The Hazards of Cosmetics
By Carol Barczac
AEHA Quarterly Summer 1995
People who use of work with cosmetics
may be flirting with danger. At the University of California, researchers
studied 58,000 hairdressers, cosmetologists and manicurists and found they
had four times the usual rate of multiple myeloma, a malignant bone tumour.
The suspect substances included hair dyes, shampoos, hair conditioners,
relaxers, permanent wave solutions, detergents and nail products.
Other investigators have revealed that
make-up, talcum powder and bubble bath are potentially harmful substances.
· Lipsticks and make-up
may contain aluminum, a known toxin in humans, to make them long-lasting.
· Coal tar dyes, the major colouring
agent in make-up, can result in dermatitis or skin cancer.
· Talcum powder is not innocuous.
In 1982 Daniel Cramer, MD, reported in the journal Cancer that women in
Boston who used talcum powder on their genitals and sanitary napkins had
a 328 times greater risk of ovarian cancer.
· Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a
bacteria highly resistant to therapy, can contaminate mascara and attack
an eyeball scratched by microscopic abrasions from soft contact lenses
or inadvertent damage by the applicator brush. Blindness can result.
· Adverse reactions to industrial
foaming agents in bubble baths, like alkylarylsulfonate, can cause skin
rash, urinary tract, bladder and kidney infections, genital disorders,
eye irritations and respiratory disorders.
Cosmetics are a low priority in
consumer safety since it is wrongly assumed they don’t affect our health.
Yet skin is not the barrier we once thought. Many medications are
now introduced transdermally by patch. Almost everything put on the
skin is absorbed to some degree.
Most cosmetics are poorly tested, especially
for chronic application causing low-grade toxicity. Most have been
scarcely tested at all, and only a few out of thousands have had expensive
toxicity testing. Consumers who develop reactions rarely complain;
they just stop using the product.
Ancient Egyptians were poisoned by
mercury-laden face powder, while Elizabethan court ladies used arsenic
face powder to whiten the skin. Cosmetic regulations were slow in
coming. In 1933, a prominent New York socialite was blinded by “Lash
Lure,” used to darken lashes and eyebrows. It remained on the market
and, within a year, another woman died eight days after an immediate and
extreme reaction to an application to only one eye. In 1938, the
depilatory “Kormelu” was advertised as safe for arms, face and legs.
It sold for $10 a jar although the active ingredient was thallium acetate
– a rat poison already proven to cause baldness, pain and paralysis.
Although cosmetics are potentially dangerous,
in Canada there are presently no laws requiring companies to list product
The U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act
for consumer safety was enacted in 1938, although mandatory ingredient
listing on packaging was not added until 1977. There is presently
no mandatory Canadian ingredient listing on labels, although that will
change under the new cosmetic regulations, which are undergoing final draft
Ingredient listing can prevent problems
like acne cosmetica – the most common form of acne in adults. Unlike
allergic reactions which occur within hours of exposure, acne cosmetica
takes three months of repeated product application to appear; it regresses
spontaneously after discontinuing the offending product for a further three
months. Isopropyl myristate, a “slip and glide” consistency additive
in most commercial moisturizers, is linked to acne cosmetica. Yet
Canadian consumers with recurring breakouts cannot determine by ingredient
listing if isopropyl myristate is a potential cause.
Allergies are the most common reaction
from using cosmetics. A study by the North American Contact Dermatitis
Group between 1977 and 1980 found that among 8,093 dermatology patients,
487 cases were cosmetic-related. In half of these cases, neither
doctor nor patient suspected cosmetics. Eighty percent of the cosmetic
problems were allergic, the rest being other skin reactions such as photosensitization
(permanent brown patches formed when the sun combines with perfume). The
most frequent allergens were fragrances, preservatives and lanolin derivatives
p-phenylenediamine and prophlene glycol. Although lanolin is
a natural ingredient, natural does not mean less reactive. Orris
root, a natural ingredient in powder make-up, is a common cause of acne.
“Hypoallergenic” does not guarantee
no allergies but only minimizes well-known culprits. “Unscented”
does not mean no fragrance ingredients since masking fragrances (which
cover up unpleasant chemical odours) do not have to be identified.
AETT (acetyl ethyl tetramethyl tetralin) masking fragrance was used from
1958 until 1978, when it was found to be a neurotoxin that turned rat and
rabbit organs blue.
Remember hexachlorophene? Widely touted
to kill germs, at one time 30 per cent of all cosmetics contained it.
From 1964 to 1972, it was implicated in dermatitis, brain damage in rats,
and convulsions in babies. After 30 babies in France died from being
dusted with hexachlorophene, it was restricted to prescription.
Formaldehyde does more than preserve
the dead: it may also be found in your shampoo and mouthwash.
