Chemicals in Cosmetics: The Surprising Secrets Laid Bare

Amy Hawthorne

by Amy Hawthorne

2nd April 2014

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), each day women (or men, presumably) are exposed to about 168 chemicals in the beauty products they’re using. This is just one of many concerning statements that are floating around in the media today. So many activists and articles are trying to convince us that something sinister is going on behind our backs, so it’s no wonder people are being extra-cautious about the products they’re applying. But should we believe everything we read?

Myths and scare-stories get circulated and amplified by groups or individuals and because of our survival instincts, we believe them and think we should change our lifestyle. In this blog post, I strip away the myths about chemicals in the beauty industry and expose the facts, from a scientific point of view. Obviously, we’re a chemical company – of course we’re going to be “pro-chemical”. However, in this article, no words are twisted, nothing is taken out of context and no facts have been formulated from thin air. This post exists to iron out the truth from legitimate sources and organisations.

At the end of this post is a video that perfectly illustrates the logical voice of science in comparison to the groups that are determined to wedge fear in the public, without any science to back up their claims. The video is around 16 minutes long but is definitely worth a watch, whichever side of the dressing table you’re sitting on. 

“I only buy products that are chemical-free.”

No cosmetic product can be classed as “chemical-free”.

No cosmetic product can be classed as “chemical-free”.

No, you don’t. It’s become trendy to live a “chemical-free” lifestyle but the truth is that you’re more likely to lose weight on the McDonald’s diet than you are of maintaining a chemical-free life. Everything that makes up the whole of the earth and living things is a chemical or combination of chemicals – atoms and molecules are all around us. Everything is chemistry and there’s no escaping it, so ultimately, there’s no such thing as a “chemical-free” life. (Sense About Science)

There is an article which has been written by a chemist on about a woman with “chemophobia” – a fear of chemicals – who refused to take the advice of doctors to cure her son’s arthritis. She wanted to cure the disease without the use of chemicals, forgetting that chemicals make up everything. The writer of the article, Michelle M. Francl explains that we’re a chemophobic society and one reason we don’t like chemicals is because of their scary-sounding names. Scientists call this “processing fluency”, meaning that when something is unfamiliar or difficult to pronounce, we assume it’s something negative. This attitude needs to stop, because chemicals are vital in curing disease.

Would you stop using sun-cream because it contains chemicals you’ve never heard of? People are quick to label sunscreen as “dangerous” because it contains chemicals, seeming to forget that it protects us from the sun and helps to prevent skin cancer. That’s thanks to the properties of the chemicals it contains.

I understand that some people may be shaking their heads at this point, thinking ‘we know chemicals make up everything, but we’re talking about avoiding man-made chemicals and just sticking to the natural ones’. So let’s look at the differences between synthetic and naturally occurring chemicals.

Chemicals produced or mixed in a factory are manufactured in a clean, approved environment. Most chemical companies work to strict standards and guidelines to ensure that products are safe for the consumer. Man-made chemicals are added to products in a controlled manner using specific, tested quantities. This makes them much easier to regulate and monitor than naturally occurring chemicals.

UKCPI found no evidence to support the view that natural chemicals were safer than synthetic ones. They also made the point that some chemicals that come from nature can be toxic, so we can’t group them all together. Ethanol and lead, for example, occur naturally but do present some dangers if ingested irresponsibly. There have actually been negative reactions in the media about the presence of lead in cosmetics, so let’s look at that next.

“Lipstick Contains Deadly Amounts of Lead.”

Chemicals in Cosmetics

“The amount of lead in lipstick exceeds the amount of lead that is FDA-approved to be present in candy.”

Lipstick does tend to contain lead (which occurs naturally in air, water and soil) but beauty products in the US are fully monitored by the FDA before they can be sold to the public. The FDA concluded that lead is present in such tiny amounts that it has no adverse effect on humans; there’s just not enough exposure in lipstick for it to be classed as toxic. The Personal Care Products Council (PCPC) confirmed that the trace levels of lead found in lipstick are not a cause for concern and the US is yet to record a case of lead poisoning as a result of lipstick use.

There are studies which exist to convince us that lipstick contains hazardous amounts of lead, by comparing lead levels to that in candy. These studies say that lipstick contains a higher amount of lead than has been approved by the FDA for candy. Is this really a viable comparison? Levels of ingestion are hugely contrasting- we don’t eat bags and bags of lipstick at the cinema (or anywhere, hopefully).

