Does Beauty Have to Be Toxic?
“There is no torture that a woman would not endure to enhance her beauty.”
- Michel de Montaigne (French Renaissance philosopher)
History tells us men and women have been willing to risk even death to enhance their natural beauty and follow the fashion of the day. Indeed, the quest for beauty has been the basis for some of humankind’s weirdest and potentially lethal acts for centuries.
Let’s look at 18th century France, when the French court was the epitome of style and fashion for Europe. There was one major problem facing both men and women during this period: smallpox. The disease was killing an estimated 400,000 Europeans a year by the end of 18th century. Those who didn’t die were left with ugly scars.
In addition, the trend for beauty back then favored aristocratic paleness: fair skin made you look indolent and rich, while a suntan suggested you labored outside.
Lead-based Face Powder
The best product at the time to cover pock marks and to look like an indolent aristocrat was face powder made of white lead, calcium carbonate and hydroxide, applied to every inch of exposed flesh.
It was easy to make at home, provided complete scar coverage…and was toxic, causing skin inflammation, baldness, eye inflammation, and potentially killing the user outright – such as Maria, Countess of Coventry, who died at the tender age of 17 from face-powder-related blood-poisoning in 1760.
A bit of color was dotted over this pasty white skin: rouge, made with everything from crushed insects to red lead. A favorite was brilliant red vermillion-based rouge, made from the mineral cinnabar, also known as mercury sulphide.
Though widely used, this color was criticized in the 1760 book, The Art of Beauty, which warned against using cinnabar: “it is very dangerous; for by using, it frequently they may lose their teeth, acquire a stinking breath, and excite a copious salivation.” The author, however, did not warn against the above-mentioned toxic white face powder.
Lest you think we have come a long way in overcoming toxicity in the last 200 years, consider Tho-radia, a French cosmetic brand in the 1930s with products featuring radioactive chemicals such as thorium chloride and radium bromide, claiming the radioactive formula stimulated “cellular vitality,” firm up skin, erase wrinkles, stop aging, and help retain the “freshness and brightness of the complexion.”
Today, increasing awareness of environmental hazards has led to closer scrutinizing of cosmetic labels and a slew of lawsuits when ingredients considered questionable show up.
One such lawsuit, a class-action motion filed in California in February against the world’s largest personal products company, French-based L’Oreal, seeks damages charging that the company “intentionally fails to disclose to consumers that its popular waterproof mascara products contain Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, or “PFAS,” despite the fact that L’Oreal knew or should have known that this information is material to consumers.”
L’Oreal had committed to eliminating PFAS from its products in 2018. California and Maryland have both banned toxic chemicals in cosmetics, but those laws don’t go into effect until 2025.
It’s not just L’Oreal. A peer-reviewed study, published in 2021 in Environmental Science & Technology, detected what the study’s authors characterized as “high” levels of organic fluorine (an indicator of PFAS and linked to cancer, obesity, infertility risks, thyroid disease and a weakened immune system) in over half of 231 makeup and personal care samples in the US and Canada. The same study also found that many products that contained PFAS didn’t list them.
Small amounts of chemicals are widely used in cosmetics as bonding agents for the various ingredients that lay claim to the little miracles we all like to believe in. But the biggest everyday hazard is not the chemicals themselves, but how long you use the product. Cosmetics begin to disintegrate once you open the package. Using mascara beyond six months, for example, is generally not a good idea according to Cleveland Clinic.
What’s the Law?
The cosmetics industry falls under FDA regulation in the US. The two most important laws pertaining to cosmetics marketed in the United States are the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA), but oversight relies primarily on The Voluntary Cosmetic Reporting Program in which companies can register the brand name and ingredients of their products.
As cosmetics are neither food nor drug, the FDA imposes no regulations governing the type or kind of testing needed to determine the safety of cosmetic ingredients or products or prohibit or even limit the use of carcinogenic chemicals.
(Note: The Safe Cosmetics and Personal Products Act of 2019 was introduced in the House of Representatives to expand the FDA’s authority to regulate cosmetics, including safety standards, product recalls, and product testing. The bill also generally prohibits the use of animal testing for the purpose of developing cosmetic. A Senate version was introduced in 2021.)
Consumers Head Back to Nature
Thus, labeling and lawsuits play catch-up with the latest “miracle” products, as the laboratory moves at a faster pace than the legislators. Indeed, consumers are more likely to bring about change in cosmetic composition than lawyers.
A recent report by Allied Marketing Research suggests that the global organic and personal care cosmetics market was worth $33.4 billion in 2020 and will reach $58.6 billion by 2031, driven by rising awareness of health issues and the benefits of organic products as well as the increase in e-commerce channels during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Safe beauty” is another Covid-induced theme still in its infancy, spearheaded today by brands claiming to be science-based.
Head to the Kitchen
In the meantime, there are plenty of natural, home-made skincare remedies for women and men. Your kitchen is especially full of items you can use:
Dark circles under your eyes? Raw potatoes. Cut one into thin slices and rest them your eyes for a few minutes.
Dull skin? Take the rest of that potato and mash it up to make a skin-brightening face mask. Rinse off with lukewarm water after a few minutes.
Blemishes? A mask made from honey and cinnamon. Rinse off after a few minutes with lukewarm water and apply tomato juice mixed with a few drops of lemon juice. Rinse this off as well with lukewarm water.
Olive oil—a staple of the healthy Mediterranean Diet – has long been touted and used as a hair and skincare product, whose attributes are even cited in the Bible “…a holy anointing oil, a perfume mixture, the work of a perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil.” (Exodus 30:25)
The fly in this ointment? Natural ingredients are “natural” because they lack preservatives, so their shelf life is much less than the six months of your chemically laden mascara. Will the contents of our makeup and shaving kits begin to resemble a school lunch box?