Hidden Dangers in Your Cosmetics: A Guide to Protecting Your Health

Do you remember the last time you checked the ingredient list before choosing that lovely shade of lipstick at the mall? Maybe, you never did. When it comes to cosmetics, we often look at acquiring high-end brands or regularly browse through a wide range of products online. Our reasons for doing so vary, ranging from necessity to recommendations or taking advantage of attractive deals and discounts. What we mostly miss while buying, however, is checking the ingredient list for these cosmetics – be it lipstick, nail polish, body lotion, perfumes, shampoo, and other makeup products. Cosmetics we use on a daily basis play an essential role in affecting our health. They enter our body through inhalation, ingestion, or absorption by the skin. Over the years, several studies have proven that many of the chemicals used in these products have the potential to impact the kidney, liver, endocrine system and reproductive organs.

Choose Lipsticks and Nail Paints Wisely

Our fondness for lipsticks should not eclipse our understanding of how they work. We don’t just absorb them through the skin, as with other cosmetics but are also likely to ingest a considerable amount when we lick our lips, eat, or drink. Think of it: if you apply lipstick multiple times a day, how much of it is being ingested by you? This cumulative exposure can be significant. Several global and Indian studies, including one in 2015 by Delhi Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research, showed that top lipstick brands contain heavy metals including lead. Also, we must check and avoid lipsticks containing ‘retinyl palmitate’. The latest accessible information from the US FDA states that when retinyl palmitate is applied to the skin, it could accelerate the formation of tumors and lesions when exposed to the sun. Similarly, a solvent called ‘toluene’ used in cheap nail paints can affect the central nervous system, brain and nerves. It can also lead to kidney, liver and reproductive disorders. Another chemical, ‘dibutyl phthalate’, used in nail polishes can cause endocrine disorders, diseases of the respiratory tract, and other gynecological issues.

Check Before Buying: ‘Paraben-Free’ Products

Always check if the product you are buying is ‘paraben-free’. For instance, the products should not contain propylparaben or butylparaben or ethylparaben or any such name ending with ‘paraben’. Parabens are used as an ingredient in lotions, sunscreen, antiperspirants and shampoos among other cosmetics. While several companies have started mentioning on the packaging itself that the product is ‘paraben-free’, we must check before trying any new brand. They are known to mimic the hormone oestrogen leading to hormonal imbalances, potentially impacting fertility. Studies have shown that they affect the working of cells in the breast, leading to abnormal growth and triggering the possibility of breast cancer. They have also been confirmed to cause disruption of thyroid endocrine levels in an extensive study published in 2021.

‘Phthalate-Free’ Products

It is a group of chemicals used to make plastic more durable. “Phthalates are known as the ‘everywhere chemical’ as it is being detected in human tissues and bodily fluids, and are labelled as the century’s plague for reproductive health,” said Dr. Firuza R. Parikh, director, Well Women Centre, Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital. “It has been indicated that phthalate diesters entering the bloodstream through dermal absorption (possibly during usage of PCPs), could directly reach the ovary,” she said, while quoting the study published in 2022. Dr. Parikh is one of the authors of the study published in FandS Science. “This could explain why, in recent years, young Indian women are presenting with a diminished ovarian reserve, low Anti-Mullerian hormone values, and poor reproductive potential,” the doctor said. According to Dr. Parikh, low molecular weight phthalates like dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and diethyl phthalate (DEP) are added to personal care products (PCPs) like cosmetics and fragrances. “Women who use more PCPs such as perfumes, deodorants, nail polish, as well as skin and hair care products are at a higher risk of exposure to DBP and DEP,” the doctor added.

‘Triclosan-Free’ Products

Triclosan is added to soaps, body washes, toothpaste among other cosmetics, but it has been linked to causing hormonal disruption. According to the US FDA, short-term animal studies have shown that exposure to high doses of triclosan is associated with a decrease in the levels of some thyroid hormones. “There are other ongoing studies that involve the safety of triclosan. One is a study investigating the potential of developing skin cancer after long-term exposure to triclosan in animals. Another is a study on the potential breakdown of triclosan to other chemicals on human skin after exposure to triclosan to ultraviolet (UV) rays,” the FDA website stated. These studies are not yet complete. Hence, it is better to avoid the use of such products until the safety verdict is out.

Avoid Products with Sharp Fragrance

Steer clear of excessive use of scented cosmetics, even if you believe that pleasant fragrances make you feel refreshed and energized. Perfumes consist of a cocktail of several chemicals, which are sold separately in bottles or added to cosmetics, associated with hormonal imbalances. The ingredient can be listed as ‘parfum’. According to an article in The Guardian, “about 4,000 chemicals are currently used to scent products, but you won’t find any of them listed on a label”. It said fragrance formulations are considered a “trade secret” and, therefore, protected from disclosure – even to regulators or manufacturers. “Instead, one word, fragrance, appears on ingredient lists for countless cosmetics, personal care and cleaning products. A single scent may contain anywhere from 50 to 300 distinct chemicals,” the article stated. By now, have you realized that every time you brought cosmetics home, you were so eager to open the packet that you never read the labels? “Avoid cosmetics that contain these ingredients or those that don’t specify the list of ingredients. Or else, opt for natural alternatives,” Dr. Parikh said.

What to Do?

Fewer the ingredients, the better the product. This straightforward yet highly valuable advice has been shared with me by multiple dermatologists I consulted before writing this column. They are chemicals, so less is always better. “Also, it is easier to find out the culprit in case a woman reports

a side effect or an allergic reaction,” said Dr. Deepali Bhardwaj, a well-known dermatologist based in south Delhi. Dr. Bhardwaj, who is also an anti-allergy specialist and laser surgeon, said people must avoid using a single brand or a particular product for too long. “After the Johnson and Johnson (JandJ) fiasco, I generally advise my clients to switch products every three to four months. For instance, if you are using ABC brand, use it for a few months and then switch to XYZ. Use it for two to three months and you can again switch back to ABC. Don’t use any product for a long term,” the doctor said. JandJ’s baby powder and other talc products sparked a controversy when thousands of plaintiffs, globally, sued the company alleging they contained asbestos and caused ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. While we frequently link skincare and beauty products with self-care, pampering and happiness, our makeup bag may carry risks that could potentially turn our lives upside down. It is better to chase health over beauty or discounts.

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