Saving face. What’s in your make-up?

Saving face. What's in your make up?

by Nicole Bijlsma
Spring 2013, Living Well magazine

As a parent with two young daughters, I know that I still have some control over what they put on their faces and bodies, however by their teens – thanks to peer and media pressure – there is a good chance they won’t listen to me at all (sigh)… So I set out to investigate what’s in the cosmetics women put on their faces, and more importantly, what alternatives are available that won’t adversely affect their health. The cosmetic industry is largely self-regulated which can mean little or no regulation. Put simply; manufacturers can put (almost) whatever ingredients they want into their products providing they don’t make outrageous claims on the labels.

Almost 80% of ingredients in personal care products have never been assessed for their impact on human health (1).

The great majority of those that have been tested are skin, eye and lung irritants, as well as known carcinogens and reproductive toxins in ‘acceptable’ levels.

This is probably why in 2006, the Danish government launched a preventative campaign warning pregnant women not to use cosmetics, personal care products and hair dyes (2). Furthermore, the shift towards online shopping of overseas products has meant that the regulatory systems in place to protect the consumers are now by-passed.

Let’s examine lipstick as an example. A recent investigation of 400 lipsticks including those marketed as ‘natural’ identified the heavy metal lead in most of them, with some containing levels up to 7.19 ppm (3). The manufacturers do not add lead to lipsticks, rather it is found naturally in the pigments mined from the ground. As there is no limit to the amount of lead permitted in lipsticks you essentially have no idea how much you could be exposed to. There is no safe level for lead. Lead is particularly toxic to an unborn foetus as it crosses the placenta where it may affect foetal brain development causing learning and behavioural disorders, reduced IQ, sleep disturbances and increased aggression later in life.

My advice therefore is to limit your use of tinted lipsticks – even those marketed as natural – and use non-tinted lip balms derived from vegetable, nut and seed oils.

Fragrances are another concern. As a result of trade secrets, manufacturers are not obliged to reveal the hundreds of chemicals that make up a perfume or fragrance in their product. Apart from causing skin and lung irritation, fragrances can also disguise more sinister contaminants such as phthalates which are a family of industrial chemicals that mimic the hormone oestrogen and have been linked to birth defects and reproductive changes in children (early puberty). According to the Environmental Working Group, 72% of personal care products tested contained phthalates (4).

Fragrances should be avoided in perfume and personal care products. A better option is to use pure essential oils sparingly.

Whilst preservatives play an important role in preventing microbial growth in your products, there are several that should be avoided because they have been known to cause skin irritation or because they release formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is banned in personal care products in Japan and Sweden, and restricted in the European Union and Canada, however it continues to be present in products sold in Australia and the USA. Many so called ‘natural’ preservatives also work on a formaldehyde exchange system such as diazolidinyl urea and should also be avoided. A list is provided in my book Healthy Home, Healthy Family.

While personal care products must provide full ingredient disclosure in accordance with the Trades Practices (Consumer Products Information Standards) (Cosmetics) Regulations 1991, incidental ingredients, such as phthalates, formaldehyde, nitrosamines, nanoparticles and dioxins, that have no technical or functional effect, are not required to be listed on the label despite their adverse health effects.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of organisations and governmental agencies including the REACH Directive by the European Union and the US Environmental Working Group Skin Deep website recognising these hazards and providing alternatives to consumers.

Thankfully in Australia as our awareness increases, there are a growing number of skincare brands committed to providing more natural, safer, chemical-free products, including make-up. These products are often found in good health food stores… Investigate for yourself and remember, your choices can make a real difference to your health.

1. Safe Cosmetics, 2009. No more toxic tub. Getting contaminants out of children’s bath and personal care products. (Online). Available: Mar09Report

2. SBS Corporation. 2007, Men in Danger (DVD). Marcom Projects.

3. US Food and Drug Administration, 2012, Lipstick and lead: questions and answers. (Online). Available:

4. Environmental Working Group, 2002. Not too pretty. Phthalates, beauty products and the FDA. (Online). Available:

By Nicole Bijlsma 
ND BHSC.Ac(HONS) GradDip. OHS Dip.Building Biology

Nicole Bijlsma is a building biologist, author of the best seller – Healthy Home, Healthy Family and CEO of the Australian College of Environmental Studies. Nicole will be talking about how to minimise harmful exposure in a ‘wireless world’ at our annual Profound Healing – Sustainable Wellbeing Conference in November.