Are cosmetics chemicals?

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There has been a trend to try to minimize the chemical nature of cosmetics. In fact, most cosmetic products are common everyday commodities such as shampoo, soap, toothpaste, as well as deodorants, skin-care creams, lotions, powders, perfumes, lipsticks, etc. It is these latter groups of products that the general public consider to be cosmetics. However, if you think in terms of total sales, then hygiene products such as shampoos, soaps and toothpastes predominate. Thus cosmetic products are used by everybody regardless of age or sex. Sometimes cosmetics and toiletries are treated separately, for example U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not include soaps in its lists of cosmetics.

The regulatory requirements governing the sale of cosmetics are not as stringent as those governing drugs and food additives. Cosmetic products are not required to undergo approval before they are sold to the public. The manufacturers may use any ingredient or raw material except for a few prohibited substances. In part this is understandable, because usually cosmetics are for external use only, but this does not mean that they are completely safe. The problem is that image is what sells, and this is what the cosmetics industry pursues, not science.

Safety requirements

Since cosmetics are used on humans themselves, the safety requirements should be more stringent than for chemicals that are not subject to exposure. Therefore it is surprising that safety studies of cosmetics are viewed as less necessary than those of pesticides that are never applied to the skin on purpose. In theory, it is no more or less likely that a cosmetic substance can cause cancer than a pesticide. It is true that some pesticides are very toxic even at small doses, but in fact acute toxicity is not the crucial concern today with most chemical groups, including pesticides. The major concern is the long term effects at low exposure levels, including carcinogenicity, neurotoxicity and developmental effects, and these kinds of effects are not necessarily associated with acute toxicity.

The classic example of an unsafe ingredient present in cosmetics is hexachlorophene. It was used as an antiseptic[1] in soaps and deodorants, until the 1970s when research revealed that it could be absorbed through the skin of small infants, especially premature babies, when they were bathed in soapy water with this compound to avoid infections. Hexachlorophene evoked serious structural damage in nerve cells both in the peripheral and central nervous systems. This led to a few deaths and other children experienced disorders of the nervous system e.g. convulsions, confusion and general weakness. Hexachlorophene is now banned in many countries in cosmetics, and its use is restricted to special cases such as hand washing by surgeons prior to operations.

Recently also environmental concerns have been expressed about synthetic musks. Musk fragrances are used in a variety of personal care products such as soaps, cosmetics, laundry detergents and household cleaners. They gain access to aquatic environments through sewage treatment plants. Several synthetic musks have been identified in water birds, fish and marine mammals. Some of them are lipophilic and resemble persistent organic pollutants[2] which means that they do not quickly disappear from the environment.

Many ingredients

Cosmetic products usually contain 10 to 20 ingredients, in some skin-care creams there may be even more than 70 chemicals. Some of the ingredients are derived from plants or animals, such as lanolin from lamb wool or henna from the henna plant. Some of the ingredients are common chemicals such as ethanol, glycol and xylene. Many of the natural products (e.g. fragrances) can also be made synthetically.

It is likely that most cosmetics do not cause any harmful health effects. The most common adverse effects have been skin irritation or hypersensitivity effects. Nonetheless, the evaluation of health effects is problematic, because it is very difficult to obtain accurate information about which chemicals are actually in the products, and the concentrations used are not available.

Public information is missing

Since there is no official register (e.g. in the European Union) on the adverse effects of cosmetic products, there is also no database with systematic and comprehensive information, and there is no comprehensive body of science-based information on their health effects. Through their work, dermatologists have learned some facts about the side effects of these products. In some countries, voluntary registers are maintained by allergy and asthma patients’ organisations and often these can be accessed by the general public.

Since cosmetic products are expected to be preserved for a relatively long time (generally at least 30 months), they usually contain preservatives to prevent microbial growth. Some of these are irritant or sensitising, such as agents releasing formaldehyde. Another important source of sensitization is the perfumes. In industrial countries, 2–3 % of population are allergic to perfumes used to scent these products. This appears as contact dermatitis in exposed skin. The most important causative products are fragrances in deodorants, after-shave lotions, and moisturising hand- and skin care creams. The crucial problem is that the stores which sell the products have no obligation to know their exact composition, and then it becomes almost impossible to trace a problem, much more so than with many other common chemicals.

Even animal experiments are necessary

Studies on cosmetics are for some reason considered an example of unnecessary animal experiments. Some products are even specifically marketed as being “cruelty free”. This is usually untrue; in fact most of the common ingredients have been tested. The intention of animal studies is to be able to guarantee the safety of products. If anything, there has been too little rather than too much research done in this area. Cosmetics are no different from any other chemicals, and more safety rather than less safety is desirable.

Cosmetics contain similar chemicals as are present in many other products. Since everybody is exposed continuously to some of these cosmetics, their safety should be thoroughly established and consumers and the medical community informed about the possible risks.

Notes and references

  1. Antiseptics are chemicals killing microbes, see the chapter “Should we have antibiotic chemicals present in everyday domestic items?
  2. See the chapter "The dirty dozen – not just an old movie?"

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