Cosmetics are a key component to fashion nowadays--the average American uses up to ten personal cosmetics a day. In the 20th century, under the influence of theatre, arts, and Hollywood, makeup was established as a sign of fashion, and products such as sunscreen, hair dye, and deodorant were widely introduced. However, as cosmetics become increasingly popular and widely used, pressing problems are emerging--namely, the questionable ingredients in cosmetics and their possible effects on users.
Makeup may seem appealing, but its inner contents are not as pretty and attractive as its packaging. Some cosmetics are more toxic and less regulated than most people assume, leading them to carelessly use toxic makeup. Substances often found in shampoos, conditioners, mascaras, eyeshadows, moisturizers, and lipsticks--like parabens, 1,4-dioxane, and neurotoxins--all may lead to increased cancer risk, hormone disruption, learning disabilities, and asthma. It may seem exaggerated to say that the low concentrations of these chemicals would cause cancer, but a nationwide average of ten products a day makes these chemicals detrimental to health.
Parabens are a class of chemicals that are used to lengthen the shelf-life of many cosmetics products, yet they also mimic hormones like estrogen and increase the risk of breast cancer. They have been found in breast cancer tumors, albeit in low concentrations. Meanwhile, 1,4-dioxane is often produced in trace amounts as a byproduct during the manufacture of certain ingredients in makeup. It has been implicated as a carcinogen, a chemical compound that triggers mutations in the DNA of a normal cell and leads to uncontrollable cell growth, or cancer. In addition to increasing the risk of cancer, 1,4-dioxane also causes eye and skin irritation. Neurotoxins, which are also found in some personal care products, can directly affect nerve cells, or neurons, by interfering with membrane protein and ion channels. Many types of venom found in organisms like spiders, snakes, and scorpions are neurotoxins that cause paralysis. Lead, found in many lipsticks, is a common neurotoxin that damages the nervous system and causes brain and blood disorders.
If makeup is so unhealthy, why is it manufactured and marketed all around the world—and more specifically, in the United States? Government regulation on personal care products and cosmetics is fairly weak, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not provide sufficient assistance in regulating safe cosmetics. It has only assessed 20% of chemicals found in cosmetics for safety and has only banned eight products from the market since 1938. Furthermore, the FDA does not require a full list of ingredients on cosmetic products, generating the issue of label dishonesty. Various cosmetics companies label their products “natural,” “herbal,” or “organic,” but these claims could be false and meaningless since the government does not inspect their validity.
To prevent further health issues with toxic makeup, several solutions are currently being implemented. One solution toward healthier cosmetics is a federal mandate for the complete removal of toxic substances in makeup. Many European countries, for example, have already banned certain harmful chemicals from cosmetics. An alternative to this solution would be a new law that permits the FDA to regulate cosmetics more thoroughly, so that consumers will feel comfortable and safe using all cosmetic products. Meanwhile, green chemists are starting to develop nontoxic substances that can be used as alternatives to harmful chemicals. If their efforts are successful, then makeup users would not have to worry about hazardous ingredients like carcinogens, neurotoxins, and parabens.
To improve the safety of consumers, the FDA currently asks for notifications of any health care problems, such as rashes or infections, after using cosmetics. Once the FDA identifies a trend in symptoms, it will start removing unsafe products responsible for the problem. Until further steps are made in improving cosmetics, there are some alternatives to using hazardous ones. For instance, instead of consuming store-bought products that contain hazardous chemicals, using homemade cosmetics or using fewer cosmetics is a safer option.
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O'Connor, Siobhan, and Alexandra Spunt. No More Dirty Looks: the Truth about Your Beauty Products-- and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics. New York: Da Capo Lifelong, 2010. Print.
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Teacher Guide Questions
1. What are parabens and why are they potentially harmful to the body?
2. What are some solutions to improving the health issues of harmful cosmetics?
3. Why are cosmetics sold if they carry harmful chemicals?
4. Conduct an experiment to test the level of lead in lipsticks. Put lipstick on your hand and use a gold ring to scratch the swatch of the lipstick. If the color of the lipstick changes to black, the lipstick contains lead. Write out your observations on different kinds of lipsticks you used.