|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
· 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
· 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 ingredients.
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
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
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
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
Take care when selecting a shampoo.
Many contain potentially controversial 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
Tea Tree oil – essential oil from
leaves of an Australian tree, used as a germicide and to speed
healing. No toxicity.
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
Tartrazine (yellow #5) – derived
from coal tar, those allergic to aspirin are often allergic to
Potassium bromate – antiseptic
and astringent in toothpaste, mouthwash and gargles. Very toxic
if taken internally. May cause bleeding and inflammation of gums
Nickel sulphate – heavy metal
used in hair dyes and astringents. Frequently causes skin rash
when used in cosmetics.
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.,
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
from HEALTH NATURALLY October 1994, Box 144 Nobel, Ontario P0G 1G0.