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In the name of beauty: cosmetics, safety & your skin

Medical & health articles 19 Apr 2016
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Women – young women especially – are bombarded with unrealistic images of beauty and wellness every day. We are constantly being reminded to eat well and pay attention to the kinds of foods we put into our bodies, but what about the skincare products and cosmetics we apply to our skin? Do these products get absorbed into our body, and if so, what effect do they have on our health?

Your skin has many roles and responsibilities, but one of its main jobs is to act as a barrier, only allowing certain substances to travel in or out. In this way your skin is a bit like a nightclub bouncer with a super-strict guest list, preventing unwanted guests from messing up the harmony that is happening inside.

That’s not to say that this bouncer turns away all the skincare ingredients and other chemicals who come knocking at the door: your skin comes into contact with thousands of previously unseen chemicals every day and in some cases that overworked bouncer simply doesn’t know what it’s dealing with and some not-so-friendly party-goers skip the queue and make it through the door.

There is lots of conflicting research on if chemicals found in beauty products cause harm. No studies are suggesting that regular application of make-up will make you sick, it’s just about being aware of the issues, being informed and about taking simple steps to reduce your risk.

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The lipstick jungle

Certain cosmetics skip the skin layer altogether and enter the body directly through the eyes (think about where your eyeliner sits), lungs (think perfume and powders) and, probably the most obvious of all, the mouth (lipstick-on-the-teeth!). These points of exposure might seem small and insignificant but, taking these facts into consideration, it can all add up:

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  • The skin on your lips and eyelids is very thin – only 3-5 cell layers thick compared to other parts of your face which can be up to 16 cell layers thick. This means your eyes and lips are particularly delicate and at risk
  • Cosmetics are in direct and long contact with the skin, and for some women they are used every day for decades
  • Lipstick is often reapplied several times throughout the day, which increases your levels of exposure

So why does all of this matter? A 2013 American research study found that some lipsticks can contain trace amounts of dangerous heavy metals. Some of these chemicals are associated with reproductive and developmental issues. Read the tips below to reduce your risk.

Parabens: protective preservative or potential poison?

A group of chemical ingredients that can be absorbed through your skin and into your body are parabens. Parabens are used widely in beauty and personal care products – you can find them in foundations, powders, eye shadows, mascara, lip glosses, lipsticks, nail polishes, cleansers, shampoos, deodorants, even toothpaste.

Parabens are added to these products to act as a preservative. They help to prevent the growth of bacteria, mould and fungus and in this way they are protecting your health and making the product safer to use over a given period of time. However, parabens have attracted some bad press for being potential hormone-disruptors and a danger to human health, with some people fearing that they could be involved in serious illnesses such as breast cancer.

Some researchers argue that there hasn’t been enough studies on parabens to work out if they are safe or not. Other researchers disagree and are confident that the research concludes exposure to small amounts of these chemicals is safe for humans.

If you’d prefer to stick to the "better safe than sorry" side of the fence, one way to decrease your exposure to parabens is to look out for products that are labelled paraben-free. In fact, a recent study on American teenagers found that just three days after they switched to paraben-free personal care products, their chemical exposure to parabens had decreased by almost 50%.

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Simple tips for a safer makeup routine

While it would be all too easy to tell women everywhere to go bare-faced and makeup-free, in our beauty-obsessed world that seems far from reality. Here are some tips to decrease your exposure to potentially harmful ingredients in everyday cosmetics:

  • Choose brands with good reputations that invest in research – a reputable sales consultant can show you a range of brands, many of which are free of parabens or other additives. Be proactive and ask at the cosmetics counter for brands and products built on solid reputations of ingredient safety
  • Read your labels and do your own research
  • Don’t apply lipstick just before eating or drinking
  • Don’t apply cosmetics to broken or irritated skin
  • Where possible, opt for lighter shades of eye shadow (one study found that less pigment equalled less heavy metal contaminants)
  • Substitute your face cleanser/ exfoliator with warm water and a face flannel – simple and chemical-free
  • Use pure jojoba oil in place of makeup remover
  • Go through your makeup drawer and throw out any old or damaged products
  • Have a make-up free day at least once a week

Get more tips on how to reduce your use of household chemicals in the article Keeping it clean.