drowsiness and, in severe exposures, coma.

*Benzaldehyde acts as a local anaesthetic and CNS depressant, and can cause irritation to the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, lungs and GI tract, causing nausea and abdominal pain. It can also cause kidney damage.

*Benzyl acetate is an environmental pollutant and potential carcinogen that has been linked to pancreatic cancer. Its vapours are irritating to the eyes and respiratory airways, and it can also be absorbed through the skin, causing systemic effects.

*Benzyl alcohol is irritating to the upper respiratory tract, and can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, falls in blood pressure, CNS depression and, in severe cases, death due to respiratory failure.

*Camphor is a local irritant and CNS stimulant that is readily absorbed by body tissues. Inhalation can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, and cause dizziness, confusion, nausea, muscle twitches and convulsions.

*Ethanol is on the EPA hazardous waste list as it causes CNS disorders, and irritates the eyes and upper respiratory tract even at low concentrations. Inhalation of its vapours has the same effect as ingestion, including an initial stimulatory effect followed by drowsiness, impaired vision, loss of muscle coordination and stupor.

*Ethyl acetate (on the EPA hazardous waste list) is a narcotic that is irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract. It can cause headache and stupor, and has a defatting effect on skin which may lead to drying and cracking. In extreme cases, it may cause damage to the liver and kidneys, and anaemia with high white cell counts.

*Limonene is a carcinogen as well as a skin and eye irritant and allergen.

*Linalool is a narcotic known to cause CNS disorders, and may lead to sometimes fatal respiratory disturbances, poor muscle coordination and reflexes, and depression. Animal tests show that it may also affect the heart.

*Methylene chloride was banned by the FDA in 1988, but no enforcement is possible due to trade-secret laws protecting the chemical fragrance industry. Occupying the hazardous waste lists of several government agencies, it is a carcinogen and CNS disruptor absorbed and stored in body fat; it metabolises to carbon monoxide, reducing the amount of oxygen in the blood.
Other adverse effects include headache, giddiness, stupor, irritability, fatigue and tingling in the limbs.

*alpha-Pinene is a skin-sensitising agent that is damaging to the immune system.

*gamma-Terpinene causes asthma and CNS disorders.

*alpha-Terpineol is highly irritating to mucous membranes. Breathed into the lungs, it can lead to pneumonitis or even fatal water retention. It can also cause nervous excitement, loss of muscle coordination, low body temperature, CNS and respiratory depression, and headache. Scientific data warn against its repeated or prolonged skin contact.

The most commonly used cosmetic preservatives are alkyl hydroxy benzoates – methylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben and propylparaben, either alone or, more often, in combination. Parabens are well recognised as skin sensitisers (causing skin reactions), and the UK’s Brunel University has found parabens to be oestrogen mimics as well (Toxicol Applied Pharmacol, 1998; 153: 12-9). Lab tests showed that each type of paraben had a different oestrogenic potency, with methylparaben being the least potent.

Kathon CG (mainly methylisochlorothiazolinone and methylchlorothiazolinone) is the next most commonly used preservative in cosmetics, and is also a common allergen (Contact Derm, 1986; 14: 155-7). A recent study from the University of Texas found that Kathon CG is capable of causing genetic mutations (Environ Mol Mutagen, 1996; 28: 127-32).

Mercury rising
Many of us laugh at the obviously dangerous fashions of the past, like painting the face white with lead, and believe that today’s cosmetics represent a huge step forward in both beauty and safety. But the National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, compiled by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2001, noted that, while levels of lead in human tissues appear to be declining, there has been a rise in, among other things, levels of mercury.

Mercury-containing ingredients, such as phenylmercuric acetate, are common in cosmetics. Indeed, the same preservative is found in vaccines, toiletries such as soap-free cleansers, antiseptic sprays, makeup remover, eye moisturisers and mascara. These refer to mercury by one of its many synonyms – Mercurochrome, Merthiolate, sodium ethylmercurithiosalicylate, thimerosalate, thiomerosal, merzonin, mertorgan, ethyl (2-mercaptobenzoate-S) or merfamin – which aren’t readily identifiable as mercury (see The Merck Index, 12th edn, 1996, p 1590 for the complete list).

Heavy metals also get into cosmetics in other ways. Often, they are contaminants in pigments and talc. One Finnish study looked at 88 brands of eyeshadow for the presence of lead, cobalt, nickel, chromium and arsenic, and found that 66 (75 per cent) of the products had more than 5 ppm (parts per million) of at least one of these elements. The highest levels of cobalt and nickel were 41 ppm and 49 ppm, respectively – enough to cause an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals (Contact Derm, 2000; 42: 5-10).

In this instance, the elements in these cosmetics were impurities rather than actual listed ingredients, a problem shared by many cosmetics. While the researchers felt that, in most cases, the levels were not enough to cause allergic reactions, a UK study found that chronic exposure to very low levels of arsenic – lower than in the Finnish study – could disrupt hormone levels (Environ Health Perspect, 2001; 109: 5-10).

Sunscreen hype
Sunscreens are also easily absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream, the effects of which are still unknown (Lancet, 1997; 350: 863-4).

Screening chemicals in sun creams, lipsticks and other cosmetics have been revealed by Swiss researchers to be hormone-disrupting chemicals. In lab tests of six common chemicals – benzophenone-3, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4-MBC), homoslate, octylmethoxycinnamate, octyldimethyl-PABA and butylmethoxydibenzoylmethane (B-MDM) – all but B-MDM acted like oestrogen in making cancer cells grow more rapidly. Japanese research has also confirmed the oestrogenic potential of sunscreens (Toxicology, 2000; 156: 27-36).

