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Make-Up Safety: Deciphering Cosmetic Labels

Updated on March 21, 2011

Being a skeptical consumer may save you an allergic reaction as well as long term cancer risk. But there are a few basic problems with reading the labels on your cosmetics: they are often indecipherable and sometimes misleading. Choosing a company that you know makes safe products is a good place to start and may eliminate the need for constant scrutiny. But if you prefer to experiment, knowing a few key ingredients can tip you off to potential dangers.

Some Cosmetics Ingredients to Consider Avoiding:

Carcinogens: Substances that are cancer risks.

Talc: Despite the comforting images that talcum powder and other talc products evoke, you would be wise to avoid it. Cosmetic talc is carcinogenic, and can be harmful when inhaled. (Talc is also associated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer when used in the genital area.)

Artificial Colors: Green 3, Blue 1, C & D Red 33, C & FD Yellow 5, and C & FD Yellow 6.

Hair Dyes: Permanent and semi-permanent hair color products are associated with the incidence of cancer, particularly dark colored dyes. Natural hair-coloring is a safer alternative.

Lanolin: Lanolin itself is safe and good for your skin, but cosmetic lanolin can be contaminated with DDT, dieldrin, and lindane, which are carcinogenic.

Ethoxylated Alcohols and 1,4-Dioxane: Found in some cosmetics with wetting agents, these two substances can be removed through a special process, but labels will not show whether or not they have been. Ingredients most likely to be contaminated have the prefix, syllable or word PEG, Polyethylene, Polyoxyethylene, Polyethylene Glycol, eth (as in sodium laureth sulfate), or oxynol.

DEA and TEA (diethanolamine and triethanolamine):
Neither of these ingredients are carcinogenic by themselves. However, if the product also contains nitrates (not required to be disclosed on cosmetics labels), a chemical reaction can produce nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic.

Bronopol, and Padimate-O: The former may break down into formaldehyde, and both can cause the formation of nitrosamines under certain conditions.

Preservatives: The following preservatives may contain small amounts of formaldehyde, which may be released into the body, or can break down into formaldehyde:

  • Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol)
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Quaternum 15

Fragrances: About 95% of fragrance ingredients now are synthetic, and few have been tested for safety. Since labels don't need to disclose the contents of a fragrance, it is best to avoid using products with a fragrance if you are sensitive.

Toluene: Detected in every fragrance sample collected by the EPA for a report in 1991. Toluene not only is a known trigger for asthma attacks, it is also known to cause asthma in previously healthy individuals.

Make-up Safety Do's and Don't's

You may not think that putting on your rouge is a risk, but in fact there are many safety issues to consider when applying cosmetics.

DON'T share your cosmetics. Even if you know the person well, a great risk for bacteria still exists.

use store testers. Preservatives are meant to hold back bacteria, but they cannot perform well with such constant exposure. If you really must test a product, use an applicator like a fresh Q-tip.

DON'T put on makeup while driving. One bump in the road could cause you to scratch your eye, as well as introduce bacteria from the wand into the cut.

DO keep makeup containers tightly closed between applications. This will keep added bacteria from contaminating the container.

DO keep makeup out of the sun. Preservatives don't retain their effectiveness when exposed to sunlight.

DON'T use any eye cosmetics if you have an eye infection. If you find that you have one, discard all cosmetics and similar products.

DO throw away cosmetics if there is a change in color, odor, or consistency; it may mean that the preservatives have degraded.

DON'T add liquid in order to restore a product to its original consistency. You could be adding bacteria.


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