The Not So Pretty Side of Cosmetics

Did you know that up to 80% of the ingredients in perfumes and makeup came from an oil well? Even essential oils are from class of hydrocarbon compounds known as terpenes but can also be aldehydes, esters, ketones, alcohols and phenol-based compounds.  As a result it’s important to be discerning in your choice of cosmetics especially if you’ve had an allergic response to a product in the past. The following is a guide to safe use of cosmetics.

Environmental Working Group has released a great video that provides an overview of cosmetics safety in about 8 minutes.

Some cosmetics that are labeled hypo-allergenic really aren’t. It is important to read the label. Don’t use any product that contains lanolin and perfume, the most common causes of skin reactions. Mineral oil can dry out your skin after just two applications. The eyelid and surrounding areas are especially vulnerable because the skin is extremely thin and loose, allowing chemicals to penetrate more easily. This may cause the skin to swell more readily than on other parts of the face.

There are two allergic reactions that might occur following exposure to cosmetics: irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is a condition marked by areas of inflammation (redness, itching, and swelling) that form after a substance comes into contact with your skin.

  1. Irritant contact dermatitis: This is more common than allergic contact dermatitis and can occur in anyone. It develops when an irritating or harsh substance actually damages the skin. Irritant contact dermatitis usually begins as patches of itchy, scaly skin or a red rash, but can develop into blisters that ooze, especially if the skin is further irritated from scratching. It generally occurs at the site of contact with the irritating substance. Areas where the outermost layer of skin is thin, such as the eyelids, or where the skin is dry and cracked are more susceptible to irritant contact dermatitis.
  2. Allergic contact dermatitis: This occurs in people who are allergic to a specific ingredient or ingredients in a product. Symptoms include redness, swelling, itching, and hive-like breakouts. In some cases, the skin becomes red and raw. The face, lips, eyes, ears, and neck are the most common sites for cosmetic allergies, although reactions may appear anywhere on the body.

The time it takes for symptoms of irritant contact dermatitis to appear varies. For stronger irritants, such as perfumes, a reaction may occur within minutes or hours of exposure. However, it may take days or weeks of continued exposure to a weaker irritant, such as soap, before symptoms appear. In some cases, a person can develop an allergic sensitivity to a product after years of use. With irritant contact dermatitis, the skin breaks down when it comes into contact with harsh substances, most often chemicals that directly injure the outer layer of the skin, resulting in symptoms of a cosmetic allergy.

Allergic contact dermatitis occurs because the body’s immune system is having an inappropriate reaction to a specific substance that it wrongly considers harmful. This type of allergy can be reprogrammed.

Hypoallergenic Products:

There are no Federal rules that control the use of the term, so there is no assurance to consumers that the product is really what it says it is. When a product is labeled as hypoallergenic, it is done only under the discretion of the manufacturers, and not of a higher regulating body. Some companies conduct tests before placing the hypoallergenic claim on the label, but there are others who do not. Some claim to be hypoallergenic just because they did not include perfumes and other problem-causing ingredients. Also, manufacturers are not required to submit a substantiation of their claims. The term, hypoallergenic, is just used as a marketing tool.

Other labels can also be deceiving. “Dermatologist-tested” only means that a skin doctor tested the product to see if it will cause allergies, and it does not mean that it was tested on several individuals. Even labels such as, “safe for sensitive skin”, “allergy tested”, “sensitivity-tested”, and “non-irritating”, offer no guarantee. The basic ingredients in both hypoallergenic cosmetics and regular cosmetics are the same. There are no scientific studies that prove that hypoallergenic makeup indeed causes fewer allergic reactions. So in reality, there is no such thing as hypoallergenic makeup.

Common culprits include cosmetic ingredients in perfumes, lipsticks, eyeliner, hair dyes, nail polishes, and sunscreen agents. Allergenic ingredients include substances in perfumes, as well as perfumes in makeup and skin creams; waxes and fats, particularly cocoa butter, in lipsticks; metallic compounds in eyeliner or eye shadow; tetrabromofluorescein in hair dyes; tosylamide, formaldehyde resin, and nail acrylates in nail polish; PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid), hydroquinone or digalloy trioleate in sunscreen preparations; either mercury or hydroquinone in bleaching creams; and methyldibromo glutaronitrile and other preservatives in cosmetics that contain water. The offending substance may just be the makeup remover. You may be suffering from irritant contact dermatitis. It develops when an irritating or harsh substance actually damages the skin.

