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Skulking in the shadows of your skincare containers, lurking about the vapors of your bath products, and mucking up ancient traces of your makeup are the menacing ghosts of cosmetics past. In recent years, these ghouls, goblins, and ogres have been chased out of cosmetics by the fiery torches and pitchforks of regulatory agencies. But their spirits linger, as a chilling reminder of a time when toxic outlaws ran amok. In some parts of the world, however, the tale of sinister fiends, poisoning your products behind your back, goes on. Though you may not see or feel their presence, they may be lying in wait within your very own cosmetics.
Quite possibly the scariest ghost story takes place here in the U.S., where the FDA has officially prohibited a total of only eight substances in cosmetics. The list, which has not been touched since 2000, includes bithionol, chlorofluorocarbon propellants, chloroform, halogenated salicylanilides, methylene chloride, vinyl chloride, zirconium-containing complexes, and prohibited cattle materials. While chloroform, methylene chloride, and vinyl chloride are known carcinogens, bithionol and halogenated salicylanilides (di-, tri-, metabromsalan and tetrachlorosalicylanilide) may cause photocontact sensitization. Zirconium-containing compounds in aerosol products can have toxic effects on the lungs, precipitating the formation of granulomas. It goes without saying that cattle materials may put you at risk for mad cow disease.
In addition to the eight banned substances, the FDA regulates hexachlorophene (HCP), a toxic chemical that may be used below a concentration of 0.1% only if an alternative preservative cannot be shown to be equally effective, and mercury compounds, which are known to be readily absorbed through the skin (where they inflict allergic reactions and irritation) and accumulate in the body (triggering neurotoxic manifestations). The FDA in the U.S. only gets involved if an ingredient has caused obvious harm to consumers, basically cleaning up a chemical spill and erecting a barricade around it rather than preventing it in the first place. Other countries have devoted significantly more resources to ensuring the safety of beauty and grooming products.
Approximately 1,200 cosmetic ingredients have been banned in the EU. While these sinister substances are now merely apparitions in EU countries, they are still alive and thriving in the U.S. According to the Environmental Working Group, more than 750 personal care products sold in the U.S. violate industry safety standards in other countries. Among the ingredients prohibited for use in EU cosmetics are hydroabietyl alcohol, dibutyl phthalate, methyl cellosolve, 2-amino-4-nitrophenol, lead acetate, acid orange 24, dimethyl sulfoxide, phenolphthalein, strontium nitrate, and verbena (lippia citriodora) oil. While many of these ingredients (hydroabietyl alcohol, dibutyl phthalate, methyl cellosolve) are fragrance additives, a large number (2-amino-4-nitrophenol, lead acetate, acid orange 24) function as hair colorants. Catalase and stronium nitrate have conditioning properties, and petroleum distillates (prevalent in CoverGirl makeup) are used as a solvent. The fragrant verbena oil is a favorite of Pevonia Botanica shaving products.
Meanwhile, over in Japan, the ghosts of noxious chemicals, snuffed out by new legislation in 2001, haunt cleaned up cosmetics. There is no stopping of these chemicals outside Japan. Nine of the ingredients banned by the Japanese Pharmaceutical Affairs Act crop up in around 275 American cosmetics. The prohibited substances are boric acid, saccharamyces/selenium ferment extract, hydrogen peroxide, formaldehyde solution (formalin), sodium perborate, selenium, selenium aspartate, strontium chloride, and strontium nitrate. Some of these ingredients (i.e. saccharamyces, formaldehyde solution, selenium) are serious health hazards, ranking 9 or 10 in the Cosmetics Safety Database. Others, like hydrogren peroxide and sodium perborate (both in SuperSmile Whitening products), are only dangerous depending on their usage. Boric acid, an antimicrobial that has been shown to cause skin reactions, hair loss, and severe illness, is one of the five components of Mario Badescu Cucumber Cleansing Lotion.
Unlike in the U.S., cosmetics sold to consumers in Canada must meet strict requirements set by the current Cosmetic Regulations of the Food and Drugs Act and other applicable legislation. Health Canada's Cosmetics Program has published an extensive Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist, which outlines prohibited and restricted ingredients in cosmetics. About 80 products sold in the U.S. contain banned substances on this list. The most common offenders are hydroabietyl alcohol, methyl cellosolve, piper methysticum (kava kava) extract, lead acetate, pheromones, phenolphthalein, aminophylline, and thimerosal. Most of these ingredients have not appeared in products reviewed on Truth in Aging. A few exceptions are pheromones, the secret sauce of pherAdore and Ageless Fantasy, and aminophylline, a cellulite-busting chemical in Sovage Tummy Flattening Gel. The discrepancy between ingredients on Canada's Hotlist and those proscribed by the U.S. FDA hits far too close to home.
It's easy to get spooked when you think of all the nasty gremlins that may be scurrying about your cosmetics. While elsewhere in the world these critters have been chased away for good, they could be haunting some of the cosmetics in your own home. Your best protection is to arm yourself with a keen eye for their names on any label.