Toxic Cosmetics: Poison Ain’t Pretty

Leslie Garrett by Leslie Garrett | August 26th, 2013 | 1 Comment
topic: Detox, Green Living, Health & Wellness

Toxic Cosmetics

During the Italian Renaissance, many women applied arsenic-based makeup. There was method to their madness. The women made sure that their husbands got up close and personal with the arsenic … dropping dead not long after. It seemed an efficient way to dispose of unwanted men. Though there’s little doubt that the makeup eventually took its toll on the wives too.

It seems we haven’t learned much since then. We continue to apply makeup containing known hazardous chemicals, preferring to believe that they’re harmless.

Lead in our lipstick?

But in 2007, the Environmental Working Group warned us of lead in our lipstick. Lead — the same stuff that we removed from gasoline and paint because it was so hazardous.

And now, new research out of the University of Berkeley reveals that there’s more. At least eight more chemicals, from cadmium to aluminum, in those tubes of red and pink and mauve that we apply daily (and reapply consistently) to our lips.

Cosmetic companies have historically defended their inclusion of hazardous chemicals in makeup by assuring us that the amounts are so teensy-tiny as to hardly merit concern.

And too many women have bought their line of defense.

“It’s not as if we’re putting this stuff in our mouths,” we tell ourselves. “Just on our bodies.”

It’s a dubious self-deception. Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, reminds us that smokers trying to kick the habit apply nicotine patches to their skin. “It’s a very direct path to distribute chemicals to our bloodstream,” she says.

Malkan, who was part of the team that broke the lead-in-lipstick story in 2007, is increasingly frustrated with the recent news: “For six years, the beauty companies have shrugged their shoulders and told us not to worry our pretty little heads.” She points out that consumers are routinely told that it’s “just a little bit of lead or any other dangerous substance … but as we can see from this [Berkeley] study, the toxic exposures are adding up.”

Canadian environmentalist Adria Vasil, who writes the popular “Ecoholic” column and is the author of Ecoholic Body, isn’t surprised by the research results.

“Since most makeup, regardless of the brand, gets at least some of its pigment essentially from rocks, aka minerals, metal contamination is super widespread,” she says. “… we’re essentially digging up rocks from the ground and acting surprised that they’re tainted with heavy metals commonly found underground. Synthetic pigments aren’t the answer either, since many have their own health impacts. Brands have got to start prescreening their pigments for heavy metals, plain and simple.”

Make over your makeup bag

Vasil says the best way to ensure your makeup is safe is to look for natural makeup brands that use plant-based pigments. And even then, you should make sure the ingredients list doesn’t include mica.

It seems crazy that we have to screen our makeup for toxins. Crazy that this stuff is sold openly on the shelves. And perhaps crazier still that we buy it.

But until beauty companies face the truth about the toxins in their products and start selling us stuff that won’t cause us harm, it’s up to us to take care, armed with knowledge and using our purses to send the message to companies that there’s nothing pretty about polluting women’s bodies.


  1. Cosmetic makeup should be worn lightly and occasionally. It is very important to remove makeup before retiring for the day. Its just a question of knowing how to use the product well.

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