Synthetic-free cosmetics are gentle to your skin and boast earth-friendly benefits
By Kim Erickson
What woman hasn’t applied a touch of blush or a little lip gloss to liven up her looks? Throughout history, many women have used makeup on a daily basis to feel their best. Yet those pots of pretty colors can harbor dubious ingredients that may harm your health. Unlike natural cosmetics—which are created from herbs, minerals, and plant oils—mainstream makeup often contains petrochemicals that clog your pores, preservatives that can break down into potentially damaging formaldehyde, and artificial colors that may even cause cancer, according to the World Health Organization. Although not all cosmetic chemicals are harmful, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that 884 of the ingredients routinely used in conventional makeup are toxic, and another 500 can cause skin sensitivity, irritation, or allergic reactions. Here’s what you need to know about mainstream makeup products—and how to select safer alternatives.
Although conventional foundations, blushes, eye shadows, and lipsticks contain different ingredients, these products all have two things in common: synthetic colors and chemical preservatives. Makeup labels list colors as either FD&C or D&C, followed by a color and a number—for example, FD&C Yellow No. 5. Colors labeled FD&C are those the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deems safe for use in food, drugs, and cosmetics. The FDA allows D&C colors only in drugs and cosmetics. Known in the industry as coal-tar colors, these artificial hues are made from a thick tar obtained from bituminous coal, a volatile coal containing harmful constituents that can cause skin irritation, allergic reactions, and contact dermatitis. Many of these tints—particularly D&C Violet No. 2, FD&C Blue No. 1, and FD&C Green Nos. 1 through 3—contain benzene, a substance banned from a number of household products in the 1970s because research indicated it increased the risk of leukemia.
Fortunately, you can avoid FD&C and D&C colors. Natural hues from plants and minerals can safely and effectively lend their vivid shades to cosmetics. Instead of using makeup based on coal-tar colors, look for products that get their color from annatto, beta-carotene, beets, chlorophyll, saffron, turmeric, iron oxides, titanium dioxide, ultramarines, or zinc oxide.
Is Your SPF Enough?
Although numerous studies have shown the importance of wearing sunscreen to prevent skin cancer, the amounts added to foundations and lipsticks (often SPF 8) may not be enough, says David M. Stoll, MD, a dermatologist based in Beverly Hills, California. “While the extra bit of sunscreen added to cosmetics does help, for full protection it’s wise to use an SPF 15 sunscreen, preferably before applying your makeup.” Nearly all color cosmetics contain preservatives. Because manufacturers design most cosmetics to sit on store shelves for at least six months, the makers rely on strong preservatives to keep bacteria at bay. But many common preservatives, including DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15, and diazolidinyl urea, release formaldehyde, a potentially toxic, colorless, flammable gas, as they degrade. These inexpensive preservatives can be extremely irritating and may produce allergic reactions. Of more concern, formaldehyde is a suspected carcinogen. Although these ingredients might keep your makeup fresh, German researchers recently found at least one of the compounds, diazolidinyl urea, capable of damaging DNA and urged a reevaluation of its use (Mutation Research, 2002, vol. 514, no. 12).
Know Your Ingredients
Whether you use a little makeup for special occasions or apply it every day, it’s important to know what’s really in the products that line the cosmetics counter. Foundations, for example, frequently contain mineral oil, which can block pores and promote cosmetic acne. Acrylate resins help thicken and bind many pressed powders and blushes, despite the fact that they are strong irritants and allergens. If you prefer using a loose powder or blush, be aware that they can contain high concentrations of talc, which has been linked to respiratory disease.
