What's in Your Make-up's Make-up?

by Rosalind Ryan, femail.co.uk

There is a growing amount of evidence to show that your make-up and skin-care routine could actually cause a range of conditions from skin allergies to cancer.

Which chemicals pose the biggest risk?

It can be difficult to decipher all the ingredients on the labels of your make-up or skin-care products. To help make the task easier, just follow our at-a-glance guide to the most common harmful chemicals below.  If you find any of the ingredients in your cosmetics or beauty products, you can decide whether or not to leave them out of your make-up pack.


  • Used as a nail polish remover and in perfumes.
  • It is toxic if swallowed and can irritate the lungs.

Alkylphenol ethoxylates

  • Used to help produce lather and penetrate the skin.
  • Found in shampoos and hair colours.
  • It can disrupt your hormones, build up in body fat and is toxic to fish once washed into the environment.
  • Look for nonylphenol or octyphenol.

Coal tar

  • Used as an artificial colouring.
  • Found in blushers, eyeliners and mascaras.
  • In sensitive people, can trigger nausea, headaches, moodswings and has produced cancer in animal experiments.


  • Used as a disinfectant, preservative and fungicide.
  • Found in deodorants and nail varnish.
  • It is a suspected cancer-causing chemical, may trigger asthma in sensitive individuals and can damage DNA.
  • Look for formalin, formal or methyl aldehyde.

Isopropyl alcohol

  • Used as a solvent to help colours mix together.
  • Found in lipsticks and cream blushers.
  • It is linked to neurological damage and may cause the body tissues to be more susceptible to cancer.
  • Look for words such as propyl, methyl, butyl, benzene and styrene.

Para-phenylenediamine (PPD)

  • Used in dark hair dyes and some temporary tattoos.
  • It is linked to a higher incidence of bladder cancer, scalp conditions and skin allergies.
  • Phthalates: see 'latest research' section below.


  • Used as a preservative.
  • Found in moisturizers, cream foundations, cream eye shadows and toothpaste.
  • Parabens are oestrogen mimics, increasing risk of breast cancer. The combined effect of parabens in different products is still unknown.
  • Look out for alkyl parahydroxy, benzoates such as butyl, methyl, propl or isobutyl paraben.


  • Used as a solvent.
  • Found in nail varnishes.
  • Studies have found links to miscarriages, liver damage, and damage to central nervous system. Look out for toluol or methylbenzene.


  • Used as a solvent.
  • Found in lacquers and nail varnishes.
  • Can cause liver damage, skin allergies and can be addictive at high concentrations. Look out for xylol or dimethylbenzene.

What is the major chemical of concern at the moment?

A recent study by the Women's Environmental Network in conjunction with the Swedish Study for Nature Conservation found that four out of five popular beauty products they tested contained chemicals called phthalates - pronounced 'thalates'.

They found the harmful chemicals in products such as the fragrance Poison by Christian Dior, hairsprays from Boots and L'Oreal and also in a number of antiperspirant deodorants. They are used to slow down the rate perfumes and hairsprays evaporate and to keep the fragrance lingering. They are also used in nail varnishes to prevent chipping.

Phthalates have been found to harm the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system, especially developing sex organs in males. It can also cause premature breast development in girls, low sperm counts in men and cause the testicles to waste away.

Two phthalates are already banned in the European Union from being used in chewable plastic toddlers' toys because of the risk to developing reproductive organs. But women could still be absorbing a range of different phthalates through their beauty products and risking the health of their unborn children.

Helen Lynn, health coordinator for the WEN, says, 'Chemicals that affect animal and humans in this way should not be in cosmetics at all. We should be able to choose products and know they are safe, not have to worry whether they contain risky chemicals.'

A spokesman for the Cosmetics, Toiletries and Perfumes Association says, 'Phthalates have been extensively studied and all data shows that consumer exposure from use in cosmetic and personal care products is far below the levels that could cause adverse health effects.'

However, an American study two years ago found that every single man and woman they studied contained traces of dibutyl phthalate. The levels of this phthalate were particularly high in women between the ages of 20 and 45, largely due to the fact they use more cosmetic products than men.

Scientists are now trying to determine whether high levels in humans will have the same results as the animal experiments - defective sex organs for example - but campaign groups are already warning pregnant women to steer clear of beauty products containing phthalates to cut their risk of exposure.

The WEN is now campaigning for manufacturers to remove phthalates from all their products and for the EU to unconditionally ban all phthalates from cosmetics.

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