Like food, makeup also has an expiration date, and over time cosmetics can harbor harmful bacteria that can lead to infections. Cosmetics aren’t required by law to have expiration dates, so you can’t just look at the label to know when a product has expired.

Check out this guide to expiration dates — beginning from the time you first open these products:

  • Powders and shadows: 2 years
  • Cream shadows: 12 to 18 months
  • Foundation: 1 year
  • Lipstick &: lip liner: 1 year
  • Mascara &: eyeliners: 3 months
  • Makeup brushes: Clean weekly using a mild detergent
  • Makeup sponges: Cosmetic makeup sponges are disposable tools. Replace weekly, or when sponge becomes soiled Wash after every use.
  • You should never keep mascara for any longer than 3 months (air pushes bacteria back into the tube). Never “pump” your mascara.
  • Lip gloss: 1 year
  • Eye and lip pencils: 1 year or more, but you should sharpen pencils at least once a week to prevent bacteria from being transferred to your eye area. You’ll know the product has gone bad if it dries or crumbles.
  • Skincare
  • Facial Cleansers & Moisturizers, 6 months
  • Concealer, 6-8 months
  • Facial Toners, 1 year
  • Natural Cosmetics, 6 months (“all-natural body washes”, etc.)
  • Among other cosmetics that are likely to have an unusually short shelf life are “all natural” products that contain plant-derived ingredients (which are conducive to bacterial growth), or products with no preservatives.
  • Brushes And Tools
  • Oils and bacteria get trapped in the bristles of the brushes. Wash natural-bristled brushes once a month, and synthetic brushes three to four times a month. Lay the brushes flat to dry so that the bristles don’t break, and to maintain the shape of the brushes. There are brush cleansers out there, but you can also use mild soap. You may also use baby shampoo to wash your brushes.

Tips for keeping your skin clean and your makeup fresh

  • Smell your cosmetics; if they have an unusual odor, they may contain bacteria and should be discarded.
  • Always make sure that products are closed tight and stored out of sunlight, as this can destroy the preservatives.
  • Don’t use any eye products if you currently have an eye infection.
  • Never add any liquids to products unless directed by the manufacturer.
  • If there are any changes in color and texture, dispose of the product immediately.
  • Avoid sampling makeup at department stores when possible. If you do test, never apply directly from the makeup. Instead, use a clean, disposable applicator (i.e., cotton swab, sponge) to apply cosmetics.
  • Foundation in a bottle should last 3-6 months, but wide mouthed jars can expose the product to more air and should be tossed sooner. You’ll know it’s time to purchase a new bottle, when the ingredients begin to settle or separate, the texture thickens or thins, or the smell changes.

Visit the Cosmetics Safety Database to determine if the everyday products you are using are actually safe.

2 Comments

  1. I like your article regarding not the pretty side of cosmetics. The video was also great.

    I found a great iPhone app call The Chemical Maze the easily decodes and rates each of the ingredients in cosmetics and also decoes Food Additives – They can be found at http://www.chemicalmaze.com

  2. Whilst I agree with your position on perfume, I am interested in your statement about Lanolin:

    “Don’t use any product that contains lanolin and perfume, the most common causes of skin reactions.”

    Are you aware of a study on lanolin published in the British Journal of Dermatology (July 2001, pages 28–31) has changed this view?

    It was based on 24,449 patients and concluded “that lanolin sensitization has remained at a relatively low and constant rate even in a high-risk population (i.e., patients with recent or active eczema).” “The mean annual rate of sensitivity to this allergen was 1.7%”—and it was lower than that for a 50% concentration of lanolin.”

    This is quite old information so, I would be interested to know if you have any information that is more up to date.

    Its also worth noting that the complex combination of lipids within lanolin is very similar to that found in the epidermis, which suggests that it would make a good skincare product.

~Results may vary from patient to patient. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These statements and products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. If pregnant or nursing, ask a health professional before use. If symptoms persist or worsen, seek advice of physician.