The history of cosmetics dates back to the ancient Egyptian and Roman cultures. At that time, women used to rely on lead-based beauty products. While the use of lead has been phased out in cosmetics over time for its serious damaging effects, the branded products you have been using for beauty and personal care are also not safe. Surprised? Well, most commercial cosmetics are chemical-laden these days and the long-term consequences of using them are dangerous. Let us elaborate on this for your better knowledge.
The Current Scenario
While purchasing skincare and personal care items, most women don’t go through the ingredient lists provided on the labels. It’s easy to trust the products, which are commercialized and marketed after going through a safety check by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), right? But you will be shocked to know that more than 27,000 consumer complaints have been filed with the FDA against several cosmetics between 2014 and 2018. Further investigation revealed that those products caused minor to severe adverse effects including allergic reactions, hair loss, chemical burns, and even cancer.
Due to the virtually non-existent regulatory system, the FDA does not have authority over cosmetics companies.
So, here comes the question, “Are we not protected by the FDA?” The answer lies in the process of scrutinization. A U.S. consumer uses 10 cosmetics daily on average and this practice has been found to expose people to more or less 126 different chemicals every day. What is worse, most of these chemical compounds have not even been tested thoroughly. This unfolds the loopholes in the system.
Also Read – 15 Makeup Ingredients to Avoid
What is the Threat?
So, what are the threats posed by commercial cosmetics to the skin and health? According to various research reports, your body absorbs a large number of compounds from the products that you apply to the surface of your skin regularly (1). They may also enter your body through inhalation and even unintentional swallowing. Here is a quick glance at the harmful ingredients lurking in various skin and personal care products:
This common antibacterial agent present in soaps and toothpaste is restricted in Canada and Japan as a cosmetic ingredient. It may induce long-lasting toxic effects by creating resistant bacteria in the body and causing endocrine problems (2) .
From deodorants to sunscreens, almost all sorts of cosmetics contain fragrance that may lead to allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress, and low sperm count. Nearly 3,163 different chemicals are used for this purpose and each product may contain a mixture of 14 hidden compounds on average as the ingredient ‘fragrance’ (3).
Methylisothiazolinone (MI) and methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI) are categorized as allergens, which are extensively used in skin and personal care products. According to the American Contact Dermatitis Society, repeated topical exposure to them may result in chronic poison ivy-like rashes and even contact dermatitis (4).
Your nail polish and moisturizing cream may contain a solvent called toluene, which acts as a potent neurotoxin. Apart from nausea, breathing issues, and immune system disruption, it is also associated with cancer and developmental damage in a fetus (5).
Nowadays, almost all commercial cosmetics include parabens in their compositions as preservatives. But the compounds in this class are known to mimic estrogen, thus causing hormonal dysregulation. Parabens are also widely linked to cancers (6).
Also Read – Your Shampoo Could Be Giving You Cancer
6. Endocrine Disruptors
When used in cosmetics, the levels of certain compounds like triclosan, triclocarban, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), phenoxyethanol, resorcinol, phthalates, boric acid, sodium borate, etc. get increased in the bloodstream. As a result, they are directly linked to endocrine disruption in the body (7).
7. Formaldehyde Releasers
Formaldehyde has been recognized as a potential carcinogen by the National Cancer Institute. Besides, it is one of the most common contact allergens that also intoxicates the immune system (8). However, compounds like DMDM hydantoin, Quaternium-15, etc. belong to a class of antimicrobial preservatives that are used in more than 20% of U.S. cosmetics and release formaldehyde in the body (9).
8. 1,4 Dioxane
Like formaldehyde, ingredients like 1,4-dioxane included in cosmetics are also not safe. It is an industrial solvent or foaming agent that has been linked to cancer in animals (10).
While Japan has already restricted the use of oxybenzone in its commercial personal care products, the benzophenone derivative is widely used in American sunscreens as a UV light absorber. It leads to photoallergic reactions and hormonal dysfunction (11).
10. Titanium Dioxide
Being a naturally occurring mineral, titanium dioxide is often used in cosmetics as a thickener or pigment. Though it is considered safe in sunscreen, toothpaste, etc., it may cause cancer when inhaled in the powder form (12).
Lenient Scrutiny of Cosmetics
Cosmetics is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry, which is apparently overseen by the FDA. Under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, it is authorized to ensure that the commercially available skin and personal care products “do not contain toxic or contaminated ingredients or provide false or incomplete label information.” But the agency neither defines the standard of safety for cosmetics nor has the power to approve their ingredients before the products hit the market. Rather, the ingredients used in them are totally at the discretion of the manufacturers themselves as they are responsible for assuring that the products launched by them are “safe and properly labeled”.
