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Cosmetics PDF Print E-mail
Other cosmetics include nail products, shaving cream, self-tanning products, exfoliants, cleansers and sunscreens. Most of us use them every day, even many times a day.

Under the Trade Practices Act 1974 all cosmetic products have to show ingredients on their labels. However, it is permissible to state general categories such as flavour or fragrance, and 'other ingredients' may be used to hide information which is considered commercially confidential. If you want to find out what these secret ingredients are you can ask the manufacturer for the material safety data sheet. If they refuse, they may provide the information direct to your doctor but can be forced to do so only by direction of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The labelling laws are clearer for those products making therapeutic claims for their product (e.g. 'this product cures acne') as these come under the Therapeutic Goods Act.

Finding out what is what in cosmetics can be a daunting task. The lists of ingredients can appear impenetrable and many different names are used for the same thing. This is partly due to common names being given to chemical compounds, but may also be due to the industry trying to give particular impressions about a product. 'Carbomer' is a good example of this. It is used as a thickener in many cosmetics, including moisturisers, sunscreens, eye shadow and nail polish. Its other names include acrylic acid polymer, propenoic acid polymer, carbopol and polyacrylic acid. It is therefore clearly a polymer of acrylic acid. 'Ceteareth' is another one which proved difficult to decipher. It turns out that the different ceteareths (they go by various numbers e.g. Ceteareth 30) are either cetyl or stearyl alcohol combined with various proportions of ethylene oxide (this is what the number refers to) i.e. they are ethoxylated to produce a polyoxyethylene ester. They function as non-ionic surfactants.

The surprising thing about cosmetics is how remarkably similar they all are. Once you get your eye in, they are often simply variations on the theme of moisturisers. Body lotion ingredient labels, for instance, look very like hair conditioner labels (see Hair products ) and are even not too different to those for cream eye shadow. Most of them are based on oil/water emulsions, stabilised by a surfactant such as ceteareth or sodium lauryl sulphate.

Common components include:

  • solvents to dissolve the ingredients and keep them in solution, e.g. some alcohols;
  • preservatives to prevent the growth of bacteria in the product, e.g. parabens, formaldehyde, hydantoin, sorbic acid;
  • emollients to plump up the skin cells, e.g. lanolin, sorbitol, vegetable oils;
  • humectants to hold moisture in the skin or in the product itself, e.g. glycerine, glycols (see Solvents);
  • oils and fats to create a film over the skin to slow down dehydration;
  • emulsifiers to keep the solution stable, e.g. fatty acids like palmitic, capric and stearic acids;
  • esters to reduce the greasy feel of the oily components, e.g. palmitates and stearates;
  • anti-oxidants to stop the fats and oils from going rancid, e.g. ascorbic acid and its derivatives;
  • silicones as emollients, and for lubrication and shine, e.g. dimethicone, siloxanes;
  • thickeners to give the desired consistency such as waxes, paraffins and sugars.

This list is merely a guide to help you interpret the labels and is by no means exhaustive---there are hundreds of chemicals used in cosmetics for a variety of purposes and many chemicals perform more than one task. A book by Alison Haynes, Facefacts, gives a good rundown on cosmetics and the ingredients.

Some of the ingredients will be there to make the product do a particular job. Glycolic acid (or alphahydroxy acid) is added to anti-ageing creams, hair removal products and exfoliants because it takes off the upper layer of skin; seed husks can be used in exfoliants for the same purpose. Mica and silica may be added to mascara, eye shadow, lipstick and body glitter to give sparkle. Nail polish may contain polyvinylpyrrolidone plastic (PVP) for setting and shine. Sodium borate acts as a foaming agent, such as in shaving creams, as does cocamide. Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is used in self-tanning products to change the skin colouration. Foundation, face make-up and powder eye shadow are based on talc for ease of spreading. Mascara may contain nylon fibres to make the eyelashes look thicker. Plasticisers may be used in liquid lipsticks to give elasticity.

