What Are The Health Hazards Of Standard Makeup?

A dab of compact, a dash of rouge, that perfect wing of eyeliner – doing up our faces and general grooming are a daily ritual for most women. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the average woman uses 12 different cosmetic products containing about 168 ingredients on a daily basis. Men use about 6 products with around 85 ingredients.1

Agreed, cosmetics and body care products are an indispensable part of most of our lives and we’re spoilt for choices. Many of us may be conscientious about buying good quality makeup and maintaining them diligently, but how often do we glance at that long list of ingredients on their labels? For all their beauty-enhancing magic powers, cosmetics come with a big rider on safety.


Is Your Makeup Safe?

Most cosmetics or personal care products applied externally on the skin, nail, or hair are a mixture of chemicals. These chemicals can pose a health risk, especially when not used in the recommended proportion. A study by the EWG of teenage girls’ body samples revealed the presence of over 16 chemicals ‒ potentially toxic and usually found in cosmetics and body care products.2 Chemicals used in cosmetics, such as mica, parabens, phthalates, lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), retinyl palmitate, and so on, are known to trigger health concerns. The short-term effects of these chemicals can be headaches, skin and eye irritation, and allergies. The long-term effects, especially with excessive use, may range from learning and behavioral problems to cancer.3

Adding to the risk is that cosmetics have a tendency to penetrate into the skin and, hence, can have a direct impact on our systems. Some cosmetics have endocrine-disrupting chemicals that may interfere with your hormones. The link to cancer is not yet established but many cancers like breast,4 prostate, ovarian, and endometrial cancers are hormone driven.5 Studies have even shown that the hormonal systems of wildlife are impacted by chemicals leaching from cosmetic or personal care product waste in drains and rivers.6


Overexposure to phthalates found in cosmetic products can impact reproductive health. The National Toxicology Program report7 on carcinogens lists Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”8

Deconstructing Makeup

Your makeup products consist of a host of chemicals, which may have an impact on your health and well-being. The first step to safeguarding yourself is understanding what goes into them.


Lip Products

The main ingredient in lipstick is wax. Oil, alcohol, and pigments are also added to lipstick.  A rising concern associated with lipstick has been its lead content. After a rigorous survey and study of the lipsticks in the market, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has clarified that the lead in lipsticks is within the safety limit and there is no potential danger from its use. The FDA is, however, contemplating an upper limit for lead use in lipstick so as to protect consumers.9

Eyeliners and Mascara

Eyeliners contain thickeners, film formers, and pigments such as iron oxide, titanium dioxide, and chromium oxide. Some of these oxides are generally considered safe. However, in some mascaras, a preservative called thimerosal is used, which can cause eyelid dermatitis and conjunctivitis.


Hair Dyes

Hair dyes have aromatic amines and phenols. Although many hair dyes were known to cause cancer in mice before 1980, improved versions of the products show no risks of carcinoma as of now.10 However, resorcinol, found in many hair dyes, can cause organ system toxicity, and skin and eye irritation. Coal tar dyes are considered to be hazardous and come with a cautionary note from the FDA.11

Nail Polish/Remover

Phthalates, toulenes, and formaldehyde are the most prominent ingredients of nail polishes. These have been linked to skin irritation, pigmentation of the nail, and also reproductive toxicity, causing damage to the fetus and developmental disorders.


Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring compound and is used in nail polish as a nail hardener. A preservative, it is used in very small amounts in cosmetics. Many studies have associated formaldehyde with cancer. Because of its risk of cancer, formaldehyde has been replaced with sodium benzoate, a safer substitute, by many cosmetic brands.12


Deodorants contain aluminum, fragrance, alcohol, and traces of parabens. Headache, nausea, and skin irritation can be the immediate effects of some brands of deodorants. However, long-term effects of these ingredients are yet unestablished and no direct link to cancer has been found.13


Parabens are also a major ingredient in many other cosmetics like foundations, moisturizers, antiaging creams, and any fragranced product. In fact, around 75‒90 percent of cosmetics use them.14 They function as preservatives and can also penetrate the skin easily.  According to the FDA, levels up to 25% are safe for use in beauty products, and normally they are used at levels ranging from 0.01 to 0.3%.15 The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption, however,  lists parabens as a category 1 endocrine disruptor.16 They are also known to have xenestrogen properties, acting like estrogen in the body. Estrogen imbalance in turn has been linked to reproductive issues and breast cancer. Some studies stress the need for further research to evaluate parabens’ link to breast cancer, male reproductive malfunctions, and malignant melanomas.17


Major ingredients of sunscreens include oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octocrylene. Ingredients such as oxybenzone have high skin penetration and can be found even in a lactating mother’s milk. Some skin types have an allergic reaction to oxybenzone. It is also known to alter sperm production in animals and is associated with endometriosis in women.18