Preservatives in cosmetics extend shelf
life by preventing bacterial contamination. Formaldehyde is a preservative
used not only in autopsies, but in shampoos, mouthwash and nail hardeners.
Omitted from hypoallergenic nail polish, it often causes inhalant fume
reactions. The preservatives methyl and propyl paraben used in traditional
cosmetics extend shelf life much longer than natural antioxidants like
Vitamin E, which lasts only for six months to a year. These chemicals,
however, are far less safe than natural substances.
Preservatives may break down at high
temperatures (out in the sun, or in the car) allowing bacteria to develop.
Consider refrigeration for all natural creams and lotions. One company
has a clever solution – high gauss magnets embedded in to the jar, creating
a magnetic field hostile to bacteria.
Heavy Metals Found in Hair Dyes
Hair tonic to colour the grey once
contained lead, and many barbers died of lead poisoning. Not only
is lead acetate the active ingredient in “wash away the grey” progressive
hair dyes targeted to the male market today but, in 1981, the industry
was allowed to add arsenic and mercury! These heavy metals can be absorbed
through the scalp.
In 1978 – 22 years after the first study
showed that 2,4-TDA hair colour enters the body through skin or scalp abrasions,
causing black urine and breakouts – it was restricted from all but sever
hair dye colours, where it is still allowed. The same year, it was
shown that ingredients in hair dyes caused cancer in animals. A study
of hair dye genotixicity, published in the American Heart Association Journal
in December 1979, revealed that women who colour their hair have greater
chromosomal damage than women who have never done so. This suggests
that hair dyes may have carcinogenic and mutagenic effect in humans.
Punk colours tested worse than those covering grey. Warning label
attempts were unsuccessful.
Take care when selecting a shampoo.
Many contain potentially harmful ingredients.
Until the new labeling legislation
takes effect, write to companies and request ingredient listings.
If the product is available in the U.S., check the labels while visiting.
Know what chemical names mean: look them up in the Physicians Desk Reference,
Merck Index, or CFTA Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary, available in libraries.
Try samples and purchase from retailers offering a money-back satisfaction
guarantee. Use applied kinesiology, a technique offered by some chiropractors,
nutritionists and other holistic therapists, to test for sensitivities
to products. It’s also wise to check out health food stores, which
stock a wide variety of high-quality natural cosmetics moisturizers, bath
oils, and hair care products. Another option is to consult an esthetician
(skin care specialist), most of whom offer natural skin care products that
can be customized for your personal needs.
What follows is a sampling of both beneficial
and harmful cosmetic ingredients, applied by the average consumer at the
rate of 35 pounds per year:
Vegetable gum – includes tragacanth,
guar and sodium alginate. These thicken emulsions and make them creamy,
but all are subject to deterioration and need a preservative. No
known toxicity other than allergy in hypersensitive persons.
Keratin – non-toxic protein solubilized
from animal horns, hoofs, feathers and quills. Used in permanent
waves, shampoos and hair conditioners.
Hyaluronic acid – natural protein found
in umbilical cords, used as a cosmetic oil. No toxicity.
Sodium PCA – a naturally occurring component
of human skin that binds moisture. No toxicity.
Tea Tree oil – essential oil from leaves
of an Australian tree, used as a germicide and to speed healing.
Butylene glycol – preservative
with low threshold for skin irritation, which helps resists humidity in
hair sprays and setting lotions.
Zirconium – used to tone pigment colours,
especially in nail polish. Low systemic toxicity but its use was
banned from sprays in 1976 when it was found harmful to monkey lungs.
Tartrazine (yellow #5) – derived from
coal tar, those allergic to aspirin are often allergic to tartrazine.
Potassium bromate – antiseptic and astringent
in toothpaste, mouthwash and gargles. Very toxic if taken internally.
May cause bleeding and inflammation of gums in toothpaste.
Nickel sulphate – heavy metal used in
hair dyes and astringents. Frequently causes skin rash when used
Resorcinol – antiseptic, anti-itching,
antifungal used in dandruff shampoos, hair dyes and lipstick. Very
irritating to skin and mucous membranes.
Brumberg, Elane, Take Care of Your
Skin, New York: Harper and Row, 1989.
Stabile, Toni. Everything You
Want to Know About Cosmetics. New York: Dodd, Mean & Co., 1984.
Winter, Ruth. Consumers’ Dictionary
of Cosmetic Ingredients. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1989.
Carola Barczak has
over 20 years’ experience in alternative health. She currently teaches
clinical nutrition at the Ontario College of Naturopathic Medicine and
at Sutherland-Chan Massage School. Carola also owns Figure and Face
Salon in Toronto, which specializes in natural treatment skin care.
Reprinted from HEALTH
NATURALLY October 1994, Box 144 Nobel, Ontario P0G 1G0. 705-746-7839.