The average teen uses 15 to 25 cosmetics per day. That number may seem high, but cosmetics don’t just include make-up. Deodorant, shampoo, nail polish, toothpaste, sunscreen, and aftershave also fall into this category. The concerns about cosmetics apply to both male and females since we all brush our teeth, shampoo our hair, and apply deodorant.
Our skin absorbs the chemicals in lotions, ointments, and other products that we put on it. Some chemicals stay near the surface while others enter the blood stream, making their way throughout the body. Because teens might put several products on their skin each day, it’s important they limit their use of harmful ones. Read labels and avoid products with harmful ingredients.
Here are some to look out for in particular:
The Toxic Trio in Nail Polishes
The three worst chemicals found in nail polish are formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and toluene. They’re often found in many less expensive polishes. Many of the big-name companies have removed them from their products due to increased public awareness of their harm.
Formaldehyde, typically used as a preservative, a sterilizer, and embalming fluid, has been linked to lung and nasal cancer. Dibutyl phthalate is used to make plastics extra-flexible. DBP is not believed to cause cancer, but it has been linked to reproductive issues if a woman is exposed to it while pregnant. It has been phased out by many major nail polish companies, but it’s still allowed in products in the U.S. It’s been banned for use in cosmetics by the European Union. Toluene is often included in polish for smoother application. It’s also used in gasoline and as a raw material to create TNT. Toluene has been known to affect the nervous system and to cause dizziness, headaches, eye irritation, nausea, birth defects, developmental abnormalities, and liver and kidney damage. This chemical has also been banned by the European Union, but not by the U.S.
Coal Tar in Shampoos, Soaps, Hair Dyes, and Lotions
Coal tar comes from burning coal and is known to cause cancer. Studies have found that use of and exposure to coal tar causes skin tumors and nerve damage. Read labels on personal care products and avoid those that contain coal tar.
Triclosan in Soaps
Studies have linked triclosan to health effects such as skin irritation, endocrine disruption, and bacterial and antibiotic resistance. Over the last few years, due to pressure from consumer groups and the media, major manufacturers have quietly removed triclosan from their products. In 2013 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed a rule requiring makers of antibacterial hand soaps, body washes, and other consumer goods to prove that their products pose no long-term hazard and are more effective than regular bar soap. The FDA is expected to rule in a few months whether companies have done so.
Parabens in Lots of Products
Parabens can be found in shampoos, moisturizers, deodorants, shaving gels, tanning lotions, sunscreen, cleansing gels, and toothpaste. Parabens are used as preservatives, which is why they are found in so many products. Parabens can mimic the hormone estrogen, which is known to play a role in breast cancers.
Phthalates in Lots and Lots of Products
Phthalates make plastics more flexible and harder to break. In addition to being found in personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes), phthalates are used in vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, and plastic clothes (raincoats). The human health effects of phthalates are not yet fully known, but are being studied by several government agencies. As mentioned earlier, dibutyl phthalate has been linked to reproductive issues.
What happens to all those products that get washed off our bodies and down the drain? They enter the water system, contaminating it and harming aquatic ecosystems.
Nanoparticles used in sunscreens and cosmetics may have harmful effects on bacteria and a certain type of beneficial soil microbe. Mercury from some cosmetics sold illegally in the U.S. (such as skin-lightening products) can enter the environment in wastewater and may be transformed into the even more toxic methyl mercury.
And, of course, there is the energy and water consumption, carbon emissions, and packaging waste that come from making, transporting and disposing of all those products.
What Can We Do?
Read the labels on personal care products you buy and limit your exposure to harmful ingredients. Try to avoid products with the following ingredients:
- Butyl acetate – prevents nail polish from chipping
- Butylate hydroxytoluene (BHT) – prevents colors from fading and changing too quickly
- Coal tar – dissolves dead skin cells and controls itching in shampoo and hair dye
- Cocamide/lauramide DEA – causes foaming in shampoo and bath products
- Formaldehyde – disinfectant and preservative in deodorant, nail polish, soap, shampoo, shaving cream
- Diazolidinyl urea – helps the disinfectants (like formaldehyde) work
- Ethyl acetate – liquid in nail polish, mascara, tooth whitening, perfume
- Parabens – act as preservatives
- Petrolateum (petroleum) – makes lipsticks shine, makes creams smooth
- Treithanolamine – keeps lotions, shaving cream, soaps, shampoos and bath powders from clumping
- Triclosan – prevents bacteria on your hands from growing in your cosmetics, like on bars of soaps or deodorant
- Toluene – liquid part of nail polish and hair dye that makes it stick to your hair and nails and looks glossy
- Talc – absorbs moisture and prevents powders like eye shadow, blush, deodorant from clumping in the containers
- Sodium laureth sulfate – helps the cosmetics stick to your skin
- Propylene glycol – keeps products from melting when it is too hot or freezing when it is too cold
- Phthalates – keeps color and scents dissolved in the nail polish, perfume, hair spray and others
- “Do you want the best makeover ever?” flyer from the Local Hazardous Waste Management Program in King County
- Skin Deep – a database of cosmetics and their toxicity rank
- The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – a public advocacy coalition
- Tox Town – provides information in non-technical language on many well-known chemicals found in everyday locations