BY TESS REMICK ’21
While many college students rush to get ready in the morning, chances are the ingredients in their cosmetic products are the last thing on their minds — they’re concerned about putting it on their faces and making it to class on time. Paying attention to ingredient lists may seem like an unnecessary and tedious task, but ignoring it could have repercussions. Earlier this month, CNN reported that animal waste was one of the many toxins found in counterfeit makeup, or makeup produced to imitate brand name products. The makeup brands that were imitated included Kylie Cosmetics, Urban Decay, MAC and NARS. The toxins found in these counterfeit products were alarming to many consumers, but there are toxins in authentic cosmetic products as well, many of which can cause problems in the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system when used on a daily basis, according to the Environmental Working Group.
“[Parabens and phthalates] are being used in many consumer products because they are inexpensive, and they have desirable properties,” said Alan van Giessen, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Mount Holyoke College. “Their toxicity is subtle and long-term, so they appear to be safe to consumers.”
Between 2004 and 2016, there were over 5,000 health-related complaints reported to the FDA due to cosmetics, according to TIME. The ingredients in the products that people use everyday can contribute significantly to adverse health effects, as federal regulations on personal care products have barely changed since the 1930s, according to ABC News.
On average, teens use 17 personal care products each day, while the average adult woman uses just 12 products daily. Due to these disparities, teens, and especially young women, may unknowingly expose themselves to higher levels of cosmetic ingredients linked to these health effects. Ten years ago, the Environmental Working Group tested 20 teens’ blood and urine to find out which toxins from these products were ending up in their bodies. They found 16 chemicals, including parabens and phthalates, which could be linked directly to cosmetic usage.
Parabens are preservatives used to give products a longer shelf life. Unfortunately, parabens are also considered carcinogens and can lead to various types of cancer, according to the Environmental Working Group. This is extremely common and detrimental to consumers’ health. Not only can this chemical be found in many makeup products but also shampoos, conditioners, detergents and moisturizers.
Phthalates are used in beauty products to make the products softer and more flexible, and are dangerous because they can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system. The FDA does not require companies to label each chemical in the product. “I feel as though [not labelling toxins] is morally wrong and completely unjustified, but it will only stop if either the U.S. government enforces stricter regulations or everyone boycotts toxic products,” said Catherine George ’20.
Even products marketed as “natural” or “gentle” are likely filled with the same chemicals. It’s hard to know which to choose because companies do not want to advertise that their products could be harmful to a user’s health. The Environmental Working Group recommends either choosing makeup, skin and body-care products that have smaller, simpler lists of ingredients or making your own products.
“I try to buy ‘all natural’ brands more often than not. I usually go for brands like Schmidt’s and Tom’s because they’re better for the environment, and they don’t test on animals,” said George. “I make my own face-masks, and I’ll make my own soap sometimes ... I have wanted to make my own shampoo and conditioner, which I am going to do this summer, but I haven’t been able to get around to it yet.”
With easy resources and simple steps, consumers can make small changes in their lives to make sure that what they are putting in and on their bodies is truly good for them. Cosmetic product users can take steps to become aware of what they are putting on and in their bodies, and they have the agency to make healthier decisions for themselves. “Funding more research would be extremely helpful,” said van Giessen. “Requiring more clarity from companies about what chemicals are actually present in the products we are exposed to is important. Lifetime studies would be beneficial too — knowing what happens to chemicals after the products have been used for a lifetime would make it easier for consumers to choose safe products.”