Your Guide To Cosmetic Chemicals

By Anna Redman

Randomly open any woman’s purse and you’re likely to find some combination of lip glosses, foundations, mascaras, and eye shadows piled at the bottom in various stages of use. As females, most of us use these products once, twice, or even three times daily, and we don’t even give this constant reapplication a second thought — but maybe we should.

It turns out that many of these colourful cosmetics, blemish banishers, and primping perfecters are packed with dangerous chemicals and preservatives, meaning something as simple as a mascara touch-up could be harming your health. Here’s what you need to know about the seedy underbelly of the beauty world.

What Science Says

In 2012, the Silent Spring Institute, a Massachusetts-based, public-interest driven research facility, put this previously ignored chemical conundrum on the map. From cupboards of household cleaning products to our bulging beauty bags, the researchers looked at the harmful ingredients hiding in many of our daily use products. “The findings show that consumers who use a typical array of products are exposed to many chemicals with potential health effects,” says study author Julia Brody, PhD, executive director of Silent Spring Institute. “This study adds to the evidence that safety testing for consumer product chemicals is inadequate and needs to be modernized, and that consumers need better information about exactly what is in the products they use every day.” While that list of ingredients goes on and on (see the Canadian government’s Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist for more details) one of the most common be-wary items is parabens.

The Problem With Parabens 

“Parabens are the most common type of preservatives found in beauty products, and have been since the 1930s,” shares Helen Vong, certified skin care specialist and editor of skincare blog The “They inhibit microbial growth, which extends the shelf life and prevents mould build-up.” Sounds great, right? Prior to 2004, we might have agreed, but following a controversial paper published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, we’re more than a little concerned. “This article suggested that elevated concentrations of parabens were found in breast cancer tumour samples and the lead researcher speculated there was a link between the parabens in underarm deodorants, body-care cosmetics, and breast cancer,” Vong explains. “This correlation caused widespread fear, even though there was no follow-up study to show causation.” To meet consumer demand for less “toxic” products, cosmetic companies did adjust their formulas, and Health Canada media relations officer, André Gagnon, assures that “Health Canada will continue to monitor and review any new scientific data on parabens.”

That being said, a 2006 American study examined 100 demographically diverse adults and reported the presence of parabens in approximately 96 per cent of participant urine samples. Results from a Korean study four years earlier found that such parabens negatively impacted reproductive tract development in rats, with concern (though no concrete scientific evidence) that they could have similar results in humans.

Additional animal studies have also discovered that parabens weakly mimic estrogen. Currently, there is minimal evidence suggesting a causal link between parabens and breast cancer, although a 2011 study published in the Oxford University Press Journal did reveal that those problematic parabens may reduce the effectiveness of some of the more promising breast-cancer fighters on the market.

Previous scientific studies have also identified methyl paraben as one of the more common types of parabens found in cosmetics. The Silent Spring Institute’s study reiterated these results, revealing “methyl paraben was detected most frequently and at the highest concentrations.” After running tests on both conventional products (where parabens were listed as an ingredient) and alternative products (where parabens were not listed as an ingredient), these researchers discovered that parabens were still shockingly common, even when they weren’t listed on the label. These findings suggest that Health Canada’s watch list can only go so far.

Passing On Polyethylene 

The harm that hides in your favourite skincare and beauty products isn’t always a personal problem — sometimes the bad news is for an unsuspecting third party. “Polyethylene or polypropylene are small plastic beads found in facial and body scrubs,” Vong notes. “While they are extremely effective, because they don’t cause micro tears in the skin, they are also detrimental to the environment because they are too small for treatment plants to filter out.” She notes that these tiny beads end up in the ocean where fish can mistake them for food, causing them to choke and, ultimately, perish.

A 2011 study published in the journal of Environmental Technology lends further support to this issue of environmental risk when it determined 10 “Chemicals of Emerging Concern” and found cosmetics to hold particularly high levels. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide were the two most dominant contaminants, with the highest potential to cause environmental harm. European researchers found that when nanoparticles from each of these contaminants are washed from the human body, they continue to exist in the environment, and more specifically in the water. Some studies suggest that they have the potential to damage natural resources and animal DNA.

Going Gluten-Free 

To add even more confusion to the mix, those with severe allergies need to be extra cautious about the makeup they mingle with. “Since 2006, the Cosmetic Regulations require that all manufacturers or importers disclose all ingredients on the product label,” reveals Gagnon. “This requirement allows consumers to check for possible ingredients to which they may be sensitive or choose to avoid.”

With the rise in celiac disease awareness and related intolerances, one of the more common problem ingredients is gluten. “This protein, found in wheat, rye, and barley flour, can appear in many common cosmetic products such as lip gloss, sunscreens, moisturizers, and shampoo,” Vong remarks.

If you have any type of allergy, not just a gluten one, you should be scanning all labels carefully before your next cosmetics buy. “Allergies are very complex in nature,” Gagnon also notes. “As such, consumers with food allergies or sensitivities may need to avoid cosmetic products that contain specific ingredients that could cause an allergic reaction.”

Sometimes any kind of contact with an irritant can be enough to set your body off. “Some individuals react to topical gluten; therefore gluten-free on the skin is a must,” continues Farima Hakkak, founder and creative director for Lacc Nail Polish. The Vancouver-based company pays particular attention to what goes into its colours, ensuring that they contain no animal products and are not involved in any animal testing. “I wanted to create a nail lacquer collection of the highest-quality, that was also non-toxic, cruelty-free, vegan, and at a price point that everyone could afford,” Hakkak explains. “Many non-vegan nail lacquers can contain ingredients like fish scales, animal fats, and crushed insects. Pearl essence, for example, gives pearlescent nail lacquers their shimmer, but is often made from fish scales.” Hakkak, however, has found that this sea-scale shimmer can be easily replicated, without harming fish or other animals. “Examples of vegan alternatives to pearl essence are the naturally occurring mineral, mica, or the artificial substance synthetic, pearl. Particles of metals such as bronze or aluminum can also have the appropriate glitter quality,” she notes.

The Future Of Makeup

Lacc, along with many other companies, is on a mission to find and use safe ingredients in the creation of their products. As for those manufacturers who aren’t quite so diligent with their ingredient lists, “Health Canada is continually monitoring Canadian and international scientific studies and research on the risks posed by chemicals used in cosmetics,” Gagnon assures. If you’re still feeling a little hesitant about what’s going into your favourite glosses and goos, Robin Dodson, Sc.D., a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute recommends “keeping it simple and using less.” When it comes to cosmetics, it turns out the minimalist look might just be your answer to a healthy glow, and a healthful you.

Tags: Anna Redman
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