Beauty Health Makeup

Can Makeup Give you Cancer?


By Diane Small

After Johnson & Johnson were recently slapped with a heavy lawsuit after a judge ruled that the company’s shower and talc products had likely caused the plaintiff’s ovarian tumor, many have been wondering: can makeup give you cancer? Brace yourself for a shock: in most countries, the beauty, cosmetics and makeup industries are pretty much unregulated. Indeed, there are very few rules regarding what companies can and can’t put in the potions that go onto—and into—your skin, even when those ingredients are known carcinogens.

Sadly, we can’t even rely on labels that make healthy claims: in the UK, for example, companies get away with using the words ‘Organic’ or ‘Natural’ even if only as little as 70% of the ingredients are organic–and whatever else that remains could be comprised of harmful chemicals. If you don’t think that matters, imagine a meal labelled ‘healthy’ that’s made up of 70% organic greens, and then infused with 30% butter—hardly a light meal anymore!

Moreover, greenwashing abounds: many brands generally thought of as being ‘natural’, such as LUSH, Kiehl’s and Origins brand themselves as being ‘natural’, but actually contain many ingredients that could be harmful to your health.

Lush store in Bristol

In the USA, the picture is even worse. If the FDA finds an ingredient that is not necessarily harmful for human use, it will be classified under GRAS or ‘Generally Recognized as Safe’. But this is quite vague; what it means is that the ingredient is seen as “generally” safe in the doses presented in that product. But what if you use that product every single day for a decade? Is that quantity of the ingredient still safe? And what if that ingredient is combined with other chemicals. Is it still ok then? The truth is, in most cases no one really knows until it’s too late and people begin to become ill—but even then, when ingredients are discovered as being harmful, companies are reluctant and/or slow to change their formulae.

So how can we protect ourselves? Firstly, educate yourself–it’s essential to read ingredient lists on labels. If there’s something you don’t recognise or can’t pronounce, don’t trust it. Download an app like Cosmetics Maze or Think Dirty and type in that ingredient to learn whether or not it’s harmful. Secondly, avoid most big commercial brands. Almost all of the big ones will contain harmful ingredients; instead, choose niche labels like Odylique, Tata Harper, Eminence or any brand that is well known for being truly organic (don’t trust larger brands that make such claims – many have a few organic ingredients, but also include the nasty ones, too! Read more here).

Most importantly, learn which chemicals are the harshest, and avoid them. Here’s our cheat sheet on the top 5 cancer causing ingredients to watch out for.


1. Cadmium, Lead and Other Heavy Metals

In: Lipsticks, Eyeshadow, Blusher, Cover Stick, Foundation

Some Brands Using It: Maybelline, L’Oreal, Nars.

What to look for: Lead acetate, chromium, thimerosal, hydrogenated cotton seed oil, sodium hexametaphosphate.

Health Concerns: Cadmium is a carcinogen that has been found in breast cancer biopsies and shown to cause cancer cells to multiply in lab experiments. Lead interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to organs and tissues including the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys and nervous systems. Cancer Research UK has said that a study conducted in 2011 on 400 lipsticks ‘found very low levels of lead and the FDA does not believe these levels are harmful. However, according to this article on findings by Duke University researchers clearly explains how there is NO safe amount of lead—why do you think it was banned in house paint?

2. Ethanolamine Compounds

In: Eyeliners, Mascara, Eye shadows, Blush, Make-up bases, Foundations.

Some Brands Using It: Cover Girl, Maybelline New York, Neutrogena, Revlon

What to look for: Triethanolamine, diethanolamine, DEA, TEA, cocamide DEA, cocamide MEA, DEA-cetyl phosphate, DEA oleth-3 phosphate, lauramide DEA, linoleamide MEA, myristamide DEA, oleamide DEA, stearamide MEA, TEA-lauryl sulfate.

Health Concerns: May increase risk of cancer especially with prolonged and repeated use; bio-accumulation, organ system toxicity.

3. Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde Releasing Preservatives 

In: Coloured cosmetics, Eyelash Glue, Nail Polish

Some Brands Using It: Orly, Spa Rituals, Maybelline, Coty

What to look forFormaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol)

Health Concerns: Formaldehyde is a carcinogenic impurity released by the above mentioned cosmetic preservatives. Banned in Sweden and Japan.

4. Octinoxate

In: Lipsticks, Nail Polish.

Some Brands Found Using It: Avon, Rimmel, Coty

What to look for: Octinoxate, methoxycinnamate (OMC), parsol, parsol MCX, parsol MOX, escalol, 2-ethylhexyl p-methoxycinnamate

Health concernsEndocrine disruption, associated with cancer growth, persistence and bioaccumulation, ecotoxicology, organ system toxicity.

5. Parabens

In: Just about anything, from eyelash glue and makeup to skincare products

Some Brands Found Using It: Many! Surprisingly, LUSH, Kiehl’s and other ‘natural’ brands

What to look for: Proprylparaben, Isopropylparaben, Butylparaben, Isobutylparaben

Health Concerns: Parabens are being phased out for use in the EU as they have been clearly linked to cancer. Also related to developmental/reproductive toxicity, Ecotoxicology, Endocrine disruption, Allergies/immunotoxicity.

As cancer is a difficult disease to diagnose in terms of exactly what causes it, in most cases doctors are reluctant to point the finger at one specific cause, even when there are strong causal links, such as smoking and lung cancer. But considering that the average woman wears over 500 chemicals a day, eats nearly 4 pounds of lipstick in a lifetime and absorbs 60% of all makeup and cosmetics into her bloodstream, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?

Images: Beauty Press, Lush.

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