The Ugly Side of Beauty Products

This article was originally published in our Fall 2018 print issue.

In light of the millennial obsession with beauty products and Instagram-ready looks, the beauty industry has grown to an outstanding $445 billion. However, while consumers flood the market with high demand for cheap eyeliner, mascara or eyeshadow, most often fail to consider the harmful effects of chemicals such as parabens and phthalates listed on the labels of lubricant products such as lotion and eye makeup. Many times manufacturing companies disguise these ingredients with vague and ambiguous terms such as “fragrances.” With the help of more investigation into the effects of preservative compounds on biological systems by public health researchers, as well as more informational databases, propagation of knowledge would help consumers make the right decisions for their health.

Chemical Pseudonyms Unmasked

Several cosmetic products contain potentially endocrine-disrupting compounds such as phthalates (used in fragrance), parabens (used as preservatives in makeup), and triclosan (found in antibacterial soap and toothpaste). However, often times even informed consumers on the effects of parabens and phthalates are unaware that their lotion products contain these harmful chemicals, as they are usually disguised under the overarching term of “fragrances” or “parfum.” As stated by the organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) on their Skin Deep website, “The word ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ on the product label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants.”

Exposure Pathway and Assessment

The myth that 60% of what we put on our skin is absorbed by our bodies has been debated for years. In reality, the truth of this statement depends drastically on the nature and molecular components of the specific compound. In a document published by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they specify that “the passive transport of many nanomaterials may not occur through intact skin, but there is an increased probability for entry of nanomaterials through skin with an impaired barrier layer.” This suggests that makeup products in the form of powder can be transferred through ruptured skin areas, such as places where one might have acne.

Additionally, the FDA states that special consideration needs to be taken when looking at skin with an “impaired barrier,” such as from sunburn or dermatitis, as these conditions could allow for easier transmittance of chemicals pass the skin and into the bloodstream. This can be seen when silicone additives like dimethicone sit on top of the skin and don’t allow anything to absorb.

However, in the case of phthalates and parabens, smaller ester compounds are easily absorbed by the skin. Because of their volatility, DEP (diethyl phthalate) and DMP (dimethyl phthalate) are present in higher concentrations in the air in comparison to the heavier and less volatile DEHP (bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate), contributing to the toxicity of the airborne transmittance to the surrounding environment as well. As a result, consumers need to be aware of not just one, but multiple pathways of exposure that open up more avenues of health risks.

Educating the Future Generation

The HERMOSA projected conducted by the UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health (CERCH) reached out to 100 teenage girls in Salinas Valley and gave them alternative cosmetic products that were phthalate-, paraben-, and triclosan-free. They later tested the subjects using urine analysis and detected significantly decreased levels of phthalates and parabens after only about three days of testing.

These products contained several replacements such as alcohol-based sanitizers as effective antibacterials as well as zinc oxide as an antimicrobial preservative for topical products. Through an interview with one of the research scientists on the project, Dr. Kimberly Berger stated that “this study showed that using alternative products were pretty easily integrated into the teenagers’ everyday routine, which might make it easier to implement on a community scale.”

The project empowered local youth in Salinas by engaging them in this research through data analysis and research design. Community outreach education was implemented by disseminating info sheets in English and in Spanish titled “Are your cosmetic products safe?” Additionally, Berger recommended that all product consumers conduct proper research about the different chemicals and the health outcomes and effects associated with their beauty products. The largest databases include EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic database and the California Safe Cosmetics Program chemical list. By keeping the community well informed about the behind-the-scenes production of consumer goods, public health educators are able to help consumers make the right choices to protect their health.