Deadly Engineering: A Complete History of Toxic Cosmetics

From arsenic pills to cancer-inducing moisturizers, cosmetics have been harming humans for centuries.
Fabienne Lang

The words "toxic" and "cosmetics" don't usually spring to mind simultaneously. However, some of the key ingredients in cosmetics are extremely harmful to humans and, in fact, have been harming us for centuries.

Think it's not a concern for you because you don't use cosmetics? Think again. 

As the FDA notes, deodorants, moisturizers, lip balms, toothpaste, shampoos, perfumes, and makeup are all classified and regulated under this general, umbrella term. 

Bearing in mind that many of the chemicals that come into contact with your skin can be absorbed, it's important to know what you're putting onto your skin, especially if they are used over prolonged periods of time or in large amounts.

Unfortunately, this is no easy task. Both men and women have been using cosmetics for over 10,000 years, as the Australian Academy of Science points out. Today, there are more than ten thousand chemical ingredients in regular use in personal care products around the world.

Nations around the world handle this issue in different ways. The FDA, for instance, does not require cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, to have approval before they go on the market, although there are laws and regulations that apply to the interstate commerce of cosmetics.

In fact, the U.S. has only banned 11 chemicals, or groups of chemicals, for use in cosmetic products. The E.U., on the other hand, has banned around 1,300 chemicals. That's a substantial difference that makes it even harder for consumers to know which cosmetics are safe to use or not — something that's been an issue for centuries. 

Toxic cosmetics of the past

When you conjure up an image of Cleopatra, you may picture her as Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 film, wearing exquisite dark eyeliner and heavy makeup. In fact, this was the norm for both men and women in Ancient Egypt, according to National Geographic. The magazine points out that men and women alike used heavy black and green powders for eye makeup.

The Ancient Egyptians believed the powders would keep them safe from too much sun exposure, and would also ward off diseases such as eye infections. 

However, a study published in Science explains that the makeup used as eye makeup by the Ancient Egyptians included lead salts, which can lead to lead poisoning from prolonged exposure. The WHO points out that lead exposure can cause serious health issues, like brain damage and attacks on the central nervous system.

Interestingly, a 2010 research study argued that the lead salts increased the wearer’s production of nitric oxide, boosting their immune system and preventing eye infections.

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It is also likely that most Ancient Egyptians didn't live long enough to suffer the long-term effects of severe lead poisoning, as it is likely that the average Ancient Egyptian did not live past the age of around 35 or 40. 

Deadly Engineering: A Complete History of Toxic Cosmetics
Cleopatra. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fast-forwarding to the late 19th Century, American women swallowed arsenic wafers that promised to remove freckles, pimples, and other facial marks. That's right, arsenic.

Arsenic is a highly toxic chemical element that, if ingested can cause a host of serious issues. Think: cancer, skin lesions, diabetes, cognitive development issues, and death. Although it can be tolerated in small amounts, taking it internally was a serious risk.

Unfortunately, the desire to have a pale, clear complexion wasn't just restricted to American women. The dangers of arsenic were known in the Victorian era, but that did not keep women in the U.K. from consuming arsenic products for the very same reasons. They were also advised to coat their face with opium overnight, and to wash it with ammonia the next morning to "keep their faces fresh."

The risks of low ammonia exposure include skin and eye irritation, according to New York State's Department of Health. And at higher concentrations, it can cause severe burns and injury, permanent eye damage, or blindness. Furthermore, if swallowed, it can corrode the lining of the mouth, throat, and stomach.

Talk about a risqué skincare regimen. 

The list of historically harmful cosmetics goes on. And even though these types of ingredients are largely no longer used in cosmetics today, the battle for safe and harmless cosmetics is not yet won. 

Modern-day toxic engineering in cosmetics

From your shower gel to your toothpaste, the average cosmetic product today will contain between 15 to 50 ingredients. Some of these are harmless, but others can be very harmful.

Just take a quick glance at the back of your deodorant stick and you'll see the teeny tiny words that make up its long list of ingredients. You won't recognize most of them, so we'll point out some of the most widespread ones found in day-to-day cosmetics. This way, you'll be able to make more informed decisions about what goes onto (and ultimately, into) your body.

  • Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate (SLS/SLES): These foaming agents, are used in shampoo, toothpaste, shower gel, shaving cream, makeup remover, mascara, facial cleaners, and more. These chemicals are surfactants, which means they lower the surface tension between ingredients. They also strip away natural oils, potentially leading to irritation in your eyes, skin, and lungs.
  • Parabens: This is one of the biggest names on the list in this class of chemicals which is commonly used as preservatives to keep cosmetics free of bacteria. They are found in a variety of products, from soaps to lotions and makeup, and they come in several forms: methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben. Research shows that parabens can disrupt hormones by mimicking estrogen in the body, which can lead to hormonal imbalances, affect fertility and birth outcomes, and increase the risk for some types of cancer, as well as causing skin irritation in some cases.
  • Phthalates: These are a family of industrial chemicals used to soften some types of plastic, and as solvents in a variety of consumer products. In cosmetics, they're typically found in nail polishes, perfumes, hairspray, and lotions, where they are added to improve spreadability. In the past few years, some phthalates have been linked to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity, type II diabetes, neurodevelopmental issues, fertility and reproductive issues, and more. 
  • Triclosan: Originally developed as an anti-bacterial agent in hospitals, this chemical is now also found in common cosmetics such as toothpaste, and deodorants. Studies have pointed out that prolonged exposure to Triclosan can alter hormone regulations in animals and may contribute to liver fibrosis and cancer, impaired muscle and immune function, and the development of antibiotic-resistant germs. 
  • Toluene: This petrochemical solvent can be found in most nail polishes and hair dyes. The fumes can irritate the throat, the eyes, the mouth, and skin, cause headaches, dizziness, confusion, and anxiety. Increased, long-term exposure may lead to tiredness, slow reaction, difficulty sleeping, numbness in the hands or feet, reproductive system damage, and miscarriage. If swallowed, toluene can cause liver and kidney damage. 
  • Lead: Found in many traditional eyeliners such as kohl and kajal, this heavy metal is used to give these products their dark coloring. The WHO describes lead as a cumulative toxicant, as the body stores it over time. In children, lead poisoning can lead to serious issues with brain and nervous system development, and in adults, it can cause kidney damage, miscarriage, and high blood pressure. The Environmental Working Group also links lead to some cancers. Products containing kohl and similar lead-based ingredients are not allowed to be sold in the U.S., but sometimes make their way into specialty markets.
  • Oxybenzone (and other sunscreen chemicals): These ingredients act as light and UV ray absorbents, and are typically found in sunscreen, lip balm and nail polish. However, they do more harm than good to humans, as well as the environment. Oxybenzone and other similar chemicals are endocrine disruptors, and can cause skin allergies. They also alter thyroid function, reduce male fertility, and may also cause cancer. When the sunscreen washes off into the water, high concentrations of these chemicals can also affect marine life.
  • Formaldehyde: The liquid form of this naturally occurring organic compound is often used as a preservative in skincare products, to help keep them bacteria-free. It can also be found in nail polish, hair gel, shampoo, deodorant, lotions, and more. It commonly causes skin irritation and has been linked to cancer, asthma, hair loss, neurotoxicity, and scalp burns. If inhaled, it can also cause dizziness.

These are just some of the toxic ingredients that can currently be found in various cosmetic products around the world. But it's not all doom and gloom, as there are ways to avoid using them, you just have to look a little harder. 

How to avoid toxic cosmetics

First, more and more websites and apps, like the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep platform and Think Dirty, are popping up on the Internet to advise users on what cosmetics are safe to use. These sites do all the searching and research for you. Generally, all you have to do is type in the name of the product you're interested in, and they will tell you the information you need to know. 

Second, know that there is currently no legal backup for terms such as "natural," and "pure," so watch out for companies that claim they offer products that fall under these terms. 

That said, more and more products now have an organic certification, which makes them safer to use, so look out for those labels that read "USDA-certified organic," or "COSMOS Standard." Beware: A product might call itself "organic," but if it doesn't have the certification label, it's probably just a marketing term used to lure you in.

In order to be certified organic, a producer has to apply to an approved certification agent (like the USDA in the U.S., COSMOS in Europe, Asia and Australia, or the CFIA in Canada, among others), and meet all of that certifiers organic production requirements.

These requirements include proving to the certification agent that ingredients are free of any toxic chemicals, are grown in soil that hasn't used prohibited chemicals like pesticides, and have been harvested and prepared with the use of toxic chemicals. The certification body also usually inspects the site, reviews the application, and only once everything's been approved, can the company start labeling its products as "organic."

So, now that you know which chemicals you should steer clear of, remember to carefully check the products you use by referring to their "organic" certification label. Use websites and apps that check which brands and providers offer safe products, and you'll be good as gold.