In general, no. Most makeup is not bad for you. However, some cosmetics use ingredients that have been linked to breast cancer—which is why it’s so important to check labels.
Your skin is your body’s largest organ. Its primary function is to keep damaging ultraviolet rays, pollutants and other environmental toxins out. However, the skin is also covered in pores which do allow for some substances to be absorbed into the body—including makeup.
The average woman uses 12 or more cosmetics products each day, which adds up substantially over time. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates that women who wear lipstick absorb an average of four pounds of the product over the course of a lifetime.
A lot of makeup goes into your skin. That’s why it’s so important to know what goes into your makeup. And there's one ingredient you should be particularly wary of: parabens.
A chemical preservative, parabens are used to prevent the growth of microbes and prolong the shelf life of a product. They've been widely used in makeup, lotion, fragrances and other cosmetics since the 1950s. However, in the early 2000s, scientists discovered that there may be a link between parabens and breast cancer. Biopsies from the tumors of cancer patients were found to contain parabens similar to those used in cosmetics. A clear connection has not yet been established, but many notable organizations such as the Breast Cancer Fund continue to caution women about using products containing parabens. Many cosmetics manufacturers have also taken steps to remove parabens from their products, and now “paraben-free” can be seen on the labels of both drugstore and high-end brands.
But even if a product claims to be "paraben-free," it's still very important for you to check the label. There are many different kinds of parabens to look out for; the most common include ethylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben. Essentially, you should avoid anything that contains the word “paraben” in its name.
Unfortunately, reading the label might not be enough. Although cosmetics manufacturers are required to list all product ingredients in compliance with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, they are not obligated to list individual fragrance ingredients. So although the delicious vanilla scent of your lip gloss may simply be listed as “fragrance” on the packaging, it could contain hundreds of different ingredients—including parabens. This loophole was originally intended to consolidate package labeling and keep trade secrets safe... but instead, it could be putting your safety at risk.
To avoid hidden parabens, simply avoid products that use synthetic fragrances. These are not usually difficult to substitute; fragrance allergies are common, so many cosmetic companies manufacture "fragrance-free" product lines.
In general, safe cosmetics are not hard to find. Just be sure to read labels and do your research online. And if you have questions, ask. As a consumer, you have every right to reach out to cosmetic manufacturers and ask them to help you verify the ingredients that will be going on (and eventually, into) your skin.
Possible short-term side effects
- allergic reaction
Possible long-term side effects
- increased acne
- breast cancer
- other types of cancer
- thyroid damage
Ingredients to be aware of
- parabens (ethylparaben, probylparaben, butylparaben, etc.)
- fragrance (which may include parabens)
- fragrance-free / paraben-free cosmetics