Is your make-up killing you?
By NATASHA COURTNAY-SMITH
October 4, 2007
Women absorb 5lb of chemicals from cosmetics every year – from cancer-causing
compounds in face cream to arsenic in eyeshadow. We tested two beauty
junkies to reveal the shocking toll on their bodies… Charlotte
Kohl and her sister Emma are attractive young women. Their looks, they
admit, are very important to them, which is why, between them, they use
more than 70 different beauty and cosmetic products every day.
Take Charlotte, 27, an estate agent from East London. Each evening, after
slathering her face with a concoction of night creams, she sleeps with
a dental bleaching kit on her teeth and fake tan all over her body.
Wake-up call: Emma, left and Charlotte were shocked by their results
Every morning, she uses an array of products in the shower, ranging from
shower gels and exfoliating scrubs to ‘body building’ lotions
to give life to her fine hair.
Her make-up regime includes blusher, bronzer, eyeliner, eye shadow and
mascara, and she never leaves the house without covering her head in a
thick cloud of hairspray.
Her 24-year-old sister Emma, a personal trainer, follows a similar routine,
but she also has an obsession with lipgloss: she owns 60 different ones
and touches up her lips every few minutes.
In a bid to ensure she always has fresh breath, Emma also cleans her teeth
seven times a day and carries a tube of toothpaste in her handbag, which
she rubs into her teeth and gums at almost hourly intervals.
Between them, the two girls get through four cans of deodorant a week,
and spend £1,000 a month on cosmetics.
“We have been into cosmetics since we reached our teens,” says Emma.
“We’re the sort of people who rush out to buy a new mascara
just because it claimed to do more for our eyelashes than any other mascara
“I’m a complete sucker for anything that says it can make me
look or feel better, or that is endorsed by a celebrity.”
And Charlotte and Emma are not alone. Last year, Britons spent £6.4billion
on cosmetics and grooming products, with the average woman applying 12
toiletries every day.
But here’s the rub – these toiletries can bring with them at
least 175 chemical compounds.
A recent study found that British women are one of the heaviest users of
cosmetics in Europe and, as a result, we ingest through our skin, and
occasionally through the mouth, up to 5lb of chemicals a year.
Take Emma’s favourite fuzzy peach lipgloss for instance: she loves
its colour and the fact it ‘tastes nice’, but according to
the list of ingredients, it contains 28 manmade chemicals.
Her deodorant contains 26 chemicals and Charlotte’s hairspray has 23.
Of course, the manufacturers would say these chemicals and resulting products
are safe, but a growing school of thought begs to differ.
Natural beauty: TV presenter Sarah Beeny has been without make-up for two years
As part of a new television documentary, presented by Sarah Beeny (who
for the past two years has been on a personal mission to remove as many
chemicals from her lifestyle as possible), Charlotte and Emma agreed to
have their blood and urine tested for a selection of chemicals found in
They were then challenged to live without their beauty products for eight
days, swopping everything for natural chemical-free varieties.
They also stopped using domestic cleaning products.
Natural beauty: TV presenter Sarah Beeny has been without make-up for two years
The results will surprise even those who find it hard to believe that everyday
cosmetics could really be doing us any harm.
Certainly, both sisters did not think there would be anything potentially
dangerous in their make-up bags.
“The ridiculous thing is that I’ve always tried to avoid chemicals
whenever I can,” says Emma.
“I always buy organic food.
“I never in a million years thought I could be exposed to chemicals
which could damage me through my make-up.
“Make-up makes me feel good and it wouldn’t have even crossed
my mind that it could be doing me harm.”
Cosmetics contain many different kinds of chemicals, but of particular
concern are a group of preservatives called parabens, which by some estimates
are found in 99per cent of all ‘leave on’ cosmetics, and 77
per cent of ‘rinse off’ cosmetics.
These are known hormone disruptors: evidence suggests they can mimic the
female hormone oestrogen, and a lifetime of increased exposure to oestrogen
is linked to a heightened risk of breast cancer.
One study found parabens present in 18 out of 20 breast cancer tissue samples
(though it is important to note that the study did not prove they’d
actually caused the breast cancer).
Parabens are also thought to adversely affect male reproductive functions.
Another troubling chemical is the antibacterial agent and pesticide triclosan,
which is used in toothpastes, soaps, household cleaning products and body washes.
It belongs to the chlorophenol class of chemicals, which are suspected
of causing cancer in humans and taken internally, even in small amounts,
can cause cold sweats, circulatory problems and – in extreme cases
Also of concern are phthalates, a substance that gives our lotions that
silky, creamy, texture, but which are also a ‘plasticiser’
used to make plastics flexible.
Certain phthalates are known carcinogens, and studies have suggested they
damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and the reproductive system, as well
as affecting the development of unborn baby boys.
The list goes on. Sodium laureth sulphate, a frequent ingredient in shower
gels and shampoos, is a skin irritant; propylene glycol, found in soap,
blushers and make-up remover, has been shown in large quantities to depress
the central nervous system to make it function less effectively; and aluminum
in deodorants is linked to breast cancer by medical research.
And did you know that certain eye shadows contain arsenic?
One thing is for sure: few of us would want to rub any of these chemicals
into our eyes, far less ingest them in liquids by drinking them.
Yet, every day, we rub them into our skin, and allow them to enter our bodies.
Given the facts, it’s hardly surprising that a growing number of
experts believe these substances have a cumulative effect on our bodies.
