By Carol Barczac
AEHA Quarterly Summer 1995

People who use of work with cosmetics may be flirting with danger.  At the University of California, researchers studied 58,000 hairdressers, cosmetologists and manicurists and found they had four times the usual rate of multiple myeloma, a malignant bone tumour.  The suspect substances included hair dyes, shampoos, hair conditioners, relaxers, permanent wave solutions, detergents and nail products.

Other investigators have revealed that make-up, talcum powder and bubble bath are potentially harmful substances.

  • Lipsticks and make-up may contain aluminum, a known toxin in humans, to make them long-lasting.
  • Coal tar dyes, the major colouring agent in make-up, can result in dermatitis or skin cancer.
  • Talcum powder is not innocuous.  In 1982 Daniel Cramer, MD, reported in the journal Cancer that women in Boston who used talcum powder on their genitals and sanitary napkins had a 328 times greater risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacteria highly resistant to therapy, can contaminate mascara and attack an eyeball scratched by microscopic abrasions from soft contact lenses or inadvertent damage by the applicator brush.  Blindness can result.
  • Adverse reactions to industrial foaming agents in bubble baths, like alkylarylsulfonate, can cause skin rash, urinary tract, bladder and kidney infections, genital disorders, eye irritations and respiratory disorders.

Cosmetics are a low priority in consumer safety since it is wrongly assumed they don’t affect our health.  Yet skin is not the barrier we once thought.  Many medications are now introduced transdermally by patch.  Almost everything put on the skin is absorbed to some degree.

Most cosmetics are poorly tested, especially for chronic application causing low-grade toxicity.  Most have been scarcely tested at all, and only a few out of thousands have had expensive toxicity testing.  Consumers who develop reactions rarely complain; they just stop using the product.

Ancient Poisonings

Ancient Egyptians were poisoned by mercury-laden face powder, while Elizabethan court ladies used arsenic face powder to whiten the skin.  Cosmetic regulations were slow in coming.  In 1933, a prominent New York socialite was blinded by “Lash Lure,” used to darken lashes and eyebrows.  It remained on the market and, within a year, another woman died eight days after an immediate and extreme reaction to an application to only one eye.  In 1938, the depilatory “Kormelu” was advertised as safe for arms, face and legs.  It sold for $10 a jar although the active ingredient was thallium acetate – a rat poison already proven to cause baldness, pain and paralysis.

Although cosmetics are potentially dangerous, in Canada there are presently no laws requiring companies to list product ingredients.

The U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act for consumer safety was enacted in 1938, although mandatory ingredient listing on packaging was not added until 1977.  There is presently no mandatory Canadian ingredient listing on labels, although that will change under the new cosmetic regulations, which are undergoing final draft revision.

Ingredient listing can prevent problems like acne cosmetica – the most common form of acne in adults.  Unlike allergic reactions which occur within hours of exposure, acne cosmetica takes three months of repeated product application to appear; it regresses spontaneously after discontinuing the offending product for a further three months.  Isopropyl myristate, a “slip and glide” consistency additive in most commercial moisturizers, is linked to acne cosmetica.  Yet Canadian consumers with recurring breakouts cannot determine by ingredient listing if isopropyl myristate is a potential cause.

Common Allergens

Allergies are the most common reaction from using cosmetics.  A study by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group between 1977 and 1980 found that among 8,093 dermatology patients, 487 cases were cosmetic-related.  In half of these cases, neither doctor nor patient suspected cosmetics.  Eighty percent of the cosmetic problems were allergic, the rest being other skin reactions such as photosensitization (permanent brown patches formed when the sun combines with perfume). The most frequent allergens were fragrances, preservatives and lanolin derivatives p-phenylenediamine and prophlene glycol.   Although lanolin is a natural ingredient, natural does not mean less reactive.  Orris root, a natural ingredient in powder make-up, is a common cause of acne.

“Hypoallergenic” does not guarantee no allergies but only minimizes well-known culprits.  “Unscented” does not mean no fragrance ingredients since masking fragrances (which cover up unpleasant chemical odours) do not have to be identified.  AETT (acetyl ethyl tetramethyl tetralin) masking fragrance was used from 1958 until 1978, when it was found to be a neurotoxin that turned rat and rabbit organs blue.

Remember hexachlorophene? Widely touted to kill germs, at one time 30 per cent of all cosmetics contained it.  From 1964 to 1972, it was implicated in dermatitis, brain damage in rats, and convulsions in babies.  After 30 babies in France died from being dusted with hexachlorophene, it was restricted to prescription.

Formaldehyde does more than preserve the dead: it may also be found in your shampoo and mouthwash.

