The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for making sure that food, drugs and other consumer products — including cosmetics — are safe. But you may be surprised to learn that they do not actively regulate the contents of cosmetic products sold in the United States. Therefore, the makeup you wear may contain chemical ingredients that could be harmful to your health.
Common contaminants found in cosmetics range from lead and asbestos to phthalates and more. They can be found in lipstick, powders, fragrances, nail polish, lotions and other beauty products. The health risks associated with this dangerous list of hidden ingredients include cancer, fertility issues, hormone imbalance and neurological issues, to name just a few.
We surveyed 1,000 Americans to gauge their concern and knowledge of toxic risks from makeup products. Key findings reveal:
- 45% of people are concerned about the potential dangers of unregulated cosmetics.
- 55% of American women wrongly assume the FDA regulates cosmetic ingredients.
- 1 in 3 people NEVER check cosmetic ingredients.
- 46% of frequent makeup-wearers proactively review cosmetic ingredients before making a purchase.
In this post, we explore the results and provide useful tips on how to identify safer makeup options.
Majority of Women Unaware of FDA Makeup Regulations
Americans trust the FDA to oversee the safety of products they use every day, including cosmetics. As our survey shows, that trust has led 55% of female respondents to wrongly assume that the organization regulates makeup ingredients. And 59% of men made the same mistaken assumption.
The FDA has been regulating the cosmetics industry since the 1930s, but it has created no substantial guidelines manufacturers must follow. As clarified by the FDA, “The law does not require cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, to have FDA approval before they go on the market.” In contrast to the FDA’s more detailed oversight of food and drug products, cosmetic manufacturers are not required to share their product formulas or even register with the FDA. They are left to regulate themselves.
Compared to the rest of the world, U.S. regulations of chemicals and contaminants in makeup products are drastically limited. An analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) identified more than 40 nations that have developed specific and strict regulations for the ingredients of cosmetics and personal care products. Some have restricted or completely banned more than 1,400 chemicals from use in cosmetics. The FDA has also taken similar measures to ban and restrict such chemicals for safety reasons — but only for a total of nine chemicals.
Can Toxic Chemicals in Makeup Really Hurt Me?
How much of an impact can hidden chemicals in makeup really have on your health? For many years, studies have shown that skin absorbs cosmetic chemicals, allowing them to enter the bloodstream. Powder makeup products may be inhaled, bringing potential contaminants such as asbestos into the airway and lungs. Lip makeup may also be ingested by repeatedly licking or biting your lips, delivering the chemicals to your stomach and digestive system.
The amount of exposure to any harmful chemical is a key factor in its potential impact on your health. For frequent makeup-wearers, daily use of a variety of products leads to chronic exposure over many years.
Health Risks from Makeup
Due to the broad spectrum of contaminants that may be present across a wide variety of makeup products, the list of potential resulting health issues is long. Some common health concerns connected to toxic cosmetics include:
- Cancers, such as breast cancer and malignant mesothelioma
- Fertility issues and birth defects
- Neurological issues
- Hormone imbalances
- Thyroid issues
The risks of developing serious health problems such as these must be weighed against the level of trust you have in the manufacturers of your preferred makeup products.
33% Never Check the Ingredients in Makeup
Many people examine the labels of their food products, or what goes in their bodies, before making a purchase. But, according to our survey results, one in three people never look at the ingredients of new cosmetics, or what goes on their bodies. When we break that response down by gender, the numbers shift to 20% of women and 49% of men who never examine makeup labels.
Unsurprisingly, frequent makeup-wearers are the most proactive, with 46% in the habit of reviewing cosmetic ingredients before making a purchase. Knowing what to look for — even for the biggest makeup lover — is not easy or straightforward.
How to Spot Toxic Makeup
One of the biggest obstacles in deciphering the dangers lurking in a makeup label is that not all of the potentially harmful ingredients are actually listed.
For example, recent research uncovered that more than half of the popular cosmetic products they tested contained significant evidence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are used to increase durability and water resistance in makeup. Almost none of the PFAS-heavy products included the chemicals on their ingredients labels. PFAS are known to cause multiple health issues, such as cancer, high cholesterol and weakened immune systems.
One common makeup ingredient you may see on labels but mistakenly assume holds no risk is talc. Often added to cosmetics to help absorb moisture, talc can be perfectly safe. But dangers arise from the possible contamination of talc with asbestos, a microscopic cancer-causing natural fiber that can do severe damage to your lungs. Talc and asbestos are natural minerals that often form close together geologically, resulting in the need for all talc deposits to be tested for asbestos. If manufacturers skip that step, consumers risk developing asbestos-related cancers such as mesothelioma.
Lead is a harmful heavy metal and naturally occurring impurity that can show up in lipstick and any eye products containing kohl. High levels of lead can cause serious anemia, neurological problems and kidney issues in children. Even low-level lead exposure has been shown to cause learning and behavior problems. The ingredients of cosmetic products marketed to children should be examined closely.
Another carcinogenic ingredient often found in beauty products is formaldehyde. Frequently used in nail polish, nail glue and eyelash glue, the chemical has been completely banned from cosmetics in Japan and Sweden.
- Triclosan: Often found in body wash and toothpaste
- Phthalates: Often found in nail polish, fragrances and hairspray
- Parabens: Often used in moisturizers and soaps
- Toluene: Often found in nail polish
- Carbon Black: Often found in mascara, lipstick and eyeliner
How to Identify Toxic vs. Safe Makeup Products
Deciphering the ingredients list on your cosmetics is no easy feat. The chemical names can be confusing, as manufacturers often identify certain chemicals by alternate names. Use these tips to improve your odds of finding safe makeup products.
Don’t Trust Makeup Labels
Certain phrases on beauty products should not be trusted. The terms “natural” and “organic” do not guarantee a product has no toxic ingredients and there is no legal standing to verify their accuracy. Also be mindful that products labelled “long-lasting” or “wear-resistant” may contain PFAS, which are chemicals known to cause serious health issues.
Trustworthy Resources for Safe Makeup
Multiple organizations dedicated to making makeup safer for everyone have created valuable online and in-app databases that can help you decipher the health dangers hidden in your cosmetics’ ingredients. Many also provide recommendations for nontoxic makeup products.
- Skin Deep Cosmetics Database
- Features information on more than 74,000 products from the scientists at EWG
- Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
- Created by Breast Cancer Prevention Partners
- Retailer Report Card: Who’s Minding the Store?
- Research the actions of your favorite stores on issues of toxic chemicals in their products
- Search by products or ingredients to find the full details on all ingredients and their alternative names
Wearing makeup is a daily practice for many Americans, yet so many assume the cosmetics they use each day are safe. Being mindful of the potential dangers of toxic makeup, especially during regular cancer screenings, can make a difference in achieving a healthy future.
The survey featured in this post was conducted on YouGov Direct. One thousand U.S. adults ages 18 and older were surveyed on Aug. 11, between 11 a.m. and 5:32 p.m. Eastern time. Data is weighted based on age, gender, education level, political affiliation and ethnicity to be nationally representative of adults 18 and older in the United States. The margin of error is approximately 4.5% for the overall sample.