Are You Using Toxic Beauty Products? 4 Ways to Protect Yourself

August 17, 2015 Updated: August 17, 2015

Most women feel strongly about their cosmetics. In fact, a Harris Poll found that 44 percent of women feel more homely when they don’t wear makeup. Given that 25 percent of the nearly 1,300 women surveyed said they had been wearing cosmetics since they were 13 years old or even younger, it’s not difficult to understand the relationship women have with their makeup.

But are your cosmetics harming you? Unless you are using makeup and other beauty products that are free of chemicals and heavy metals, chances are you are jeopardizing your health every time you use moisturizer, lipstick, eye shadow, eye liner, mascara, blush, toner, foundation, mousse, hair spray, concealer, lip gloss, or nail polish. 

Did you know, for example, that you can find the following toxic heavy metals in cosmetics?

  • Arsenic in eyeliner. Arsenic is associated with cancer, neurological disorders, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease
  • Lead in lipstick. Lead exposure is associated with high blood pressure and kidney damage, as well as miscarriage and low birth weight in pregnant women. 
  • Cadmium in mascara, eyeliner and concealer. This heavy metal is a human carcinogen and can lead to kidney and respiratory damage.
  • Mercury in skin lightening creams and soaps. Mercury can have toxic effects on the immune, digestive, and nervous systems as well as the skin, eyes, and kidneys.

And this is just the beginning.

(Maria Morri/Flickr/CC BY)
Arsenic in eyeliner? Lead in lipstick? Well, yes, sometimes. (Maria Morri/Flickr/CC BY)


You may believe the FDA’s Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act protects you and your health from such dangerous substances, but unfortunately that’s not the case. By its own admission, the FDA states that “Each ingredient used in a cosmetic product and each finished cosmetic product shall be adequately substantiated for safety prior to marketing. Any such ingredient or product whose safety is not adequately substantiated prior to marketing is misbranded unless it contains the following conspicuous statement on the principal display panel: ‘Warning: The safety of this product has not been determined.” 

Not all of the substances the FDA deems as safe are truly so, as demonstrated by the one in eight figure already mentioned. In addition, many of the remaining ingredients have not been tested sufficiently, so their impacts on human health are unknown.

Numerous adverse effects have been found to be associated with some of the ingredient names you will see on your cosmetics labels. More details about these substances can be found in Naturally Savvy’s Women’s Health Challenge, but here’s a brief preview of a few of them.

  • Chemical fragrances, which can cause skin irritation
  • Coal tar, associated with skin cancer and other health concerns
  • Diethanolamine, monoethanolamine, triethanolamine, which can interfere with hormone activity
  • Formaldehyde, classified as a human carcinogen
  • Mineral oil, promotes unhealthy skin
  • Isopropyl alcohol, can affect the nervous system
  • Methylisothiazolinone, associated with allergic reactions
  • Parabens, which play havoc with hormones
  • Polyethylene glycol compounds, classified as known and possible human carcinogens 
  • Phthalates, hormone and reproductive disruptors
  • Sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate, which can cause various psychological and physical health problems
  • Sulfates, which are associated with a known carcinogen
  • Triclosan, associated with hormone and heart functions as well as other health problems
(CityTree עץבעיר/Flickr/CC BY)
You can make your own cosmetics and get the personal satisfaction of knowing what is going on your skin. (CityTree עץבעיר/Flickr/CC BY)

How to Protect Yourself

Makeup and other beauty products should help you feel good about yourself. Over time, however, that glow may come at the price of your health. Here are 4 ways to protect yourself against your cosmetics.

  • Use fewer cosmetics. It’s time to take an inventory of your cosmetic supply and usage and weed out the items you really don’t need. Be honest with yourself—even ask your best friend what she thinks about your makeup use. Not only will you be doing your health a favor, you’ll save money as well.
  • Be an informed consumer. Bring a magnifying glass if you have to (and you probably will need to!) to read the ingredients on every cosmetic product you own or buy. If the label sounds like your college chemistry class, then you probably don’t want that product. Several organizations can help you identify which cosmetics you will want to avoid and which ones are safe for your health. Those organizations have websites and include the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the Environmental Working Group Skin Deep program, and Good Guide
  • Buy cosmetics that have been certified. Several organizations have strict standards regarding the safety of cosmetics and personal care products. Purchasing items with their certification seals is a guarantee that the items meet those guidelines. Look for the following seals or logos: 

COSMOS. This is an internationally recognized certification for natural and/or organic cosmetics. 

Leaping Bunny Program. This effort is run by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics. The presence of seal guarantees consumers that no animal testing was involved in any portion of the production of this cosmetic. The seal if recognized internationally.

Natrue. This seal provides consumers with the assurance that the cosmetics have not been tested on animals and do not contain petroleum-derived ingredients, silicone oils and derivatives, GMOs, synthetic colors or fragrances. Also, no irradiation was used. 

NSF/ANSI 305. This regulatory seal lets you know that the product contains at least 70% certified organic ingredients by weight. Their statement is that “All products are made with organic ingredients. Safe, effective, certified, natural body care without synthetic fragrances, phthalates, harsh sulfates or parabens.”

USDA Organic Seal. This seal guarantees that the item contains agricultural ingredients that meet the USDA National Organic Program standards. Products with this seal can be in one of four categories: “100% organic,” “organic” (must contain at least 95% organic ingredients), “made with organic ingredients” (must contain at least 70% organic ingredients), or no claims (contains less than 70% organic ingredients). 

Go DIY. Yes, you can make your own cosmetics and get the personal satisfaction of knowing what is going on your skin. This is a great opportunity to team up with a friend or family member and uncover the excitement of creating your own safe beauty products using nontoxic (organic when available) ingredients. Check out the scores of websites and YouTube videos that provide instructions on how to make lipstick, blush, eye shadow, eye liner, foundation, mascara, and more. 

Cosmetics can be used to enhance your natural beauty and help hide problem spots, but they also can introduce trouble. Know that your cosmetics can harm you and take steps to preserve your health.

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