Precisely, cosmetics are not subjected to the same level of scrutiny that food and drugs go through even though their contents also enter the body. There are only some special cases where cosmetics are scrutinized as drugs while others are regulated as medical devices and supplements.
How are Cosmetics Labeled?
As there are no strict labeling requirements by the FDA for consumer products, manufacturers can circumvent the full disclosure of names and quantities of the ingredients included in their products quite easily. As per the current law, no manufacturer is required to register with the FDA or provide ingredient-related information to the agency. Hence, they simply claim that disclosing full ingredient lists on the product labels would reveal their trade secrets.
On the other hand, there are more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the U.S. for which no safety data has been specified by federal regulators. When one or more of these chemical compounds are used as raw materials in cosmetics, the safety of those products can never be guaranteed. In short, skin and personal care products labeled as “gentle”, “hypoallergenic”, etc. are not necessarily safer than others as they may also come loaded with untested chemicals.
Can the FDA Mandate a Product Recall?
Even after monitoring the market for potential dangers, FDA cannot issue a mandatory product recall when harmful side effects are discovered. The agency is also unable to compel manufacturers to report cosmetics-related injuries unless they are doing it voluntarily, which is undoubtedly self-incriminating. However, if there are lots of negative reports about a product in the market, the FDA can investigate and request a recall by the distributor or the manufacturer.
Unfortunately FDA has no legal authority to approve or disapprove cosmetics before they hit the market. FDA can only approve color additives used in cosmetics.
What Consumers Can Do About It?
With the rising popularity of clean cosmetics among consumers, many companies in the industry are now focusing on it. But your responsibility does not end with reading the labels of the products. Given below are the ways to stay safe from the adverse reactions of commercial cosmetics:
Stop Using after Side Effects: Once you suffer a bad reaction from a certain product, cease its use immediately and contact your doctor. Further use of any harmful product may worsen your condition.
Lodge Complaints with the FDA: As the manufacturers are not mandated by law to release product complaints to the FDA, the task falls to the consumers like you. File health reports with the FDA so that they are able to identify the products that people should be wary of. Here is the link to submit complaints.
Choose Non-Toxic Ingredients: It is always the best to stick to non-toxic products containing pure ingredients that are often sourced naturally. There is a wealth of pure products that are likely to be safe for use and also yield added benefits. So, just dig into it.
Remember that the FDA has a lot of limitations that hinder its ability to scrutinize a beauty product fully. As such, it is important for you to exercise vigilance when using regular cosmetics. Even when the FDA is limited in its authority, we, consumers have the means to affect change, which is exactly how things should be.
Beauty is a billion dollar market and everyday consumers are lured by the launch of new products. While brands promise to give you a stunning look and personality, it is interesting to note that not all these products are safe for use and may cause adverse side effects on our health. Some of the commonly used chemicals in cosmetic products include Triclosan, Fragrance, MI/MCI, Toluene, Parabens, Endocrine Disruptors, Formaldehyde Releasers, 1,4 Dioxane, Oxybenzone and Titanium Dioxide. Unfortunately the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no legal jurisdiction to regulate cosmetics products before they are launched. Moreover it doest have the authority to recall a product when harmful side effects are discovered. However as a consumer, you can still protect yourself from harmful cosmetics by following a few steps. You can stop using after experiencing any side effects, lodge a complaint with the FDA and choose products with non-toxic Ingredients.
FDA has detailed FAQ’s on their website related to cosmetic safety and regulations. Check here.
- “Prediction of chemical absorption into and through the skin from cosmetic and dermatological formulations” – ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
- “Should I avoid products that contain triclosan?” – mayoclinic.org
- “3,163 ingredients hide behind the word “fragrance” – ewg.org
- “Methylisothiazolinone” -ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
- “Is Your Nail Polish Toxic?” – webmd.com
- “FAQ: Parabens and Breast Cancer” – webmd.com
- “Endocrine Disruptors” – niehs.nih.gov
- “Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk” – cancer.gov
- “Cosmetics Preservation: A Review on Present Strategies” – ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
- “1,4-Dioxane in Cosmetics: A Manufacturing Byproduct” -fda.gov
- “Photoallergy to benzophenone” – ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
- “Titanium dioxide in our everyday life; is it safe?” – ncbi.nlm.nih.gov