Chemicals in Cosmetics
Q: I was attending a lecture in London about Skincare last weekend and the lecturer stated that the only things that pass through the skin are essential oils and medicines. Can you tell me please what chemicals etc actually PASS through the skin.
A: Your question is complex. I don’t believe the lecturer you heard was correct unfortunately. There are lots of different kinds of chemicals which can pass through the skin – it really depends on the chemical structure, and certainly is not limited to just essential oils and medicines.In fact many medicines are unable to pass through the skin by themselves, which is why “penetration enhancers” are added to them so that they can cross the skin. Penetration enhancing chemicals are also popularly used in cosmetic products – for example with skin lotions and sunscreen. The sunscreen that looks white, but is invisible once you rub it in for example – is just that – it includes sun blocking chemicals that would normally stay on the surface of your skin, but
chemicals are added to make them cross the skin, so that you don’t look like you are covered in white cream. The other factor is that the skin on different places on your body can have different absorption rates, some places chemicals cross easier than others. And certainly if a person has any abraded or broken skin (due to a rash, blisters, sunburn etc) that will change what crosses into the body as well.
So I don’t have a list for you of chemicals that can pass through the skin, and it wouldn’t necessarily help if I did, as penetration enhancers can always change that in a product. I found two websites that talk about skin absorption of chemicals. Warning – they are both fairly “science-y” and may not be the most user-friendly sites, but they have some good information that may be useful to you.
Q. I’ve heard that mineral oil is harmful, but I’ve also heard it’s not a big problem. Where do you stand on the issue? I’ve also seen Laureth-2 listed in organic sulfate-free soaps and was confused. Is it really the same thing? Any information would be greatly appreciated as I’m trying to removed as many harsh chemicals and endocrine disruptors from my life.
Thanks for your email! Good questions – I will try to be as helpful as I can.
As for mineral oil, it is often considered a controversial ingredient for a number of reasons. For one, it’s a petroleum-derived product – so from an environmental standpoint, it is coming from a limited fossil fuel resource. So some people choose to avoid it for that reason alone (just as they choose to drive less, or use less heating oil etc.) Secondly, mineral oil contamination can vary widely depending on how much purification and distillation has been done. Because it is derived from petroleum, mineral oil can contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which can be carcinogenic and other harmful contaminants. But cosmetics companies will tell you that they use the most highly purified and refined mineral oils in their products. Most times, that is probably true, but there do not appear to be any regulations on purification of mineral oil as used in cosmetics. (The FDA does have purification regulations if the mineral oil is used in food or food processing.) So there is the chance that in cosmetics, you could be exposed to mineral oil still containing harmful contaminants. The bottom line is that mineral oil is effective as an ingredient in cosmetics, and it is currently relatively cheap, making it a preferred option over vegetable or other natural oils for many manufacturers. The question remains as to how purified a form of mineral oil is being used in products.
Laureth-2 is not an ingredient I am particularly familiar with, nor does it appear there is a great deal of scientific data on its toxicity. It does appear that it is an ingredient that can be contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, which is carcinogenic. Check out the link to the profile for Laureth-2 from the Skin Deep database.
Hope this is helpful. It can be pretty difficult to wade through the research on ingredients in products to figure out the good from the bad. So I certainly appreciate your efforts! We hope the Safe Cosmetics Act (recently introduced into Congress) will help simplify things a lot by requiring manufacturers to ensure the safety of ingredients before they are used in products! But until it passes, there is still a lot to figure out!
Q: I read with interest your article about the dangers of the Brazillian Blowout products. Do you know if the same applies to the Keratin Treatments (Coppola Brand). If not, do you know how I might find out? Many thanks.
A: Thanks for your question. It’s a question on a lot of people’s minds–and generally a tricky one to answer. It would be great if you could simply trust the companies’ marketing materials about whether or not formaldehyde is present in their product. Ideally all companies marketing these hair-smoothing products would be upfront and honest about the ingredients in their products. Unfortunately, as we have seen with Brazilian Blowout, there are some companies claiming to be formaldehyde-free when in fact they are not. And given the lack of governmental regulation on these types of products, it casts doubt on
all the companies that are making formaldehyde-free claims.
