Are Your Cosmetics Killing You?

In Featured Article, Health Warning

Killer Chemicals in Your Cosmetics

Your cosmetics may be killing you! Recent reports show that many popular products still contain toxic compounds like mercury and lead. And while a new bill is seeking to close legal loopholes that allow the sale of these lethal products, those same products may be on sale at your local store right now!

How many products do you use each day? Most Americans use about 10. They add up pretty quickly. Think about it… toothpaste, shampoo, shower gel, and shaving cream… and you’re not even out of the bathroom yet. Factor in deodorants, cologne, hair gels… and you’re easily hitting that 10-a-day mark.

But while most of us go about our daily ablutions in blissful ignorance, beauty manufacturers, scientists, law makers, and reporters know that your daily products could well damage your kidneys, affect your nervous system, and even cause cancer.

Where We Stand Today

Currently, the FDA can’t regulate beauty products until they are already on sale to the public. That means these products and ingredients don’t have to go through any safety tests. Cosmetics companies can also combine ingredients without pre-market tests.

The FDA has banned certain compounds in beauty products. For example, it banned mercury in cosmetics in 1990. But it rarely tests to see if manufactures respect that ban. And that means no one is checking to see if consumers remain at risk or not.

In the case of mercury, a series of recent high-profile tests and investigations show that products continue to expose Americans to dangerous levels even now. But more about that in a moment…

It’s been left to various environmental groups to conduct tests and prove that the public remains at risk. And only after applying pressure to the government for several years have they finally provoked proper action.

Mercury in Mascara

Mercury has a long history in the beauty industry. It blocks melanin, which pigments hair and skin. This function makes it a popular skin-whitener.

Other products do the same thing. But mercury is cheap, says Professor Ellen Silbergeld, who works for John Hopkins University.

Unfortunately we absorb mercury through our skin. And according to Silbergeld it can shut down organs and can lead to death.

As noted, the FDA banned mercury in products in 1990. But that doesn’t mean cosmetic companies aren’t still using it.

There’s been a flurry of real-life cases and investigations that show it’s still very much out there. And it’s putting Americans in harm’s way.

Mercury in Virginia

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) is investigating 10 cases of mercury poisoning. Those cases are all linked to a cream that’s been imported from Mexico.

“Before using any product, make sure the ingredients are on the box,” says State Health Commissioner Karen Remley. “We urge people not to use imported products if there are no ingredients listed or if a product lists mercury as an ingredient.”

VDH says that mercury can affect the “nervous system, kidneys, and the developing fetus. Health effects include memory loss, irritability, and [body] tremors.”

But cases of mercury poisoning aren’t just limited to Virginia. California health officials are also looking into a similar case for a California family who used the same cream.

Chicago Investigation Finds Proof of Poison

Earlier this summer, a major Chicago newspaper ran its own investigation into mercury poisoning. They revealed that popular skin-lightening creams still contain dangerous levels of mercury.

Researchers tested 50 creams at a certified lab. Six of those contained mercury. Worse, five contained enough to cause kidney damage, according to researchers.

“I’m shocked and speechless,” says Dr. Jonith Breadon. She’s a Chicago dermatologist and works with patients who use skin lighteners. “I just assumed since [mercury] was banned in the U.S., it never got in. But clearly that isn’t true.”

While mercury is banned in the U.S., the creams are clearly still finding their way here. Merchants order them online or from suppliers who bring them in from overseas.

Consumers can’t know for sure which creams are tainted. The investigation shows stores across the nation sell dozens of brands, many of them made overseas.

The six creams that tested high were made in Lebanon, China, India, Pakistan, and Taiwan.

CBS has also reported on mercury in beauty products.

“We [found] several people who were poisoned by mercury in cosmetics,” said Nutritional Biochemist Jay Foster. “They put it in mascara and other cosmetics as a preservative.”

The FDA says mercury is safe in some eye makeup so long as it’s not higher than 65 parts per million. But there are many experts who disagree.

“The amount of mercury in mascaras is very small, but it adds to our total mercury exposure,” says Jonette Keri, a dermatologist at the University of Miami.

Lead in Lipstick

But it’s not just mercury in mascara you have to watch out for. Heavy metals can seriously damage health. And there are plenty of them in beauty products.

Three years ago, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics sent 33 lipsticks to an independent lab for testing.

The lab found that 61 percent of them contained lead. These lipsticks included:

  • L’Oreal
  • Cover Girl
  • Dior Addict

They sent letters to three U.S. Senators and kick-started a campaign to make the FDA take action. Two years passed before the FDA did anything.

But in 2009 the FDA conducted a follow-up study and found lead in the same lipsticks. They said the highest lead levels were in lipsticks made by:

  • Procter & Gamble (Cover Girl brand)
  • L’Oreal (L’Oreal, Body Shop, and Maybelline brands)
  • Revlon

“Lead-containing lipstick applied several times a day adds up to significant exposure levels,” says Dr. Mark Mitchell, president of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice. “There is no safe level of lead exposure.”

“Lead is a proven toxin that causes lowered IQ, reduced school performance, and increased aggression,” says Professor Sean Palfrey, the medical director of Boston’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

“Pregnant women are vulnerable to lead exposure,” says Palfrey. “There is no safe lead exposure for children and pregnant women.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backs this up. They say that: “No safe blood lead level has been identified.”

The agency suggests avoiding all sources of lead exposure, including lead-containing cosmetics.

Pampering – or Hurting – Your Baby?

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tested several baby products just last year. They found that two known carcinogens, 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde, in dozens of bath products. Products included Sesame Street character brands and even Johnson & Johnson’s “pure and gentle” baby shampoo.

According to the EPA, formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane are known animal carcinogens and probable human carcinogens. Formaldehyde also causes skin rashes in children.

The group delivered a letter to Johnson & Johnson last year asking for safe products. The letter was signed by over a million physicians, nurses and moms.


Fragrance makers have the ultimate loophole when it comes to disclosing what’s in the bottle. That’s because fragrance is a trade secret and companies don’t have to say what’s in it.

“The companies already know what are in each others’ products,” Stephanie Hendrick, coordinator for Environmental Health, told AolNews. “It’s only the public that’s kept in the dark.”

And “fragrance” can mask many chemical compounds. It’s used in shampoos, deodorants, lotions, and shaving creams. Even “unscented” products make use of the loophole. They’ll often use masking fragrances, which are chemicals that cover up the smell of other chemicals.

According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, fragrances are among the top five known allergens. They can cause or trigger asthma attacks. The group tested fragrances just this year and found:

  • Phthalates: These chemicals cause hormone damage and affect fertility.
  • Diethyl phthalate (DEP): Recent studies link DEP with sperm damage in men. It was found in 12 out of 17 tested fragrances.

Smart Shopping Guide

With so many dangers lurking in the cosmetics aisle… you need to be smart about what you buy.

Many doctors are working to tackle this burning issue. They’re working hard to create natural products… cosmetic lines that are safe for you and your family. We’ll be investigating this very subject and bringing you our findings on the doctors and products that you can trust in a future issue.

In the meantime, be smart about choosing your products. Keep these threetips in mind:

  1. Be wary of claims that say products are “dermatologist-tested,” “natural,” or “organic.” Look for yourself and read the ingredient label instead.
  2. Be very serious about warning labels. They’re your best clue to toxic ingredients.
  3. You can check out which products tested safe or not. There’s a huge safety guide at

To your health,

Ian Robinson,
Managing Editor, Natural Health Dossier “Health Watch”