Battling Bacteria

Preservatives in cosmetics extend shelf life by preventing bacterial contamination.  Formaldehyde is a preservative used not only in autopsies, but in shampoos, mouthwash and nail hardeners.  Omitted from hypoallergenic nail polish, it often causes inhalant fume reactions.  The preservatives methyl and propyl paraben used in traditional cosmetics extend shelf life much longer than natural antioxidants like Vitamin E, which lasts only for six months to a year.  These chemicals, however, are far less safe than natural substances.

Preservatives may break down at high temperatures (out in the sun, or in the car) allowing bacteria to develop.  Consider refrigeration for all natural creams and lotions.  One company has a clever solution – high gauss magnets embedded in to the jar, creating a magnetic field hostile to bacteria.

Heavy Metals Found in Hair Dyes

Hair tonic to colour the grey once contained lead, and many barbers died of lead poisoning.  Not only is lead acetate the active ingredient in “wash away the grey” progressive hair dyes targeted to the male market today but, in 1981, the industry was allowed to add arsenic and mercury! These heavy metals can be absorbed through the scalp.

In 1978 – 22 years after the first study showed that 2,4-TDA hair colour enters the body through skin or scalp abrasions, causing black urine and breakouts – it was restricted from all but sever hair dye colours, where it is still allowed.  The same year, it was shown that ingredients in hair dyes caused cancer in animals.  A study of hair dye genotixicity, published in the American Heart Association Journal in December 1979, revealed that women who colour their hair have greater chromosomal damage than women who have never done so.  This suggests that hair dyes may have carcinogenic and mutagenic effect in humans.  Punk colours tested worse than those covering grey.  Warning label attempts were unsuccessful.

Take care when selecting a shampoo.  Many contain potentially harmful ingredients.

Consumer Action

Until the new labeling legislation takes effect, write to companies and request ingredient listings.  If the product is available in the U.S., check the labels while visiting.  Know what chemical names mean: look them up in the Physicians Desk Reference, Merck Index, or CFTA Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary, available in libraries.  Try samples and purchase from retailers offering a money-back satisfaction guarantee.  Use applied kinesiology, a technique offered by some chiropractors, nutritionists and other holistic therapists, to test for sensitivities to products.  It’s also wise to check out health food stores, which stock a wide variety of high-quality natural cosmetics moisturizers, bath oils, and hair care products.  Another option is to consult an esthetician (skin care specialist), most of whom offer natural skin care products that can be customized for your personal needs.
What follows is a sampling of both beneficial and harmful cosmetic ingredients, applied by the average consumer at the rate of 35 pounds per year:


  • Vegetable gum – includes tragacanth, guar and sodium alginate.  These thicken emulsions and make them creamy, but all are subject to deterioration and need a preservative.  No known toxicity other than allergy in hypersensitive persons.Keratin – non-toxic protein solubilized from animal horns, hoofs, feathers and quills.  Used in permanent waves, shampoos and hair conditioners.
  • Hyaluronic acid – natural protein found in umbilical cords, used as a cosmetic oil.  No toxicity.
  • Sodium PCA – a naturally occurring component of human skin that binds moisture.  No toxicity.
  • Tea Tree oil – essential oil from leaves of an Australian tree, used as a germicide and to speed healing.  No toxicity.


  • Butylene glycol – preservative with low threshold for skin irritation, which helps resists humidity in hair sprays and setting lotions.Zirconium – used to tone pigment colours, especially in nail polish.  Low systemic toxicity but its use was banned from sprays in 1976 when it was found harmful to monkey lungs.
  • Tartrazine (yellow #5) – derived from coal tar, those allergic to aspirin are often allergic to tartrazine.
  • Potassium bromate – antiseptic and astringent in toothpaste, mouthwash and gargles.  Very toxic if taken internally.  May cause bleeding and inflammation of gums in toothpaste.
  • Nickel sulphate – heavy metal used in hair dyes and astringents.  Frequently causes skin rash when used in cosmetics.
  • Resorcinol – antiseptic, anti-itching, antifungal used in dandruff shampoos, hair dyes and lipstick.  Very irritating to skin and mucous membranes.

Brumberg, Elane, Take Care of Your Skin, New York: Harper and Row, 1989.

Stabile, Toni.  Everything You Want to Know About Cosmetics. New York: Dodd, Mean & Co., 1984.

Winter, Ruth.  Consumers’ Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients.  New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1989.

Carola Barczak has over 20 years’ experience in alternative health.  She currently teaches clinical nutrition at the Ontario College of Naturopathic Medicine and at Sutherland-Chan Massage School.  Carola also owns Figure and Face Salon in Toronto, which specializes in natural treatment skin care.

Reprinted from HEALTH NATURALLY October 1994, Box 144 Nobel, Ontario P0G 1G0. 705-746-7839.