As for your question about the Coppola brand, their Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy product was tested by Oregon OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health), when they did their Brazilian Blowout testing. I’ve attached the report which includes the findings on page 24 of the .pdf. They did find that this product contained 1.9% formaldehyde. This is less than the average 8% formaldehyde found in Brazilian Blowout, but it certainly doesn’t qualify as “formaldehyde-free”. It appears that this brand was also tested in both France and Ireland, and has since been pulled off the shelves in those countries. (I have attached a list created by the French Health Agency, of hair smoothing products that have been recalled.) However, I can’t be sure if the formulation used in other countries is the same as is used in the U.S.
We are hoping that the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) will take up this issue and establish some regulations to protect consumers and salon workers from products containing harmful levels of formaldehyde. I encourage you to join us in asking for this and send an email to the FDA.
Q: Does nail polish remain toxic over time? For example, if you get a pedicure and you leave the polish on for two months is that worse for you than taking the polish off right away? And is nail polish remover toxic as well?
A: Good question! Its hard to say exactly, as I couldn’t find a lot of research on how well the chemicals in nail polish (like toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate) absorb through a fingernail.
Certainly the greatest risk of exposure occurs when the nail polish is being painted on. The nail polish is still liquid at this point, and the chemicals like toluene and formaldehyde are gassing off as you apply the polish, (that nail polish smell!) so there’s a good chance then of breathing them in. The folks most vulnerable to these fumes are the nail salon workers who are doing multiple manicures and pedicures every day -because they get much more exposure than the average individual who does their nails only every once in a while.
Once the nail polish is dry, there would be considerably less gassing off, but I suppose there might be some potential for chemicals to be absorbed through the fingernail. The dibutyl phthalate is a plasticizing chemical -
which would still be present in the dried nail polish. Its unclear how much you would absorb through your fingernail, or the skin around your nails, probably not that much. So technically, the longer you have the nail polish on your nails the more opportunity there is to absorb more chemicals. But since there is relatively little exposure at this stage, the difference of a few days or weeks is probably negligible.
Nail polish remover does also have its toxic chemicals in it. Most nail polish remover is made with acetone which is an irritant (you know this from its smell as well). Acetone is a serious industrial solvent chemical – which is needed to break down the nail polish in order to remove it. There are other kinds of acetone-free nail polish remover, but I haven’t heard that the chemicals in those are much better than acetone, just different. Again, the risk there is mainly through inhaling the chemicals when you are using the nail polish remover – and the bigger risk occurs in folks working with the stuff all day long.
Q: Does WVE have an adult and baby sunscreen recommendation?
A: Thanks for your question. We know that sun exposure can lead to skin damage, which can have serious ramifications, such as skin cancer, down the line. We do have concerns however with some of the chemicals commonly used in sunscreens, and what effects they may be having. While WVE doesn’t make any specific recommendations on sunscreen we can suggest two great resources on this topic.
GoodGuide.com recently rated sunscreens and gives their best bets:
Environmental Working Group has also published a sunscreen guide the last few years – here’s a link to that information:
Hope these resources are useful to you!
Q: I’ve read that O.P.I’s polishes do not contain and have never contained formaldeyhde. But I just bought an O.P.I. nail polish and read the ingredients, and it contains formaldehyde resin. Clearly O.P.I. is not as concerned about the health of their consumers as they so claim in their statement from 2007.
A: Great to see that you are checking labels and eager to keep these companies on their toes! We had the same question for OPI a while ago, when we also noticed the inclusion of “formaldehyde resin” in their ingredients.
Turns out, formaldehyde resin and formaldehyde are quite different things. While there is good science showing that formaldehyde exposure can lead to health problems (including cancer), formaldehyde resin does not appear to have the same effect. As I understand it, formaldehyde is used to make formaldehyde resin, but the resulting resin does not actually contain any formaldehyde.
Here are two links to the Skin Deep Database describing the potential health impacts of these two ingredients:
Thanks so much for your attention to detail. Hope this answers your question about OPI’s ingredients.
Q: Does WVE have any fact sheets or info on 1,4 dioxane? My husband is helping the local co-ops draft a policy on 1,4 dioxane in regards to selling cosmetics that might contain it.