Health effects
Cosmetics usually contain a mixture of synthetic and natural ingredients. Many are perfectly safe, but they are often readily absorbed by the skin and can cause skin irritation and reactions in chemically sensitive people. Some ingredients become more toxic when they are exposed to sunlight, and some may promote cancer. It is estimated that about 10 per cent of people have some sort of adverse reaction to cosmetics, especially skin-care and hair products. As you might imagine, workers in the hairdressing and beauty industry have a high rate of various ailments as a result of constant exposure to these chemicals, in particular contact dermatitis.

If you know you have sensitive skin or chemical sensitivities, it is best to test a small amount of any new product. For more complete health effects see the individual entries for some of the types of cosmetics and for many of the ingredients listed below.

Common ingredients which can cause allergic, skin and eye irritation and other reactions include:

  • preservatives like parabens, isothiazolones or formaldehyde
  • surfactants like sodium lauryl sulphate
  • lanolin, especially if it has not been properly purified
  • hardeners such as bisphenol A
  • antibacterial chemicals including triclosan
  • pigments and synthetic colours which may be carcinogenic
  • solvents such as acetone, toluene and those of the glycol, ether and ester type, including the low molecular weight members (e.g. ethylene glycol, phenoxyethanol, propylene glycol)
  • some chemicals and plant extracts which can cause sensitisation when exposed to the sun, such as glycolic acid, extracts of angelica root, oak moss, bergamot, cassia
  • derivatives of acrylic acid (e.g. carbomer, methacrylates) which can cause allergic contact dermatitis and are eye, nose, throat and skin irritants
  • EDTA (ethylenediaminetetra acid) is moderately toxic by ingestion
  • Dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a skin and eye irritant
  • retinol (Vitamin A) is moderately toxic by ingestion and a potential teratogen
  • polyvinylpyrrolidone plastic (PVP) is a known carcinogen and sensitiser.

In terms of health, with cosmetics less is probably more. Because there are so many common ingredients across all the different types---and many may be applied regularly every day---your total exposure might pass unsafe levels even though the level of an ingredient may be very low in a particular cosmetic. This can be a particular problem for those with chemical sensitivities, who may be able to cope with the amount of a chemical in one product but not, say, six applications of that chemical in one day. It probably pays to familiarise yourself with regularly occurring ingredients and be on the lookout for symptoms. For instance, one of the editors is sensitive to fragrances but was not aware of this until, at the age of 35, she stopped using perfumed soap and shampoos---and suddenly no longer had sneezing fits every time she had a shower!

Environmental effects
Many ingredients are tested on laboratory animals before they are used in cosmetics. If you wish to avoid using animal products (or products from wild animal species) then cosmetics are a minefield. For instance, allantoin may be derived from cattle; stearic acid and its derivatives may come from animal fats; collagen may be waste from the meat industry; 'cetyl' refers to the spermaceti group such as whales and dolphins; and squalene may come from shark livers. The difficulty is that although the chemicals may in fact be synthetically created, the source is generally not stated.

Many of the products are sold in elaborate, non-returnable packages which generate excessive waste. Some of the volatile ingredients, e.g. the acetone in nail polish (see Solvents), contribute to indoor air pollution. The propellants in aerosols, usually hydrocarbons, contribute to the greenhouse effect so it is better to choose an alternative method of application.

There are companies which specialise in producing non-allergenic cosmetics which are less likely to produce reactions, and there are fragrance-free or low-fragrance products. There are several 'cruelty-free' lines available that do not test ingredients on animals and some that don't contain animal products. Choosing products with 'natural' ingredients makes some sense, if only because you will have at least some idea of what the ingredients actually are! There is intense competition in the cosmetics industry and there is an enormous budget for advertising, so think carefully about what the manufacturers are claiming their product can do. Does it really sound plausible? Try to avoid excessive packaging. There are many recipes for making your own cosmetics out of materials that agree with you.

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