So, rather than entering into a panic every time you apply make-up, the British Association of Dermatologists suggests that the best option is to just use cosmetics that you like and that don’t cause a reaction to your skin. The fact is, assuming your make-up and skincare products are purchased from legitimate brands, they’re probably safe.

Trust me: Christian Dior is not trying to kill you.

The Cancer Rumours

Chemicals in Cosmetics

Some businesses play on mis-conceptions about chemicals in cosmetics for profit

Cancer is a huge money-making market and unfortunately, it seems that campaigns or certain groups are using cancer as the subject to cash in on their own goals, financial or otherwise. Campaigns play on mis-conceptions about chemicals and this irrational fear places chemicals as vicious predators, all of them dangerous and toxic, forgetting that chemicals make up the pharmaceutical products that cure illnesses and save lives.

[Tweet “Campaigns play on mis-conceptions about chemicals in our chemophobic society”]

a)    “Antiperspirant causes cancer.”

The media likes to use scare tactics to get people on their side and loves using the terms “baby shampoo”, “blindness” and “cancer” in their efforts to make us believe we’re lathering buckets of toxins over our skin and hair. The tale that “antiperspirant causes cancer” has been circulating our inboxes, but sometimes we need to stand back and gather all of the facts before we decide to forward anything on.

Here is an article from the American Cancer Society (ACS) about how there is little scientific evidence to support the claim and how this email probably originated for financial gain. The ACS speaks up about the myths of dangerous chemicals in cosmetics and toiletries and believes it’s very unlikely that underarm antiperspirants are a cause of cancer. The ACS goes on to comment that the person that wrote the email containing this rumour could have been trying to market a new type of deodorant – one that was supposedly “free from cancer-causing chemicals” – so wanted to scare the public into throwing out their existing products.

b)    “Cancer patients can’t wear make-up because of all the chemicals in it.”

Chemicals in Cosmetics

To some, make-up is a vital confidence-boosting tool

Some people with cancer may be sensitive to make-up and before any operation, make-up often needs to be removed. This is so the doctor can keep an eye on your natural colouring and make sure your circulation is healthy. (NHS UK)

However, there doesn’t seem to be any truth to the rumour that “cancer patients can’t wear make-up because of all the chemicals in it”. In fact, Lesley  is a cancer patient who strongly supports the use of make-up throughout treatment as it was an important tool in boosting her own confidence. Lesley struggles to make the connection between the “no make-up selfie” trend and cancer – if make-up was a serious factor in causing cancer, would doctors really allow patients to risk further health deterioration by wearing it?

There is another article in the LA Times about celebrity make-up artist Tim Quinn. He spends time working specifically with cancer patients to give them a lift and restore their glow through the use of cosmetics, by helping them to look healthier and feel better.

“There aren’t enough regulations.”

This is a fairly common concern that is being passed around the web. Members of the public are suspicious that the government are letting any old products grace the supermarket shelves because they are in agreement with the cosmetics companies and are benefitting financially.

Let’s combat this – the final myth we will focus on today.

Chemicals in Cosmetics

If you can buy a product in a legitimate shop, it’s probably safe

Firstly, governments don’t maintain a “hands-off” policy as campaigners would have you believe. In fact, in Canada, there is a “hot list” of around 500 chemicals that cannot be used in cosmetics and for every product that is shelved, a list of ingredients must be submitted to Health Canada  for approval. The cosmetics industry in the US has a self-regulating programme. In the states, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review group (which includes experts from the FDA and consumer organisations) gathers and scrutinises research about cosmetic ingredients. The reports they produce are used by the industry to make decisions about product formulation and control.

European regulations state that cosmetic products must undergo a safety assessment by a qualified professional before they can be placed on the market. As well as this, all colours must be listed in Annex IV to the European Regulation EC No. 1223/2009 in order for them to be used in cosmetics and toiletries.

Cosmetics supplied in the UK must comply with Cosmetic Products (Safety) Regulations 2008.

I hate to break it to all the sceptics out there but the chances are if something’s not safe, it’s probably not on the shelves.

There are the facts, painted in simple terms. There are chemicals in everything, but not enough to harm us. It’s up to you to make your mind up about whether you’ll give in to our chemophobic society, live in fear and investigate the label contents of everything you apply to your skin, or whether you’ll trust that regulations are in place to keep us safe.

The following video is a critique of “The Story of Cosmetics” by Annie Leonard. It is created by How The World Works and makes for very interesting viewing.


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