Chemicals in Health and Beauty Products

Mascara wandCosmetics is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry with limited regulations. The FDA lacks the power to approve products or an ingredient used in cosmetics and has not specifically determined what is “safe.” Because compounds placed on the skin can readily be absorbed into the body, is this something to be concerned about?

Right now, it’s up to the cosmetics companies to do the right thing for our safety – and we certainly put a lot of trust in them. If you’re like the average US consumer, you use 10 or more cosmetics a day – shampoo, conditioners, hair spray, perfume, skin creams and lotions, make up – with resulting exposure to more than 100 chemicals that have not been tested for long-term effects.

Like everything else, cosmetics have become high tech, too. Formulations are increasingly complex and include formaldehyde (a known carcinogen used as a preservative) and 1,4-dioxane (an industrial solvent and foaming agent, and a suspected carcinogen). Phthalates are widely used in plastics and cosmetics, even with growing concerns about their possible link to serious health issues. And to make things even more confusing, cosmetics manufacturers are only required to list “intended” ingredients on their labels – which means harmful by-product chemicals like 1,4-dioxane are not listed.

If you’re a fragrance addict, you might want to reconsider. Perfumes are very complex chemical concoctions, and manufacturers claim ingredients are “trade secrets.” If they were required to list the ingredients in a popular perfume, it is likely that the list would be so long that it wouldn’t fit on the packaging.

The cosmetic industry’s Personal Care Products Council (PCPC) claims its members represent about 20% of cosmetics companies, responsible for more than 80% of products on the market. The organization started the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) to evaluate ingredients in beauty products, and they’ve reviewed about 1,500 commonly used ingredients to date. However, CIR findings are nonbinding; compliance with safety criteria is voluntary. For comparison’s sake, it is interesting to note that the US bans 8 substances for use in cosmetics while Europe bans more than 1,000.

It is up to us to learn as much as we can about what we put on our skin. For starters, I advise that you look for fragrance-free products with a very short list of ingredients. And don’t forget – claims such as hypoallergenic, natural, and organic have no legal definition when it comes to cosmetics.

Enter the words chemicals in cosmetics in an Internet search engine, and you’ll find that interest in safer cosmetics is growing. New "watchdog” groups are forming to more closely monitor the more than 10,000 ingredients used in more than 40,000 trade names. While some leading cosmetics manufacturers have not indicated they intend to stop using potentially harmful ingredients, there’s a growing group of small and midsize US cosmetics manufacturers that are.

Published on 09/28/2009 | Last updated on 12/20/2016