Retinyl palmitate is another common ingredient in sunscreens. This is a form of vitamin A and is widely used in hair, facial makeup, and skincare products. Some health concerns associated with it are developmental and reproductive toxicity in humans, cardiovascular diseases, tumor formation at low doses, and skin irritation or pigmentation. When retinyl palmitate comes in contact with UV radiation, it releases free radicals, whose interaction with DNA may cause mutations leading to cancer. However, in sunscreen lotions and other cosmetics, retinyl palmitate is used along with other vitamins, where the effect of the free radicals is neutralized.19

Other Factors Leading To Toxicity

Apart from the ingredients in cosmetics, some other factors can also damage your health. Makeup hygiene is one of them. Unclean brushes or sponges used to apply makeup may harbor bacteria and their use may lead to eye and skin irritation, spread of germs, and breakouts. The same applies to the sharing of beauty products. Exchanging makeup with your friends may be fun and part of the drill, but this is an easy route to exchange skin and oral diseases too! Avoid sharing lipsticks, hair brushes, mascaras, eyeliners, and other products that have come in direct contact with skin, even with your best friend!

Shelf life is another factor. Discard makeup once they cross the expiry date, irrespective of how much is left and how much of a favorite it is! Cosmetics that have changed color or smell must also be thrown away as it is an indication of some kind of transformation of the initial ingredients.

Chemical Cocktails: Why Aren’t They Banned Already?

The health hazards of cosmetic ingredients have long been under the scanner, with health and environmental groups lobbying for more intense research and laws to control the cosmetic industries. But the clincher for the cosmetics industry is that no clear and definitive link has been found between cosmetics and ill health effects. The American Cancer Society takes an objective stand that cosmetics may not be entirely hazardous and their long-term effects have not yet been determined as life threatening.20 Several factors come into play here.

One important benchmark for safe use is the specific level of chemicals in cosmetics. A chemical known as harmful in larger quantities may be considered safe when used in very small amounts. In effect, when used within recommended and specific levels they are, for now, considered harmless. For instance, according to a study by Julia R. Barrett in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal, “Several recent reports highlight the presence of low-level concentrations of potential reproductive or developmental toxicants, particularly phthalates, in cosmetics and personal care products. A key question is whether these exposures are significant enough to cause harm.”21

Makeup, shampoo, skin lotion, nail polish, and other personal care products often contain chemical ingredients that lack specific safety data. Some of these chemicals may have been linked in animal studies to male genital birth defects, decreased sperm counts, and altered pregnancy outcomes. But there is no definitive evidence for the same effects in humans.22 Human exposure to these chemicals via cosmetics are considered to be very low, well below amounts that were shown to be hazardous in animal studies. What is currently being explored, and which might be the game changer, is whether chronic exposure, even if it is low, can be dangerous.

Most consumers also assume that if there was a risk, the government and regulatory agencies would have taken care of it already. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth ‒  personal care and cosmetics are one of the least regulated industries in the United States. Under current laws, manufacturers are under no obligation to prove the safety of any of their ingredients. Neither do they come within the control of the FDA.23 Health groups are campaigning for a Safe Cosmetics Act, which would need manufacturers to list all ingredients and which would authorize the FDA to rigorously test and call back ingredients with adverse health effects. But till that comes into being, the onus is simply on the consumer to self-monitor these products.

How To Minimize Risk

Personal care products have become an integral part of our lives, but it pays to be smart about how to use them and how much to use.

  • For starters, “check before you pick” is a smart mantra. Before buying a product, educate yourself about the ingredients, the manufacturer, expiry date, and any claims that the product makes. These will help you make an informed choice. As Lorenzo Cohen, MD Anderson professor and director of the Integrative Medicine Program, puts it, “A good rule of thumb: If you can’t pronounce the ingredient and you don’t know what it is, you should proceed with caution and seek more information.”24
  • Follow instructions for application given by product manufacturers.
  • Maintain your makeup and accessories likes brushes, liners, sponges scrupulously so they are not a breeding ground of germs. Creams and lotions that come in tubs may get contaminated by touch; instead opt for those that come in squeeze tubes to maintain hygiene.
  • Read labels with a critical eye. Don’t fall blindly for labels like “organic” or “natural.” Any products that have agricultural ingredients can be labeled as “organic.”  These don’t have to be entirely safe as there may be other toxic additives or allergens in the product. Look out for a USDA certified organic seal ‒ this means that the product is made of 95% or more organic ingredients.
  • Watch out for the ingredient or label “fragrances”: these may indicate many (even hundreds) of chemicals, including synthetic musk and phthalates. Fragrance manufacturers rarely divulge (or are expected to) their ingredient list. As much as possible, choose products that are fragrance-free or which at least readily divulge fragrance ingredients.25
  • Finally, simply leave out makeup you don’t need. As the Breast Cancer Fund aptly puts it,  “Ask yourself which products you can do without, since the best way to avoid chemicals is to use fewer products. Each product you cut from your beauty ritual decreases the number and quantity of chemicals to which you’re exposed.”26