Cosmetics and Your Health


someone applying makeup to an African American woman

Millions of women and men around the world use cosmetics to enhance or change their appearance. The common term makeup refers to cosmetics such as foundation, eye shadow, eye liner, mascara, blush, and lipstick. Other cosmetics may include nail polish, body wash and moisturizers, perfumes, and hair coloring or styling products.

Hair dyes and straighteners involve a series of chemical reactions. For example, permanent hair color is mixed with colorless dye precursors and a stabilizer, and applied to the scalp and hair. The mix of chemicals process together to make the final color, which bonds to the hair.

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires U.S. manufacturers to report the safety of their cosmetic products to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But, cosmetics do not undergo the same stringent premarket approval as drugs, with the exception of color additives.
Makeup products with sunscreen are treated as both cosmetics and drugs.

Cosmetics and personal care products contain a mix of chemicals. Researchers are working to better understand if any of these affect human health. Some chemicals are classified as endocrine disrupting, which means they may interfere with the body’s hormones and cause adverse health effects.

What Is NIEHS Doing?

  • Testing chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products – The National Toxicology Program (NTP), housed at NIEHS, conducts research on chemicals used in cosmetics and personal care products, such as the following:
    • Antimicrobials, such as triclosan, are used in some body washes and other products to kill or stop the growth of microorganisms, such as bacteria.
    • Engineered nanomaterials, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are commonly used in cosmetics and sunscreens to protect skin from harmful ultraviolet rays. Engineered nanomaterials are measured in nanometers. A nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter, or approximately 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.
    • Parabens are used to preserve the shelf life of many cosmetic and personal care products.
    • Phthalates are found in cosmetics, such as nail polish and hair spray, and plastic packaging.
    • Ultraviolet light (UV) filters, chemical compounds that shield skin or limit degradation in materials from damaging sun exposure, are commonly used in sunscreens and other cosmetics, some toys, products made of plastics, and furniture finishes.

      UV filters have public health concern because millions of people use products made with them. Being exposed to the sun’s UV radiation is a risk factor for skin cancer. Although sunscreen and other cosmetic products containing UV filters are applied to skin, breakdown chemicals have been found in urine, indicating that UV filter chemicals make their way into the body. People may also encounter these chemicals by touching products made with them or eating food that contacts plastics containing UV filters.

      NTP studies UV filters by assessing hormone activity, reproduction, and growth and development in offspring. NTP is studying these UV filters: 2-Hydroxy-4-methoxybenzone (2H4MBP), Avobenzone, Ensulizole, Homosalate, Padimate-O, Octylmethoxycinnamate, Octylsalate, and Octocrylene.

  • The NIEHS Sister Study – Using data from the NIEHS Sister Study, NIEHS researchers found women who douched had an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
    The study also found that among white women, those classified as moderate and frequent users of beauty products had increased risk of breast cancer relative to infrequent users. Frequent users of skincare products also had increased risk of breast cancer relative to infrequent users, and among black women, the number of participants in subcategories of product use were too small to draw firm conclusions.

    In an analysis of hair products usage, researchers found that frequent use of permanent hair dyes was associated with an increased risk of developing cancer, especially among black women. Frequent use of chemical hair straighteners was also associated with increased breast cancer risk regardless of race.

    Women who used chemical hair-straightening products were at higher risk for uterine cancer compared to women who did not report using these products, according to research from The Sister Study that included more than 33,000 women. The researchers found that women who reported frequent use of hair-straightening products, defined as more than four times in the previous year, were more than twice as likely to go on to develop uterine cancer compared to those who did not use the products. Uterine cancer is relatively rare and accounts for about 3% of all new cancer cases. But it is the most common cancer of the female reproductive system.

    In a separate study, researchers analyzed data on the use of genital powder and ovarian cancer from the Sister Study and three other prospective cohort studies. There was no statistically significant association between genital powder use and ovarian cancer, but they found a small increased risk of ovarian cancer for women with intact reproductive tracts (no hysterectomy or tubal ligation).

  • Salon workers and pregnancy – NIEHS-funded research found women working as cosmetologists and manicurists had an increased risk for gestational diabetes, or diabetes that develops during pregnancy. They also found a higher risk for placenta previa, a condition where the placenta partially or totally covers the cervix — the opening to the uterus — which can cause severe bleeding during pregnancy and delivery.
  • Adolescents and endocrine disruptors – NIEHS-supported research found that Latina adolescent girls, who reported daily use of personal care products, had higher levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in their urine, which may impact reproductive development.

Collaboration with Other Federal Agencies

  • Tox21 – In collaboration with the National Center for Computational Toxicology at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences in the National Institutes of Health, and the FDA, NTP is conducting high-throughput toxicity testing of 10,000 chemical compounds, including those found in cosmetics.

Further Reading

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