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Are You Dying for Beauty?

Updated on March 21, 2011

Makeup has a long history that dates back to the women of ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece. At that time trying to look gorgeous was often deadly because powders used to lighten skin were made of toxic mercury and white lead - not exactly a good long-term strategy (unless the mortician was the best makeup artist in town).

Mercury in face powder may sound horrifying, but the quest for the perfect face may not have changed as much as you think. Modern makeup, though not made of lead, can still contain substances that at the very least could irritate your skin, and in the worst cases cause cancer. Since the skin is the largest organ of the body and is permeable, chemicals found in cosmetics (especially since they are left on for long periods of time) may be absorbed in significant amounts.

What’s In a Compact?

According to a cosmetic-reaction study, fragrances are the most common cause of irritant and allergic reactions by those who use cosmetics, with preservatives coming in second. Makeup contains these two things for common-sense reasons: preservatives help to kill bacteria, and fragrances mask unpleasant odors. But there are dangers beyond just an allergic reaction. 

Preservatives can break down over time and when exposed to sunlight. This is one of the reasons companies like Avon recommend that you not keep a tube of mascara for more than three months. Depending on the ingredients, preservatives can also release small amounts of formaldehyde, which is cancer-causing as well as being a nervous system hazard.

Fragrances can be irritants, particularly to asthmatics, and some fragrances can also cause irritation to the skin when exposed to the sun. Natural fragrances don’t necessarily eliminate allergic reactions, either; some extracts are considered to be sensitizers of the same strength as formaldehyde. Natural plant essences are generally safer, however, because synthetic fragrances often contain six hundred or more raw ingredients. Statistically speaking, this means there is a better chance you will be allergic to one of those six hundred ingredients than to the one ingredient that comprises a natural essence or oil.

But the Label Said "Natural"!

If you don’t know the definitions for catch words on a label, you may be assuming things you shouldn’t. For instance, cosmetic products can tout that they are "natural" or "hypoallergenic," "dermatologist-tested" or "allergy tested," but this isn’t necessarily a guarantee of anything. This is because these words remain largely undefined. Let’s take a look:

Hypoallergenic: If you take this word apart it begins to be a less impressive product claim. "Hypo" is defined as "less than," which means "hypoallergenic" only tells us that the maker feels the product is not as likely than others to cause allergic reactions. (There aren't any regulatory standards for what constitutes the claim hypoallergenic.) Though many cosmetic makers do clinical testing, there are some that may simply omit common problem-causing ingredients. 

Dermatologist-tested, Allergy-tested, Sensitivity-tested, and Non-irritating: These definitions offer no guarantee that a product won't cause a reaction in individual cases. 

Natural: There is no concrete definition for "natural" when it comes to cosmetics. For instance, some companies might use natural plant extracts in a line of "natural" cosmetics, but the base formula can remain the same as other product lines manufactured by the same company. This means that while you might be applying a foundation that claims to be natural, you could be applying a small amount of plant extract in addition to the allergy-causing substances in your old foundation. You also should never equate "natural" with "hypoallergenic." Allergic reactions can stem as easily from natural ingredients (think of wild mushrooms) as from synthetic ones. And all plants can be contaminated with pesticides and chemicals from a non-organic growing process.

Other Considerations: Cruelty-Free Products

While animal testing is reportedly on the decline and many companies have ended this type of product evaluation, tens of thousands of animals are still used for this purpose. The only federal law protecting these animals is the Animal Welfare Act, which does not prohibit any experimental procedure provided it is deemed "scientifically necessary." These tests are controversial because it is believed by many people that non-animal research methods can provide equally good answers to health questions.

Free lists of companies who do not test on animals are available through PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).


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