The history of cosmetic use dates back to the time of ancient civilizations, who used natural raw materials to beautify themselves by applying products that would soothe, smooth, protect, define, enrich, and refresh the body. They achieved the looks they adored by using ingredients from nature, albeit ones that they did not realize would cause adverse health effects. For example, face powders and kohl were laden with harmful elements including lead and fire soot, respectively. Ancient Greeks and Romans used white lead to create pale white face powders not knowing that it would eventually cause skin damage and neurological disorders. Ancient Egyptians regularly contaminated their kohl recipes with the use of fire soot in attempts to replicate the same intense, glossy black eyeliner used by the upper-class. As we now know, these poisonous ingredients had and continue to have dangerous effects on health with the potential to causing side effects like respiratory issues, stroke, heart attack, cancer, and even death. The cosmetics industry has brought products a long way from these harmful formulations, labeling products with ingredients and disclaimers in order to educate and be transparent with consumers. Unfortunately, damaging elements are not entirely absent from today’s products, and labels regularly fall short of full disclosure, which means consumers are not always aware of every single ingredient used by even the most trusted brands.
On average, women presently use approximately 12 cosmetic products a day for personal care and men use approximately 6. Even today, the external improvement provided by a product does not always equate to internal benefits. Using these many cosmetic products that are synthetic can mean exposure to high amounts of chemicals that can impact the body negatively over an extended period of usage. It can also expose individuals to ingredients that have not necessarily been reviewed by health and safety organizations before being released to the market.
Skin is the largest organ and the immune system’s first defense mechanism. Sometimes products that are applied topically go beyond simply penetrating the outer layer of skin and get absorbed by all body systems, impacting overall health. One product alone might contain a safe level of a synthetic chemical, but layering on several products containing the same synthetic chemical might lead to the application of unsafe amounts of it over time and an excessive, harmful accumulation of it within the body. Some chemicals in cosmetic products make their ways into the blood stream and get stored in fat tissue. This is a major concern for pregnant women, as their babies would receive these chemicals through the placenta. Absorption into the body systems occurs when the ingredient breaks right through the layer of skin and enters the bloodstream. At this point, the body can either filter out the chemical through a fluid excretion, change it into another chemical, or the chemical will begin to accumulate inside the body, a circumstance called bioaccumulation. The speed of penetration and absorption depends on the condition of the skin at the time of topical application of the chemical, the area of the skin to which it is being applied – thinner skin is more vulnerable to penetration, as well as the composition of the chemical such as the molecule size and its solubility. Most cosmetics are not fat-soluble (not soluble in the skin) and their molecules are too big to make it past the outermost layer of skin or the stratum corneum.
Many potentially harmful cosmetic ingredients can lead to or have been linked to cancer, hormonal issues, skin sensitivities, reproductive disorders, and birth defects including developmental disabilities in children. According to several reports based on cosmetic research, the average number of personal care products used daily contain between 80 and 126 unique ingredients collectively. The cosmetics industry as a whole use between 10, 500 and 12, 500 unique chemical ingredients. Many of these are industrial chemicals that are carcinogens, reproductive toxins, and endocrine system disruptors. In particular, many cosmetic products are comprised of:
PLASTICIZERS namely phthalates, which are additives that keep materials soft and workable, have been linked to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity, type II diabetes, autism spectrum disorders, and male fertility issues among other health issues.
COAL TAR DYES, which can be identified by their five-digit Colour Index (C.I.) numbers, are artificial coloring agents that could contain heavy metals that are toxic to the brain.
FORMALDEHYDE-RELEASING PRESERVATIVES (with names like quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethyl glycinate, bromopol and glyoxal) that slowly release small amounts of formaldehyde, which causes cancer.
PARABENS, which are used to extend the shelf life of products, are preservatives that might interfere with male reproductive functions.
PARFUM, which are fragrances used to mask the smell of other ingredients and to enhance the experience of using the product can trigger allergies, asthma, cancer and neurotoxicity. Sometimes even used in products that say they are “fragrance-free.”
Ingredients ending in "-siloxane" or "-methicone," which are used to soften, smooth and moisten. They are supposed endocrine disrupters and reproductive toxicants.
SURFACTANTS such as Sodium Laureth Sulfate, which are also degreasers meant to remove stubborn substances like grease and oils off of auto parts and which causes the foaming reaction in cosmetic cleansers, can also be tainted with cancer-causing agents.
TRICLOSAN, which is an anti-fungal agent that is commonly used in anti-bacterial products such as toothpaste, cleansers, and antiperspirants, has the potential to contribute to bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics.
LEAD, which is a neurotoxin that builds up in the body over time and is used in several lipsticks, can be absorbed into the body through the skin on the lips. This is equated with actually eating the lipstick. There is no amount of lead that is safe to consume.
