Imagine a group of young girls wandering the tempting aisles of their local makeup shops holding up lipsticks and nail-polish bottles for examination. It's a vintage scene and hardly alarming, given our beauty-focused culture, but while these girls are deciding whether to take a risk with forest-green toenails, sparkly lips or purple eyelids, they may be unknowingly exposing themselves to harmful chemicals. In fact, they probably are.
According to Environment Working Group (EWG) research in 2008, 9 out of 10 girls are wearing makeup regularly by the time they are 14. In fact, the number of girls aged 11 to 14 who use makeup every day has doubled in the last 10 years! Yet girls are most vulnerable to the chemicals in makeup - many of which are linked to breast cancer - during the years when their bodies are developing! The Environmental Working Group (EWG) also studied a sample group of 20 teen girls aged 12-19. The results they found were alarming. The study found an average of 13 different hormone-alterning chemicals in the girls bodies.
The laboratory tests 16 chemicals from 4 different chemical families - phthalates, triclosan, parabens, and musks - in the blood and urine samples of the girls. Studies have linked these chemicals to potential health effects including cancer and hormone disruption. This work represents the first focused look at exposure data for parabens in teens, and indicated that young women are widely exposed to this common class of cosmetic preservatives, with parabens, methylparaben and propylparaben, detected in every single girl tested.
Dr Vyvyan Howard, a toxicologist at Liverpool University, agrees that accountability for the products we slap on trustingly should be improved. "Some of the ingredients in cosmetics are trade secrets so we never get to know about them." he says. "It's rather unregulated and very secretive and it's very easy for chemicals to cross the skin and get into the bloodstream. Once someone has become sensitised to a substance it's a one-way trip and there's no going back."
The chemicals to look out for:
Found in hairsprays, perfume, nail polishes. Listed as dibutyl phthalate di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate or butyl benzyl phthalate. Used to soften plastic, moisturise skin and enhance skin penetration of cosmetics.
Scientists and environmental groups have claimed that these substances act as hormone disruptors in young girls that are detremental to their health and development. Also they adversely affect fertility and have been banned from children's toys in the US as a result. A similar, temporary, ban is in place in the EU. They cause allergies, damage liver and kidneys and have been linked to allergies such as asthma. Their existence is not always clearly labeled on products.
Found in some deodorants, moisturisers and toothpaste. Listed as Alkyl parahydroxy benzoates - butyl/methyl/ethyl/propylisobutyl paraben. Used as a preservative.
Scientists and environmental groups have claimed that parabens are oestrogen mimics which can penetrate the skin. Oestrogen-type chemicals have been linked to breast and testicular cancer and a reduction in sperm count. The long-term effects of repeated daily exposure is unknown. Dr Philippa Darbre, an oncology researcher at the University of Reading, has suggested that the parabens in anti-perspirant deodorants could cause breast cancer. She has expressed concern about the frequency with which some people apply these substances and their increasing use by children.
Found in lacquers and nail polish. Listed as xytol or dimethylbenzene. Used as a solvent.
Scientists and environmental groups have claimed that this substance irritates the skin and respiratory tract. It may cause liver damage and it is narcotic in high concentrations.
Found in deodorants, toothpastes, liquid soaps and mouthwashes. It's an anti-bacterial agent. Not always listed on labels but if it is may be referred to as 5-chloro2-(2,4-dichlorophenoxy)-phenol.
Scientists and environmental groups have claimed that toxic dioxins are produced during the manufacture or incineration of this chemical. It is stored in human breast milk and in fish. It may upset the functioning of normal bacteria which keep the body healthy. It can break down in water to create a member of the dioxin family.
Used as a disinfectant, germicide, fungicide, defoamer and preservative in deodorants, shampoos, hand wash and nail varnish. Listed as formalin, formal and methyl aldehyde.
Scientists and environmental groups have claimed that it is a suspected human carcinogen - it has been found to cause lung cancer in rats - and it may cause asthma and headaches. It irritates the eyes, upper respiratory tract and mucous membrane. It can damage DNA, and people can become sensitised to it after repeated exposure. It is banned in Sweden and Japan.
Used in shampoos, hair colours and shaving gels as surfectants to lower the surface tension of liquids so they can foam or penetrate solids. Listed as nonylphenol or octylphenol.
Scientists and environmental groups have claimed that alkylphenol ethoxylates are hormone disruptors and are extremely toxic. They may be carcinogens and cause damage to the central nervous system.
They can also cause asthma, eczema and skin irritations. They build up in body fat faster than they can be broken down. Several alkylphenols are listed internationally to be phased out.
Thousands of different chemicals are permitted to be used in perfume and they do not have to be listed on the product label.
Scientists and environmental groups have claimed that fragrances have been linked to breathing difficulties and allergies. A typical cosmetic can contain 50-100 chemicals in the perfume. About 2,600 chemicals are commonly used in perfume; 95% of chemicals used in perfumes and as fragrances in cosmetics are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. Because perfumes are of low molecular weight they can easily penetrate the skin. Twenty-six of these chemicals are on an EU hit list, including isoeugenol, a floral-smelling compound in many high-street brands and oak moss, a lichen which grows on trees.
Used as black hair dye, and the only chemical which produces true black hair colour.
Scientists and environmental groups have claimed that this chemical substance is a powerful allergen which can cause a severe reaction on the scalp.