Increasing exposure to endocrine disrupters is associated with a wide range of women’s problems like breast cancer, cystic ovaries and endometriosis. These agents are also associated with problems in men, such as prostate and testicular cancers, and poor semen quality (Sci Total Environ, 1997; 205: 97-106; BMJ, 2001; 323: 1317-8).

Most of us avoid foods that contain artificial colours yet, every day, women paint their faces with a range of artificial colours known to cause health problems.

Artificial colours may be carcinogens (such as all coal-tar dyes) whereas others may contain hidden carcinogenic impurities.

While use of a single makeup product may be ‘safe’, your total daily exposure to coloured products – in soap, shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, toothpaste, deodorant, juices, cereals, pastries, coffee, creamer, even vitamins – may add up to an unacceptable risk.

Checking for harmful dyes in cosmetics is a complex business, made more difficult by the fact that, in Europe, these colours are usually listed by their INCI (International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients) numbers – usually ‘CI’ followed by five numbers (which is different again from the name given to the same ingredient when used as a food colouring – usually an ‘E’ followed by a number). The only consistent numbers used throughout the world is the CAS (Chemical Abstract Registry) number (see box, p 2).

New colours are being developed all the time, but not with an eye on safety. FD&C red 40 (allura red, CI16035, CAS 25956-17-6, or E129) is a popular addition to eyeshadow. It has been approved and used since 1994 despite the fact that all safety tests were funded and carried out by the manufacturer. Nevertheless, the US National Cancer Institute reports that p-credine, a chemical used in making FD&C red 40, is a carcinogen.

Long-term dangers
A 75-year-old woman who develops cancer would not assume that her lifetime use of cosmetics was a contributing factor. But increasingly, it appears that cosmetics contribute significantly to the total toxic load, leading to diseases such as cancer, CNS disorders and autoimmune diseases.

Liquid formulas such as foundations often contain carcinogenic nitrosamines, usually from combining formaldehyde-releasing agents such as 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3 diol or quaternium-15 and amines such as triethanolamine. The longer the product is on the shelf, the higher the risk of nitrosamine formation.

Most types of makeup also contain the preservative butylhydroxyanisole (BHA), a chemical easily absorbed into the skin and designated a carcinogen by the US National Toxicology Program (NTP). Mascara – especially those that claim to extend your lashes – can contain any number of carcinogenic plasticisers like polyurethane.

Another common ingredient is silica, usually touted as a natural skin-enhancing mineral in spite of the fact that cosmetic silica is synthesised in the lab. Two years ago, crystalline silica (crystalline quartz; also found in cat litter and scouring powders) was added to the NTP list of carcinogens (9th Report on Carcinogens, NTP, May 2000).

While silica may be used in any cosmetic, the most risky are those that are easily inhaled, such as face powder and eyeshadow. The silica commonly used in cosmetics may be contaminated with the carcinogenic crystalline form, but it is impossible to tell which silica-containing products are contaminated. Using any silica-containing product is simply playing cosmetic Russian roulette.

Most makeup – even powder formulations – contain mineral oil to bind the ingredients together, and to provide the base for liquid formulas and lipsticks. Mineral oils were first recognised as carcinogens in 1987. Listed as ‘parafinnum liquidim’ (the stuff that baby oil is made from) or ‘petrolatum’ (petroleum jelly), these highly refined oils have a chequered history. Mineral oils are also thought to increase skin photosensitivity, making it more prone to sun damage.

As the mineral oils in cosmetics are highly refined, scientists can’t tell exactly how dangerous they are to humans. The thinner the oil (as in parafinnum liquidim), the riskier it is thought to be because of the high levels of volatile hydrocarbons thin oils contain. The National Toxicology Program’s carcinogens report notes that analyses of mineral oils used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes reveal the presence of several carcinogenic hydrocarbons known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These include benzo[b]fluoranthene, benzo[k]fluoranthene and benzo[a]pyrene.

The dangers of mineral oils were underscored recently when, in 2001, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission enacted a new law requiring safety caps for all toiletries containing thin mineral oils (parafinnum liquidium), including baby oils and suntan lotions. The move came after a 16-month-old baby in California died after ingesting and inhaling baby oil. The commission noted that during 1997 – 99, 64,000 children under five were brought to the ER with suspected ingestion or inhalation of mineral oil hydrocarbons.

The move was vigorously opposed by the US Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, which argued that only automotive and household chemicals should be forced to have safety caps put on their products. But this argument ignores the fact that the ingredients in toiletries and cosmetics are often exactly the same as those used by the automotive industry and in household cleaners.

When considering the things that influence good health, most of us recognise that environment has an increasingly strong influence on our day-to-day health. We understand pollution from factories and cars, in our water and on the food we eat.

But there is still a lack of awareness of the contributory effects of household and personal-care products, especially cosmetics. Women who wear makeup are exposing themselves for most of the day, and often seven days a week, to an ugly cocktail of allergens, carcinogens, and hormone and CNS disruptors – all in the name of beauty.

Pat Thomas is the author of Cleaning Yourself to Death (Gill & Macmillan, 2001), a comprehensive guide to the toxins in toiletries and cleaning products.

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Written by What Doctors Don't Tell You

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