BENZOYL PEROXIDE, which is used in acne treatments, can cause the drying, burning, itching, peeling and swelling of the skin.
1,4-DIOXANE, which is found in soap products that create suds, is not listed on product labels but is rather hidden inside ingredients like Sodium Laureth sulfate, PEG compounds, and chemicals that include the clauses xynol, ceteareth and oleth. This contaminant is created when common ingredients in a product mix together, react and lead to its formation. It is considered to be a probable human carcinogen.
ACRYLATES (ethyl acrylate, ethyl methacrylate, and methyl methacrylate), which are found in artificial nail products, are used as adhesives to hold false nails and eyelashes in place. They can potentially cause cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, organ system toxicity, cellular and neurological damage and irritation.
BENZOPHENONE & RELATED COMPOUNDS are chemicals used to protect products from UV light. These have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, organ system toxicity, and irritation.
CARBON BLACK, which is a black powder used for eyeliner, mascara and lipstick pigmentation, has been linked to cancer.
HOMOSALATE, which is used in sunscreen and is meant to absorb short-wave UVB rays that are associated with DNA damage and skin cancer, is a potential endocrine disruptor and can contaminate breast milk.
ETHYLENE OXIDE, which in cosmetics products is used to decrease the harshness of chemical agents that cause soap to create suds, is known to be a human carcinogen.
1,3-BUTADIENE is contained inside isobutene, which is a propellant. Propellants turn liquids into gases and are commonly used in aerosol products such as shaving creams, spray sunscreens and foundations, and anti-fungal treatments. 1,3-butadiene is a carcinogenic chemical, and exposure to it occurs mainly through inhalation.
HYDROQUINONE, which is used in skin lighteners geared toward women of color, have been linked to cancer, organ-system toxicity, respiratory tract irritation.
METHYLISOTHIAZOLINONE AND METHYLCHLOROISOTHIAZOLINONE, which are used as preservatives, have been known to cause irritation of the skin, eyes, or lungs.
OCTINOXATE, which is used in sunscreens and makeup to absorb UV rays, is an endocrine disruptor. It mimics estrogen and is considered a possible cause of kidney, eye, liver and reproductive problems.
POLYACRYLAMIDE, which is used for binding cosmetic ingredients and for its lubricating, anti-static, and foaming properties, is known to be a neurotoxin.
ETHYLHEXYL SALICYLATE (AKA SALICYLIC ACID AND BETA HYDROXY ACID OR BHA), which can be used as a hair conditioner or as a skin conditioner to remove acne, dandruff, corns, calluses, and warts, can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, or lungs.
HEXYL CINNAMAL, which is a fragrance additive that gives off the scent of Jasmine is considered a fragrance sensitizer. It is a possible human immune system toxicant or allergen.
BUTYLPHENYL METHYLPROPIONAL (AKA LILIAL), which functions as a fragrance and masking ingredient, is connected with possible bioaccumulation, organ system toxicity, endocrine disruption and allergies, and contact dermatitis.
YELLOW 5 (AKA TARTRAZINE), which is a synthetic yellow dye used to color cosmetics, can cause lethal asthma attacks, hives, DNA damage, tumors of the thyroid and ADHD.
DIBUTYL PHTHALATE OR DBP, which is used as a solvent for dyes, interferes with hormone function and can weaken or damage fertility.
SYNTHETIC FRAGRANCES AND PARFUM, which are sometimes even used in products that claim to be “unscented,” can cause asthma, allergies, cancer and neurotoxicity.
MERCURY (AKA MERCUROUS CHLORIDE, CALOMEL, MERCURIC, OR MERCURIO), which is used for skin lightening, anti-aging or blemish control, can accumulate in the body and can cause allergic reactions, skin irritation, or neurotoxic problems.
TALC, which is used for its anti-moisture and anti-friction properties, poses the risk of lung cancer from breathing in the powder. This can cause respiratory problems, namely a chronic lung irritation, known as Talcosis.
PROPYLENE GLYCOL, which is used as a moisturizer, a carrier in fragrance oils, a solvent and which retains the moisture content of skin, can also enhance the skin’s ability to absorb other chemicals and toxins. This increases the potential for irritation.
The FDA regulates cosmetics under the authority of the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act; however, even though it analyzes cosmetic samples as part of facility inspections, monitors, and samples some imported cosmetics, and follows up with complaints of adverse effects related to the use of cosmetics, it does not subject cosmetic products and ingredients to premarket approval. The FDA neither has the authority to ask manufacturing companies to submit their product safety data nor does it require products or ingredients to undergo tests to prove their safety. It can only advise manufacturers to conduct safety testing. This is not to say that manufacturing companies do not prioritize consumer health and safety; to uphold this principle they employ chemists, toxicologists, environmental scientists, and biologists to ensure the safety of their products, but it is up to consumers to trust that these companies’ self-regulation upholds regulations to provide products that are as harmless as possible.