A: 1,4 dioxane is a chemical that is found to contaminate certain beauty products. It is not an ingredient you would find on the label, but it is a concern, because it is considered a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Your best bet is to check out some of the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) on 1,4 dioxane found on the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website. These pages are full of information on what we know about 1,4 dioxane, why it is a hazard, and what types of products you might find it in. And there are links to more information as well. Here are the two pages to look at:
1,4 Dioxane: Fact Sheet
1,4 Dioxane: Frequently Asked Questions
Q: I am going to a safe cosmetics workshop next week in Cambridge, MA and wanted to find out which Cosmetic Companies have trace amounts of mercury (Hg) in their mascara. Is it true the more waterproof the mascara the more toxic it is, and thus has more mercury? Thank you and your web site has some great information, I signed up for the newsletters.
A: I’m afraid I don’t have a full list of mascaras that contain mercury. (I haven’t seen any list that’s been compiled in any case.) There is one brand of mascara containing mercury listed in the Skin Deep database (available at www.safecosmetics.org) which is:
Paula Dorf Cake Mascara for Eyes, Foxy
Paula Dorf Cake Mascara for Eyes, Raven
But there may be others out there, which simply aren’t in the database.
As I understand it, the mercury that is added is not added to make the mascara waterproof. The mercury is added in the form of thimerosal, which is an antimicrobial preservative. So it is added to eye products (sometimes eye drops and contact solution, and mascara) to make it last longer in the bottle, and I suppose to help prevent the possibility of eye infections. There are of course plenty of mascaras that use non-mercury preservatives, which is certainly the better way to go.
As for whether waterproof mascaras are more toxic, I’m really not sure. I’m afraid I haven’t seen any research on what the chemicals are that lead to the waterproofing. I can tell you though that there isn’t a link between waterproof mascara having more mercury, that just isnt necessarily the case.
Q: Just looked over your website and I love your programs! I plan to host a Green Cleaning Party this fall.
I wonder – have you considered starting a Green Cosmetics Party program? I’ve been making my own lotions for several years now, and it’s not that difficult (very similar to making mayonnaise). While creating face makeup is beyond the range of most “kitchen chemists”, freshly-made skin lotions, creams, facials, hair treatments and such are possible and preferable to the chemical-laden (and expensive!) products on the grocery store shelf.
You have probably thought of all this before. I just want to add a voice saying I think it would be a useful addition to your wonderful mission. Thanks for all that you’re doing.
A: Thanks for your email. Glad to hear you will be hosting a Green Cleaning Party, they are lots of fun!
And thanks for your idea on the Green Cosmetics Party. Great minds think alike – as yes – we have thought about this idea. As a founding member of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, we have been working with the campaign to figure out ways to connect the two kinds of parties. We think it would be a great followup for folks who have done Green Cleaning Parties and are wondering what they can do next!
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has a “Makeover Kit” which is a guide to hosting a healthy cosmetics party, including sample recipes, party tips, links to educational tools and other resources. You can download the Makeover kit from Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website on their materials page: http://safecosmetics.live.radicaldesigns.org/article.php?id=301
Q: Just how dangerous is it if I visit a hair salon & breathe their toxic fumes for one hour per month ?
A: Thanks for your question. And as you might expect, the best answer is “it depends”.
Generally, a visit once a month to an average hair salon for an average healthy person, is unlikely to cause any harm, other than perhaps mild irritation at the fumes often present in hair salons from the combination of products used. There are some situations that could be more dangerous however.
In most states there are no required ventilation standards for hair or beauty salons. So if you are in a small salon with minimal ventilation, the possibility of fumes building up to a more significant level over the day increase. The fumes and possible mixture of chemicals also increase depending on the services offered at the salon. Services such as perms and nail care (manicures, acrylic nails) will increase the diversity of toxic chemicals present in the air which might cause health impacts.
The other major factor is the health status of the customer. Conditions such as asthma or other breathing problems could be exacerbated by chemicals in a salon, depending on the levels in a salon, and the severity of the disease in the person. So the impacts could vary from no response to mild wheezing to a full blown asthma attack, which of course is quite dangerous. Also for pregnant women and small children, there can be very sensitive short-term timeframes of development where the developing child is much more vulnerable to the impact of chemicals than at other times. It is very difficult to study this and be able to determine which exposures might have caused which impacts, so there isn’t any research to confirm concerns. But many parents choose to avoid chemical exposure during these sensitive times from a precautionary standpoint.
Generally we have greater concerns for the employees in salons who are exposed all day every day to varying levels and mixtures of chemicals, and for whom there is research to confirm concern about health impacts.