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  • Writer's pictureSol Nicolajsen

Cosmetics to die for

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

If you knew that many of the ingredients in thousands of high street cosmetic products contain synthetic chemicals that are skin irritants, endocrine disruptors and carcinogenic to mention a few, would you continue to use them? - Most probably the answer would be 'definitely not'.

And in years to come, I feel certain that we’ll look back at many of the cosmetic ingredients that we so deliberately apply to our skin, hair, nails, lips and eyelashes on a daily basis and shake our heads in disbelief!

But toxic chemicals in cosmetics are not just a thing of the present.

Cosmetic potions to die for - literally - have been around for loooong time. In past centuries women (and men) have used, and suffered and died from, arsenic based make-up and cosmetics laden with lead and mercury. 

During the Renaissance pure white and translucent skin was the height of fashion, and one of the most popular cosmetics of the upper classes was Venetian Ceruse, also known as Spirits of Saturn which women used to whiten their faces, neck and chest.

It was made by mixing vinegar with lead which results in an opaque powder that gives the wearer a milky, porcelain white complexion. It was all the rage at the time but the problem was that the lead was absorbed through the skin leading to hair loss, muscle paralysis, and a slowly deteriorating mental condition - in other words: lead poisoning!

Queen Elizabeth I was one of its biggest fans and was rumoured to have died of blood poisoning as a result of using lead-based face powder.

Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry was a famous Irish beauty and  London society hostess during the reign of King George II.  She died at a young age from lead and mercury poisoning,  killed by the toxins used in her beauty regimen.
Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry was a famous Irish beauty and London society hostess during the reign of King George II. She died at a young age from lead and mercury poisoning, killed by the toxins used in her beauty regimen.

And if that wasn’t enough - on top of the lead mask came the pièce de résistance - namely Rouge which was applied generously to the cheeks as red cheeks was considered natural and youthful. And as it had to be a paint that was long lasting and would work well with the ceruse (washing was considered unhealthy and often women wore the make up until it wore off, sometimes for weeks) the cosmetic makers of the time came up with the answer: cinnabar - a beautiful but toxic red mineral made of mercury sulphide which causes neurological disorders and emotional problems.

It was a noxious ‘mask of youth’ and ironically it would cause the very thing it was trying to prevent!

Ceruse and Cinnabar are corrosive and prolonged use would cause premature ageing as it ate away at the skin meaning that thicker and thicker layers had to be applied over time.

And although todays cosmetics are more sophisticated and far less crude they are still abundant in synthetic chemicals that are potentially harmful to our bodies.

If you find it daunting reading up on all the potentially toxic ingredients in cosmetics just go for what you know is safe.

Cosmetic ingredients and skincare products that are certified organic, natural and botanical are usually a safe bet, however, just because it is natural doesn’t mean it is good for everyone. Those with sensitivities and allergies need to be even more vigilant as even organic essential oils and certified organic aromas can cause reactions.

The chemical maze of cosmetics is tricky to navigate but below are five of the worst chemicals to look out for. - and take extra care to avoid these if you are pregnant or planning pregnancy.

1: Parabens

Prefixes include: Methyl, Butyl, Ethyl, Propyl, Isopropyl.

Methylparaben and propylparaben are the most common of these.

Parabens are widely used preservatives that discourage the growth of microbes and mold in water-based cosmetic products and can be found in makeup, body washes, deodorants, shampoos and facial cleansers. The trouble with parabens is that they possess estrogen-mimicking properties that are associated with increased risk of breast cancer as

studies demonstrate that at sufficient concentrations, parabens can increase cell proliferation in human breast cancer. The longer chain parabens such as butylparaben and its alternative form, isobutylparaben and  isopropylparaben and propylparaben have the strongest estrogenic activity among those widely used in personal care products. Propyl and butyl parabens have also been linked to falling levels of sperm production and reduced testosterone levels.

2: Phthalates

Phthalates are plasticising chemicals commonly found in cosmetics (perfumes, hair spray, nail polish, deodorants, and body lotions), as well as plastic packaging and toys. It is used as a softener and to impart flexibility to a product. Health effects include disruption to the endocrine system, damage to the liver/kidneys, birth defects, decreased sperm counts, early breast development in girls and boys and reproductive birth defects in males and females.. Phthalates are hard to detect as they usually hide under something else on the the label. It is often a constituent of the ubiquitous ingredient “fragrance''.

Look out for: Phthalate, DEP, DBP, DEHP and Fragrance.

3: PEGs

Full name: polyethylene glycols.

PEG isn't a single ingredient but a class of ethylene glycol polymers that moisturize, keep products stable, and enhance the penetration of other ingredients. PEGs are typically followed by a number correlating to how many units of ethylene glycol they comprise, in the form of say PEG-4 or PEG-100; the lower the number, the more easily the compound is absorbed into the skin.

PEG’s are petroleum-based compounds and depending on manufacturing processes, PEGs may be contaminated with measurable amounts of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies ethylene oxide as a known human carcinogen and 1,4-dioxane as a possible human carcinogen.

Enough said!


4: Fragrance

This particular category is pretty scary and hard to navigate , because what does “fragrance” mean anyway? It’s a blanket term to protect a company’s ‘secret formula’ but in reality it is a ‘carte blanche’ for a company to avoid properly labelling potentially hazardous ingredients.

Most chemicals in synthetic fragrances are derived from petrochemicals.

These chemicals include: benzene derivatives, aldehydes, phthalates, and many other known toxins that are capable of causing cancer, birth defects, nervous-system disorders, allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system  It can be found in many products such as perfume, cologne, conditioner, shampoo, body wash and moisturisers.

5: Petrolatum

Also known as petroleum jelly or simply mineral oil.

It is used in hair products for shine and as a moisture barrier in lip balms, lipsticks and moisturisers. Petroleum products can be contaminated with carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

In the European Union, petrolatum can only be used in cosmetics if the full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen.

It’s impossible to avoid every single synthetic chemical and it is not healthy either to stress about whether or not you may have been exposed to a certain chemical.

But you can do a lot to avoid them by eating clean organic GMO-free food, drinking plenty of clean fresh water and look for products that are certified organic or natural and have transparent labelling.

If you want to do further research Skin Deep is a wonderful resource by the American organisation: Environmental Working Group ( packed with important health information about the cosmetics you – and your family – use every day. You’ll find product and ingredient safety ratings, health information about cosmetics ingredients and smart shopping tips you can trust. Much Love Sol 💜🌿💜


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