When it comes to eye makeup, one tiny container of eye shadow can be packed with several synthetic colors and three or more preservatives. Worse yet, when Finnish researchers tested 49 eye shadows for the presence of lead, cobalt, nickel, chromium, and arsenic, they found that all the samples contained detectable levels of at least one of these toxic metals (Contact Dermatitis, 2000, vol. 42, no. 1). Eyeliner and mascara fare no better. Eyeliners can contain polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP), a plasticizer recently identified by French researchers as capable of causing cosmetic-related allergies (Contact Dermatitis, 2000, vol. 43, no. 1). And mascara often harbors petroleum distillates, shellac, and acrylates, compounds that can result in swollen, itchy lesions on and around the eyelids.
Finally, one tube of lipstick contains more coal-tar colors than any other cosmetic—a concern because lipstick is often chewed or licked off and ingested. Lipsticks and lip gloss also frequently contain phenol, a poisonous substance that people can absorb through their skin.
In light of the potentially harmful ingredients in many conventional cosmetics, it makes sense to look for healthier alternatives. Fortunately, natural makeup products offer such a choice. Instead of using chemicals, natural cosmetics rely on herbs, plant oils, essential oils, clays, minerals, and nutrients that can actually improve your complexion.
When choosing natural makeup, find products that get their color from plants or natural minerals, such as titanium dioxide, a natural whitening pigment often added to moisturizers, foundations, and sunscreen. Avoid talc, which has a chemical composition similar to asbestos and can damage your lungs. Instead, use products containing safer ingredients, such as bentonite or kaolin clays. Consider natural lipsticks, which keep your lips soft and smooth with beeswax, plant oils, and vitamin E instead of synthetic waxes and provide rich, earthy color from iron oxides rather than artificial colors.
Additionally, opt for makeup that lists plant oils instead of petroleum-derived mineral oil and petrolatum. Petrochemicals coat the surface of your face and prevent respiration, but plant oils penetrate the skin with their emollient properties. Good oils to look for include almond, apricot kernel, hemp, jojoba, sesame, and sunflower. Finally, ditch items containing hazardous preservatives and instead choose those using natural antimicrobials, such as vitamins A, C, or E, or grapefruit-seed extract.
To reduce your exposure to pesticide residue when you use botanical-based cosmetics, look for organic ingredients, particularly when it comes to cosmetics containing essential oils. But if your skin is very sensitive, keep in mind that even organically grown botanicals can cause allergic reactions and irritation. Another word of caution: Many so-called natural or organic cosmetics are simply chemical-packed products in disguise. According to the FDA, the words natural, organic, and botanical have no legal meaning in regards to cosmetics, so no regulation guides consumers in choosing the best products (the new organic standards for food do not apply to cosmetics). And although many mainstream manufacturers now add some natural ingredients to their products, a dab of aloe vera or a sprinkling of herbs doesn’t mean the product is safe or beneficial for your skin.
Better For You … And The Earth
A bonus to using natural cosmetics is that these products are not only better for your health, but also better for the environment. Many of the chemicals used to manufacture mainstream makeup are pollutants that are particularly dangerous, even at low levels, to aquatic life. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2000 Toxics Release Inventory, manufacturers release thousands of pounds of the chemicals commonly used in cosmetics—including acetaldehyde, benzene, formaldehyde, and phenol—into surface water, groundwater, and the air. Researchers at Cornell University recently discovered traces of coal-tar contaminants in groundwater and sediment samples (Journal of Microbiological Methods, 2002, vol. 50, no. 1). In another study, scientists at Tulane University in New Orleans found that zebra fish embryos exposed to benzene developed cardiovascular abnormalities (International Journal of Developmental Biology, 1997, vol. 41, no. 2). Animal studies have also found that formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, two common chemicals used in cosmetics, can damage cellular DNA.
Instead of choosing beauty products that contain harmful chemicals, seek out natural cosmetics that don’t compromise your health or the environment. You’ll not only look better—you may feel better about yourself and how you’re affecting the earth.
The author of Drop-Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics (McGraw-Hill, 2002), Kim Erickson is a self-admitted cosmetics junkie who has replaced her old stash of makeup with nontoxic alternatives.