As I sat in the swirling chair, facing a mirror framed with little light bulbs, the make-up artist applied the first layer of foundation. ‘Oh my,’ she exclaimed, ‘your skin is fantastic’. Unthinkingly I replied that I never use foundation, more mesmerised with the rapidly unrecognisable face in the mirror than her comment. She replied, ‘well that’s why’. Looking down at the array of colours and textures she had at her disposal to be applied to my skin, I wondered for the umpteenth time if just one day of make-up might harm my skin. Not a normal thought for a normal girl sitting in a beautician’s chair being glammed up for a photo shoot given to her as a Christmas present. But, I just could not help myself, I oft think too much.

What we know as cosmetics are substances used to enhance or retain the appearance of the human body. Including skin creams, lotions, powders, perfumes, lipsticks, nail polishes, eye and facial makeup, permanent waves, coloured contact lenses, hair colours, sprays and gels for hair, antiperspirants and deodorants, baby products, bath oils, bubble baths, bath salts, butters and many other various products. Used extensively, particularly by women, and far too excessively in the Western world. We who use them constantly think about their immediate effect of beautification, but rarely of the long term risks.

Skin care products in particular are meant to make us look younger, they promise and advertise as much rather loudly. Manufacturing of cosmetics today is dominated mainly by a small group of multinational corporations, who originated in the early 20th century. Regulated in every country by a different governmental group, very few restrictions have actually been put in place. So in the end it all comes down, rather sadly, to cost and profit over the safety of the consumer/user. Lead is still used in lipstick, mercury in mascara and these are known bioaccumulative toxins. We know them as heavy metals. Far more scary is the cocktail of untested chemical compounds. Often, the logic of cosmetic companies is this: if it’s been used for years, then it’s safe. The Romans used lead for wine vessels for decades and just a generation ago we applied butter to our skins to increase suntanning.

There are chemicals used in cosmetics that have been linked to various cancers, developmental and reproductive system toxification, causing allergies, immuno-toxicity (1) and other hazards including neurotoxicity (2). Wouldn’t you say that these results are more likely to make you age rather than stay young? Everything we apply to our skin is absorbed, it is processed by our body, and it either acts as medicine or poison. If the average woman eats 3 kilos (6 pounds) of just lipstick in her life, imagine all the other products we absorb. Often it’s not the key ingredients that cause the problems – the ones manufacturers advertise to us – it’s the binders, the lubricants, thickeners, preservatives, emulsifiers and thinners. The chemicals they use to alter the physical and chemical composition of our cosmetics. If it emulsifies or breaks down a particular ingredient, what is it doing to the delicate balance of your skin and internal workings?

There are so many natural, raw products. We do not need a homogenised mess of chemicals to protect or beautify ourselves. I tend to think in terms of consumption: I would not intentionally eat a stick of lipstick; nor would I spread moisturiser on my toast; if I would not enjoy putting it in my mouth, then why put it on my body? Organic or simply cold pressed oils work as the best body moisturisers. We use extra virgin olive oil for cooking, yet we insist on hydrogenated vegetable and animal fats on our skin every morning.

The scariest thing is that we can look at the label of food products, and with a little research, figure out what is in the foods we are eating. Cosmetics do not list their ingredients. Even if they list some, and we assume that is all, they are not required to list them all. The only way to find healthful and beautifying products is to look for companies committed to a healthy change, who do disclose everything to us.

So I went through with my glamour shot and it was a fantastic day, but it took three more days to get the make up off my skin; and over a week later, having bathed, showered, scrubbed, mud-masked, scuba dived, ocean swam, I still have eye liner framing my eyes.


(1) immunotoxicity defined at:

(2) neurotoxicity defined at: