Your Makeup Could Have an Ugly Effect on Your Health

While scientists investigate, make the right choices to avoid teensy-tiny toxins.

April 2, 2009

Take a close look: Tiny components of some cosmetics haven't been safety-checked, say experts.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA— Recent research unveiled at the 237th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society found that nanoparticles in cosmetics, sunscreens, and hundreds of personal-care products may be damaging aquatic ecosystems. When the products are washed off people’s skin and down the drain, they end destroying microorganisms that play a key role in maintaining healthy watersheds, the research suggests. Meanwhile, other researchers are worried that not enough work has been done to establish the chemicals’ effects on human health.


Nanoparticles are very tiny particles with a diameter between the size of an atom and a molecule, or 1/5,000th the thickness of a sheet of paper. Nanotechnology has been used in textile and microchip industries, and there’s hope it can be used in medicine to target specific ailments deep inside the body. But the cosmetics and sunscreen industries are starting to use nanoparticle ingredients on a wide scale, and some observers are concerned that there’s a lack of evidence about their safety. “The FDA and EPA and other agencies are really not keeping up with the pace of the technology,” says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst with Environmental Working Group (EWG). “There’s a systematic failure to look at this issue and separate good uses from less-discerning ones, to get a handle on what’s going on with the technology.”

THE DETAILS: It started with sunscreens. Iron oxide and titanium dioxide ingredients are used in many sunscreens because of their powerful UV ray-blocking capabilities, and because they are safer than ingredients suspected of disrupting hormones, explains Lunder. But conventional iron oxide and titanium dioxide leave a white coating on the skin, which some people find undesirable. So the industry responded by creating ultratiny versions of the ingredients, which keep the sunscreen transparent.

Now makers of makeup and anti-aging products are also introducing nanoparticles into their formulas, even though emerging data suggest that nanoparticles could produce toxic effects due to their ability to enter cells, explains Philip Landrigan, MD, professor and chair of community and preventative medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City and a advisor. Samuel Epstein, MD, chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, warns that skin absorption or inhalation of cosmetics containing nanoparticles could cause the particles to accumulate in the body and produce toxic effects. “To date, it’s unclear whether the benefits of nanotech outweigh the risks associated with environmental release and exposure to nanoparticles,” says Cyndee Gruden, PhD, professor of civil engineering at the University of Toledo, and author of one of the studies highlighted at the recent American Chemical Society meeting.

WHAT IT MEANS: Nanoparticles are so new, it’s hard to say what all this means. Animal studies have shown they can have devastating effects, but little research has been done to see how nanoparticle ingredients affect human health. Still, Landrigan thinks it’s important to err on the side of caution as the particles undergo more scrutiny. While the safety of nanoparticles in sunscreens may need to be balanced against the importance of reduced skin-cancer risk, many experts agree that for now these tiny ingredients have no place in eye shadow, moisturizers, foundation, or powdered makeup.

Do your best to cut nanoparticles out of your daily routine:

• Check the label, but don’t rely on it. If you look at the label of a product and see the terms nano-, micronized, microscale, or fullerenes, put the product back on the shelf. But know that companies aren’t required to label the use of nanoparticles, there’s no guarantee the makeup or sunscreen you’re buying doesn’t contain the controversial ingredients.

• Call the manufacturer. If you’re concerned, call the manufacturer of your favorite sunscreen and cosmetics products and ask if they use nanoparticle ingredients. If they do, ask them to cite research proving they are safe.

• Choose safer sunscreens. Dr. Epstein thinks we need to stop worrying about the white appearance of safer sunscreens, and use them instead of the formulas that leave no trace. “Some call nanoparticles the next asbestos,” he says. “If you have to single out the most hazardous development in the whole field of cosmetics and personal-care products, I’d put nanoparticles at the very top of the list.”

But some think that the protection of sunscreens outweighs the potential nanoparticle nastiness. Lunder says studies have shown that nanoparticles don’t penetrate into living tissue in the skin, and warns that people should not stop using sunscreen. She says six companies use zinc oxide and claim not to use nanoparticles. They include: Allergan M.D., EcoLani, Gaia, Lotus Moon, Mexitan, and Miessence. Four that claim to use titanium dioxide in larger, safer particles include Aubrey Organics, Avalon Organics, BullFrog, and Alba Botanica. To see a complete list of sunscreens and how EWG ranks them in effectiveness and safety, visit Skin Deep. And again, you can contact the maker of your preferred brand and find out if nanoparticles are part of their formula.

For added protection from the sun, Epstein recommends Solumbra protective clothing.

• Complain! Your cover-up shouldn’t contaminate your lungs, and your sun protection shouldn’t threaten the health of your arteries and organs. Tell your state and federal elected officials to take on the cosmetic, anti-aging, and personal-care products industries to keep little-researched and unsafe products out of your products. You and your family don’t deserve to be guinea pigs.