We wear it practically every single day. But can makeup give you cancer? It’s worth investigating!
By Diane Small
Unfortunately, it’s not unheard of for beauty products to be carcinogenic.
For example, there was a case where hair straightening chemicals were found to cause uterine cancer. Read more about the ongoing lawsuit here.
In addition, Johnson & Johnson were slapped with a heavy lawsuit after a judge ruled that the company’s shower and talc products had likely caused the plaintiff’s ovarian tumour.
Such situations have left many women wondering: can makeup give you cancer?
It’s a hard question to answer definitively. But that being said, brace yourself for a shock.
Though many of us believe our governments are here to protect our health, the reality is that 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 very 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% preservatives. Hardly an ‘organic’ 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 they actually contain many ingredients that could be harmful to your health.
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. As was the case of aspartame. The sweetener was just one example of a GRAS product, but now it has been proven to be a carcinogen.
But even when ingredients are discovered as being harmful, companies are reluctant and/or slow to change their formulae, or pull products from the shelves.
So, what are some of the most harmful ingredients in makeup, then?
Some countries, such as those in Japan or the EU, have stricter standards regarding cosmetic ingredients than others. But the following harmful ingredients have been found in American makeup brands:
1. Cadmium, Lead and Other Heavy Metals
Found in: Lipsticks, Eyeshadow, Blusher, Cover Stick, Foundation
Some brands using it: Maybelline, L’Oreal, Nars.
What to look for on the label: Lead acetate, chromium, thimerosal, hydrogenated cotton seed oil, sodium hexametaphosphate.
Health concerns: Can makeup give you cancer? If it has cadmium, most likely, yes. This 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
Found 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 on the label: 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 & Formaldehyde Releasing Preservatives
Found in: Coloured cosmetics, Eyelash Glue, Nail Polish
Some brands using it: Orly, Spa Rituals, Maybelline, Coty, Revlon
What to look for on the label: Formaldehyde, 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. It’s banned in cosmetics in Sweden and Japan.
Found in: Lipsticks, Nail Polish.
Some brands found using it: Avon, Rimmel, Coty
What to look for on the label: Octinoxate, methoxycinnamate (OMC), parsol, parsol MCX, parsol MOX, escalol, 2-ethylhexyl p-methoxycinnamate
Health concerns: Endocrine disruption, associated with cancer growth, persistence and bioaccumulation, ecotoxicology, organ system toxicity.
Found 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 on the label: 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.
Found in: Powdered cosmetics, like baby powder, eye shadow and face powders.
Some brands found using it: Johnson & Johnson baby powder
What to look for on the label: Mineral powder. While some mineral powders can be perfectly safe, others do contain asbestos. This will not be marked on the label.
Health concerns: Asbestos causes a rare form of lung cancer.
So, can makeup give you cancer?
Cancer is a difficult disease to diagnose in terms of exactly what causes it. So, in most cases, doctors are reluctant to point the finger at one specific cause. That’s true 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?
How can we protect ourselves?
Given that governments and companies do not have our best interests at heart, 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.
Try to avoid most big commercial brands. Almost all of the big ones will contain harmful ingredients.
Instead, choose ‘clean’ makep 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, simply learn which chemicals are the harshest, and avoid them.