They think the ‘chemical cocktail’ inside us is contributing
to the increased frequency of a host of illnesses ranging from eczema
to cancers as well as developmental problems such as autism and dyslexia.
“It’s difficult to see the link between chemicals in cosmetics
and damage to health unless you stand back and look at the wider picture,”
says Dr Paula Baillie-Hamilton, author of Toxic Overload and supporter
of the campaign group Chemical Safe Skincare.
“Man-made chemicals first emerged 100years ago, and every decade
since, the overall production of these synthetic chemicals has doubled.
“We are surrounded by chemicals: in the air, in our food, in our
water and especially in our cosmetics, and the fact is that our bodies
can’t break many of these substances down.
“Our systems are becoming more polluted and we are beginning to see
the results of that in terms of increased illnesses and even birth defects,
especially in boys.
“There is no doubt that one of the ways we are exposing ourselves
to these chemicals is through our cosmetics.”
Dr Baillie-Hamilton also thinks that absorbing chemicals through our skin
is more dangerous than swallowing them.
“At least if you ingest chemicals through your mouth, your digestive
system can do something towards dealing with them,” she says.
“If they go through your skin they hit your blood stream immediately
and are then transported to vital organs such as kidney and liver, where
they may be stored for many years.”
So how did Emma and Charlotte’s chemical detox pan out?
Before they started, both girls had to get rid of all their old products.
The contents of their make-up bags and bathroom cabinets filled a black
bin liner, and they were given alternative products, from ranges including
Elave, Skin Shop, Aubrey Organics, Jane Iredale, Burts Bees and Purenuffstuff.
Household cleaning products came from Ecover.
“At first, I really missed my own cosmetics and our new make-up didn’t
seem that good,” says Charlotte.
“The chemical-free mascara I was using didn’t seem to hold
onto my lashes and the hairspray felt as if I was spraying my hair with water.
“I had to reapply the natural lipgloss so many times because it kept
Emma agrees: “We went out one night with our new make-up on and it
was hopeless, the hairspray didn’t hold, the lipgloss kept rubbing
off and I ended up less than fragrant, too, because the natural deodorant
wasn’t powerful enough.”
During the experiment, perhaps to encourage them not to go back to their
old products, the girls were given information about their usual make-up.
For instance, the average woman eats, albeit unwittingly, five lipsticks
a year, which in her lifetime is the equivalent volume of 1.5 blocks of lard.
But Emma’s lipgloss obsession means that she’ll eat 54 lipglosses
a year – the equivalent of eight blocks of lard during her lifetime.
And that’s on top of all the chemicals it contains.
Charlotte’s obsession with hairspray is just as troublesome.
“I was shown that when its sprayed onto a smooth surface, hairspray
solidifies into a clear plastic that you can actually peel off in solid
form,” says Charlotte.
“Not only had I been putting this onto my head all day, but I’d
also been unwittingly breathing it in. I was effectively-clogging up my
lungs with plastic.”
The girls’ monthly trips to the hairdresser to have their hair coloured
are fraught with hidden dangers. People who use permanent hair dye are
more than twice as likely to develop bladder cancer as those that don’t.
Both ammonia and paraphenylenediamine (PPD) – chemical substances
used in dyes – can cause allergic reactions, too.
As the experiment progressed, Charlotte and Emma began to grow accustomed
to their new products, and to discover brands they felt were comparable
to their old make-up.
“I began to realise it was just a question of getting used to using
different brands,” says Emma.
“After a week, we’d both completely forgotten that we weren’t
using our own make-up and were putting on the chemical-free alternatives
as though nothing had changed.”
So AT the end of the eight days, had such a detox really made a difference
to the chemical levels found in their bodies? The highest reading of parabens
found in humans is 730mg per litre of urine.
Tests taken at the beginning of the experience had revealed that Charlotte
had 650mg, which is in the higher range. Her reading fell dramatically
to 21mg at the end of the experiment.
Her level of triclosan – found in toothpaste and body washes –
fell from 490mg per litre to zero.
“I was shocked at the results,” says Charlotte. “I hadn’t
believed we’d see such a dramatic difference in such a short time,
let alone as a result of something as simple as changing our cosmetics.
“Once I understood what our old cosmetics contained, psychologically
it felt better to be using chemical-free alternatives. We both noticed
our skin seemed brighter and smoother.
“Our eyes were also brighter and our hair felt softer.”
Emma’s results showed an equally dramatic fall in triclosan levels,
which fell from 90mg per litre to just 2mg per litre.
Her paraben level was more surprising – it actually increased from
its initial level of 7mg per litre of urine, though medical experts point
out that parabens can be taken into the body through eating dried and
snack foods, in which they are used as preservatives, and medicines, so
Emma’s diet during the experiment may have had a bearing.
“What really hit home to me was that the way we go about our daily
life really does have an instant impact on chemical levels in our bodies,” she says.
“It made me realise that I am being bombarded with chemicals from
all sorts of directions, many of which I can’t avoid. Anything I
can do to cut back, can only be a good thing.”
Since the experiment finished, both girls have continued to use natural
make-up where possible and switched to natural cleaning products.
Charlotte has reduced her use of hairspray and Emma now cleans her teeth
a sensible twice a day. Both girls use a natural deodorant, which contains
“We don’t want to get fanatical about it, and the fact is that
certain chemical-free cosmetics don’t work as well,” says Emma.
“We’ve yet to find a chemical-free mascara that is as good
as my normal one, and chemical-free hair dye isn’t that great either.
“But for pretty much everything else there is an excellent chemicalfree
“Given what we’ve learned, it would be madness to go on as