Cosmetics are comprised of a combination of different chemical substances derived either from natural sources like mineral oil, animal fats, and plant fats, or synthetic ones like preservatives, colorants, fragrances, and oral fillers. Cosmetic ingredients may be classified into two broad categories: primary and secondary. In primary cosmetics, all naturally occurring ingredients are used in the composition. On the other hand, in secondary cosmetics, all synthetic ingredients are used except for some few therapeutic or preservative-free ingredients. Preservatives, on the other hand, are present in formulas only to prevent contamination by pathogenic organisms; otherwise they are called antibacterial and antimicrobial ingredients.
All the components used in cosmetics products may potentially be hazardous to health. Some of the most common chemicals that are included in cosmetics and personal care products are parabens, phthalates, and triclosan. Parabens are commonly used as preservatives in cosmetics because they have a long shelf life and because they cause less irritation to the skin than do harmful chemical additives here.
Phthalates are included in nearly all cosmetics, including the most popular body lotion, shaving cream, face wash, and creams for wetness. Pregnant women, for example, should avoid any product that contains phthalates because it can cause birth defects in the fetus. The hazard of these chemicals was brought to the attention of the American public when numerous lawsuits were filed against manufacturers of a wide range of cosmetics products. Although a few of the cases were ruled in favor of the plaintiff’s attorney, more lawsuits are pending.
Another group of chemicals frequently included in cosmetics and personal care products are the fragrances. While some of the “real” smells may actually be pleasant to the ear, many of the “chemical” fragrances are considered unsafe. The most frequently used artificial fragrance chemicals are Benzyl Alcohol, Propyl Alcohol, Isopropyl Alcohol, and Butyl Alcohol. Although some of these chemicals have been shown to be relatively nontoxic, long-term exposure has been shown to cause a variety of health problems, including liver or kidney damage, headaches, dizziness, dry mouth, nosebleeds, and sexual dysfunction in men. No safe level of exposure has been established for these chemicals.
Another group of chemicals commonly included in cosmetics and personal care products are preservatives. Preservatives are added to cosmetics to prolong their shelf life, but some of these compounds are actually toxic. Polyethylene glycol, for example, has been banned in some countries because it causes a variety of problems ranging from arthritis to reproductive issues. Parabens are used as preservatives, but there is concern about their potential to cause cancer. These ingredients are often used in cream and liquid makeup. Other commonly used preservatives include formaldehyde and sodium benzoate, which are also found in a wide range of cosmetics products.
The aluminum used in lipsticks, eyeliners, and eyebrows can be particularly dangerous, particularly when combined with phthalates. Phthalates are known to be irritating and may cause irritation, skin sensitivities, and even cancer in users. Aluminum is extremely soft metal, and it is not uncommon for phthalates to be absorbed through the skin, creating a potentially fatal risk. Cosmetics companies are required to list the ingredients in their products, so consumers can learn about the chemical composition of cosmetics and what they may be exposed to.