The Truth About Environmentally Harmful Chemicals in Cosmetics
Make-up, concealer, mascara, eye shadow, blush… These are just some of the many products women apply to their faces each day. But how much time do you spend checking what ingredients each of them contains when the average person uses up to 12 cosmetic products each day ?
Our use of chemical-filled cosmetics and personal care products can be a large source of toxins that accumulate in our bodies and are released into the environment every time we apply them. This way they can potentially cause us health problems without being easy to track.
Our skin is the largest organ in the human body, and whatever we put on our skin will ultimately get absorbed into our bloodstreams and can potentially negatively impact our health sooner or later. Therefore, it is important to be aware of everything that we use on our bodies and use personal care products and cosmetics that are as close to nature as possible.
Using natural body care and natural cosmetic products will help to significantly reduce the toxic burden on our bodies and ultimately on the environment as well. After all, natural products derived from plants have been used for thousands of years by human beings and have proven their safety and their harmony with the environment.
Still, it can often be difficult to navigate with so many “natural” products that have been put on the market today. One of the best resources to determine the safety of personal care products and to find some guidance about which ones are cleaner options is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.
Many ingredients of cosmetics can create adverse reactions to our health. But they can also impact our natural environment and its resources in several very important ways. It is time we learned the truth about these environmentally harmful chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products.
How do chemicals in cosmetics affect the environment?
#1 Cosmetics contribute to air pollution
Firstly, a number of chemicals used in cosmetics are released into the air during and after use. For example, deodorants are sprayed in the air whereas shampoos, lotions and creams are washed off when we shower. Once they come into contact with the environment, these chemicals react in different ways. Some chemicals may degrade into harmless substances whereas others may break down into other products which can be more harmful.
Spray deodorants used to emit chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which are ozone-depleting chemicals. These were removed from the market by the industry in the 1970’s and then restricted by the US Environmental Protection Agency and globally by the Montreal Protocol . But even CFC-free deodorants and spray cans emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which contribute to ground-level ozone levels.
Ground-level ozone pollution is associated with increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease, but it can also lead to reduced agricultural and commercial forest yields, impede the growth of tree seedlings, make plants more susceptible to different diseases, pests, and other environmental stresses such as harsh weather.
#2 Water polluting substances
When released into the water stream, some chemicals stay in the water and are transferred into a variety of aquatic organisms and from there accumulate further up the food chain. When they do so they can pose a threat to the animals higher up in the food chain as they are exposed to higher concentrations of these chemicals.
For example, silicone chemicals which are commonly found in cosmetics as well as detergents and other household products, have been detected in increasing concentrations in different samples from lakes; they have also been found in fish .
In addition, chemicals such as fragrances cannot be effectively removed from our waters during wastewater treatments and so they end up being released to the aquatic ecosystem.
Endocrine disruptors in the water
Other chemicals have toxic properties even though they may not be accumulated up the food chain. More specifically, some of these chemicals have endocrine disrupting properties which means that they can alter the genetic make-up of the organisms found in the ecosystems to which they are exposed.
This is for example the case of triclosan which also reacts with other chemicals to form dioxins . Similarly, chemicals in sunscreens such as oxybenzone, are considered toxic and contributing to the decline of reefs around the world.
Cosmetics can also be harmful to our environment because many of them include microbeads. Microbeads are primarily found in exfoliating face and body washes; polyethylene which is a plastic substance is used to create the scrubbing beads. Unlike natural and organic compounds such as sea salts, these synthetic substitutes emulate the exfoliating action of natural compounds but pollute our rivers and lakes.
Plastic microbeads are small enough to escape from wastewater treatment and so they end up in the water where they contribute to marine pollution and can be eaten by fish and other wildlife which is damaging for their digestive tracts. Because of their size and the fact that they are not biodegradable, it is practically impossible to remove them from the marine environment when they are exposed to it .
From toxic and bioaccumulative chemicals to marine litter, it is clear that many chemicals in cosmetics have a negative impact to our environment, in addition to our health. And yet all-too-often we willingly apply harmful chemicals on our skin which are then absorbed and enter our body as well as natural ecosystems.
5 Chemicals you don’t want in your cosmetics
Some of these substances are restricted or banned in some regions, typically in the EU but not in the US, while others belong to families of substances that are being regulated whereas for others the weight of evidence is still being built up before the regulatory process can be launched.
For some of these reasons, we can still find that harmful substances are used in cosmetic products that any of us can pick up at the local drugstore. This is why it is important to verify the ingredients of the creams and lotions we apply on our face, hair and body on a daily basis.
Here are five such chemicals that you will want to avoid having in your cosmetic products if you care for your health and the environment.
Triclosan is used in antibacterial soaps, deodorants and toothpastes to limit the growth of bacteria and mold. The chemical, which is classified as a pesticide, can affect the body’s endocrine system especially thyroid hormones and may disrupt normal breast development.
While the EU has taken steps to regulate the use of triclosan as a biocide due to its toxicity, industry is now challenging a request from EU authorities on further data on triclosan in order to determine whether it poses further health or environmental risks .
Parabens are used as preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products. As such they can be found in a variety of products including makeup, moisturizers, shaving gels, shampoos and spray tan products.
Evidence suggests that some substances of this family have the potential to act like hormones in the body, in particular like estrogens, the female sex hormone.
The EU has introduced limits in the use of parabens and has recently lowered those for longer chain parabens like propyl and butyl paraben and their branched counterparts, isopropyl and isobutylparabens, as these are considered to be more potent .
Some countries like Denmark have proposed the further restriction of the use in parabens in skincare products for children given that they are more vulnerable to changes in their hormone system.
Siloxanes are a family of substances made from what is essentially silicone. They are used in a variety of cosmetic and skincare products as they help soften, smooth, and moisten. One very big use of D5 or Decamethylcyclopentasiloxane is deodorants.
The two most commonly used substances of the siloxane family, D4 or Octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane and D5 have been found to be toxic for the aquatic environment.
So, when these compounds that could be listed under the name cyclomethicone are used particularly as shampoos and shower gels, they eventually find their way to water ecosystems where they can damage the local biodiversity. In addition, D4 has been classified as a category 2 carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic substance .
Phthalates represent another big family of ubiquitous chemicals; in cosmetics they are primarily used to add softness and flexibility in fragranced lotions, body washes, hair care product and nail polishes. T
he most commonly used phthalates in cosmetics are dibutyl phthalate (DBP), DEP often labelled as “fragrance”, and Di-2-ethylhexylphthalate (DEHP).
DBP and DEHP are banned from use in cosmetics in Europe. These chemicals have been found to have important health concerns and linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity and endocrine disruption .
Oxybenzone is used in a lot of sunscreen creams. While it can cause eczema-like allergic reactions when applied to the skin, more importantly evidence suggests it also disrupts hormones.
According to studies, 97 percent of Americans have this chemical circulating in our bodies, as it can accumulate more quickly than our bodies can eliminate it .
Due to its hazardous properties, the EU requires that above if the amount of oxybenzone is more than 0.5 percent, this should be labelled. However, because oxybenzone is relatively easy to obtain and cheap, it remains one of the most commonly used chemical UV filters in conventional cosmetics.
So, next time you are picking up a cosmetic product, check its label to see if you recognize any of the ingredients identified as potentially harmful or seek the help of a mobile application such as “Think Dirty” to learn about potentially toxic ingredients they contain by scanning the product’s barcode.