Health Canada has strict regulations for cosmetics including mandating the publication of product ingredient lists. This allows Health Canada to identify and prohibit a product in the event that it contains a harmful ingredient; however, it gives companies that import, manufacture, advertise, or sell consumer products in Canada the responsibility of ensuring that their product ingredients conform to the health and safety requirements. Again, ingredients must not cause injury to users when products are applied in agreement with their labeled directions. Despite the obligation of manufacturers and importers to notify Health Canada of the products they are selling and of the respective ingredient lists within the established timeframe, it is ultimately the responsibility of the companies to guarantee that the unregulated products they import, advertise, or sell are safe for consumer use. Health Canada can request that a company initiate a hazardous product recall, but it is up to the companies themselves to comply and follow through with the request. This should happen as soon as a company realizes that a product is defective, has caused injury or death to a user, or that it does not comply with Health Canada legislation.
Companies report any harm caused by their cosmetics on a solely voluntary basis, as the FDA and Health Canada have no authority to order the recall of injurious products; they can instead request that a company recall a product and can monitor the progress of a recall. It is the responsibility of a manufacturer or distributor to remove a product that can be hazardous, deceptive, or defective. The FDA can still take legal action against an individual, a company, or a product that is on the market if it violates the labelling laws, which ensure the following: the ingredients and the finished product are stated to be safe for customary use according to the directions on the packaging, the product is properly labeled, and the ingredients do not cause the cosmetic to be contaminated or erroneously branded under the FDA laws.
Health Canada has a vast list of prohibited ingredients on its Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist. The ingredients on the FDA’s own hotlist that are not explicitly stated to be “prohibited” are “restricted.” In other words, they are not entirely exempt from being used. This means they are allowed to be used under specific circumstances that are outlined for each ingredient. Cosmetic companies are not required to back up any claims of their products being “natural,” “organic” or “hypoallergenic” either, so having these properties printed on a product label does not actually guarantee that the entire product consists of 100% naturally-derived ingredients or that ingredients will absolutely prevent the user from an allergic reaction. The manufacturing companies decide what the labels “natural,” “organic” and “hypoallergenic” mean for them individually.
UNDER THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE (USDA) NATIONAL ORGANIC PROGRAM (NOP) STANDARD:
“100 % Organic” requires only organically produced ingredients. (The USDA seal may appear on the package.)
“Organic” requires a minimum of 95% organically produced ingredients. Products cannot be produced using synthetic preservatives, petrochemicals, ionizing radiation or any other excluded methods. (The USDA seal may appear on the package.)
“Made with Organic Ingredients” requires at least 70% organic ingredients. (The USDA seal cannot be used anywhere on the package.)
UNDER THE CANADA ORGANIC REGIME STANDARD:
Use of the Canada Organic logo is only permitted on products that have an organic content that is greater than or equal to 95% and have been certified according to the requirements of the Canada Organic Regime.
Naturally derived raw materials have the capacity to either replace or supplement several synthetic commercial cosmetic ingredients. For the most part, natural ingredients are grown without a large amount of processing, pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, or GMOs and they release fewer chemicals into the environment than synthetic products. Synthetic ingredients eventually make their way into the air, water, and earth when their toxicity gets washed off and enters the water supply system. In this regard, natural products are beneficial not only to the user but to the environment. Some companies that manufacture natural products have the added virtue of being “carbon neutral.” This means they do not release harmful emissions into the atmosphere.
Simply selecting products that do not have harmful substances listed on their ingredients label will not guarantee protection against them, because many products contain hidden ingredients that the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act permits them to leave them off of labels. They believe that a company should not be forced to reveal “trade secrets.” In the case of fragrances, for example, any number of chemicals can be contained within them, none of which are mandated to be listed except under the broad terms “fragrance” or “flavor.” Similarly, in Canada, the International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) permits fragrance ingredients to be either named individually or just listed generally under the term “parfum.”
The minerals, vitamins, hormones, essential fatty acids, amino acids and enzymes found in organic plant materials are a replica of the ones in the human body, so when our bodies recognize these same materials in natural products they readily accept them as nourishment. Due to the fact that anything applied to the skin gets circulated to all of our cells, choosing the proper natural ingredients is the same as carefully choosing the food we consume. Buyers of any cosmetic products are encouraged to conduct their own research in order to make informed decisions about the products they want to buy.
Take a look at our Recipes and How To pages for suggestions of how to implement natural ingredients into everyday cosmetic uses.