Marmur Medical Blog

Guilt-Free Makeup: How “Harmful” Cosmetic Additives are Not Causing Harm

As a 20-something-year-old woman I have a very close relationship with my beauty products; I covet my Dior, I adore my Chanel, and I love my Fresh. However, as a doctor-in-training, I am convinced that this alliance I have with the cosmetic counters at Barney’s will somehow cause my demise due to the “toxicity” of such products. While the left side of my brain just wants to apply a little more of that lip gloss, my right side has decided it would be prudent to find the facts, learn the material and find out the “whole deal” regarding cosmetics and harmful chemicals.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), nicknamed on some blogospheres as the “Environmental Worry Group”, is known for its extensive consumer product databases and, as some would claim, “scare mongering”. Recently, their new database called Skin Deep has led to public concern over the chemicals that may or may not be present in our day-to-day cosmetics. The bad guys according to the EWG include formalin, phthalates, lead and dioxane. It is true that these chemicals may be found in many of our beauty products, but their presence begs the question, what harm are we doing to ourselves? Surprisingly, the answer is little to none, because the amount of these substances present in cosmetics proves to be of small consequence.

The US National Toxicology Program has labeled formaldehyde (known as “formalin” when mixed with water) as a, “known human carcinogen.” Formaldehyde has been linked to nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia by the International Agency for Research on Cancer; however, the people retrospectively studied were almost constantly exposed to levels of gaseous formaldehyde typically seen in an industrial setting. Studies have also demonstrated that a pop can full of 37% formaldehyde is probably enough to kill 10 adults if directly ingested. In general, formaldehyde is thought to be one of the most common indoor pollutants due to its ubiquitous use in construction materials (gaseous formaldehyde is found at 0.1 ppm in air). In 1984, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel stated that no more than 0.2% of cosmetic product applied to the skin was to be formaldehyde, a level that is safe for most consumers. Furthermore, formaldehyde is not typically found in cosmetics and personal care products except in nail hardening solutions (not nail polish as typically thought). In this case, the FDA has stated that a solution must contain no more that 5% formaldehyde, comes with explicit instructions for proper use, as well as declaring all adverse effects. Therefore, the amount of formaldehyde that one is exposed to in beauty products is nowhere near the toxic concentrations thought to evoke carcinogenic properties.

It is true that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that almost all Americans contain multiple phthalate metabolites in their urine; however if phthalates were only found in cosmetics, does this really make sense? This would mean that everyone would be using beauty products on a constant basis, which is an almost impossible statistic. Phthalates, commonly used as a plasticizer, are found in almost everything from pill coatings to children’s toys to PVC plastics used to store food to personal care products. This compound is not covalently bound to the plastic that it is mixed with, and is easily released into the air (or into the food/water that are stored plastic boxes). In an urban/suburban population, free phthalate is constantly being breathed in and ingested, far beyond a level that cosmetics alone could supply. In this case, one could argue that it might be more prudent to wonder about the plastic container used to store last night’s leftovers, rather than the eye shadow used for tonight’s party. However, due to the high prevalence of phthalates in other products (cosmetics are not the driving force for these rulings), the USA, Canada and the EU have started to phase out phthalates from most merchandise. In 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act stated that all children’s toys have no more than 0.1% phthalate, and established a permanent review board to evaluate the safety of phthalates in commercial goods.

The FDA has set limits for the amount of lead that may be used as a color additive in cosmetics, including the most infamous of all, lipstick. The agency has also found that if a cosmetic is used as intended by the manufacturer, the lead content poses no safety concerns. For instance, on average it was found that lipstick contained 1.07 ppm (parts per million) lead; it is estimated that ingestion of 1 ug/g of lead (1 in 1000) on a regular basis would eventually lead to signs of lead poisoning. That means, in your average lipstick, there is 1000 times less lead than what is deemed by the scientific community as remotely dangerous. Cosmetics that contain lead are usually meant for topical use where absorption is limited and the ingested quantity so minor that it is not a safety concern.

Last, but certainly not least, is dioxane, a chemical byproduct from the manufacturing of polymers. Though it itself is not a cosmetic ingredient, it is found in what the FDA refers to as, “extremely small amounts,” in cosmetics used as detergents, foamers, or solvents. Again, studies (starting in 1978 with rats and mice) showed that ingesting high doses of dioxane that far exceeded the clearance capacity of the biological system, would indeed lead to cancer. However, the dioxane usually in contact with humans when using beauty products is topical with incomplete absorption, at a diluted concentration, usually rinsed off, and is only in contact with body for a short while (dioxane is a highly volatile substance that evaporates almost immediately). Though the FDA has never put a set limit on the allowable amount of dioxane per day (Proposition 65 in California set the limit of dioxane to 30 ug/day), the agency states that the chemical, “does not present hazard to consumers.”

The bottom line is the exposure amount of these so-called dangerous substances plays a huge role in their harmful characteristics. Ingesting any one of these chemicals in a large quantity could very well cause serious damage; however, the use of these molecules in the incredibly small amounts found in cosmetics poses very little threat to the general public. In addition, the barriers our own bodies provide to limit absorption of formaldehyde, phthalates, lead and dioxane provide us with an amazing source of protection. Though the FDA does not regulate the safety and efficacy of cosmetics with the same meticulous scrutiny as drugs, if the beauty product is used in the way it was intended, it is most likely not posing any harm to your health. So girls, slather on the moisturizer, slap on the eye shadow and gloss up those lips, because you can be totally guilt free when it comes to your cosmetics.

Written by:
Margit Lai Wun Juhasz
Mount Sinai Medical Student