Dangerous Beauty: 5 Scariest Beauty Products…

Chemicals, heavy metals, bacteria, and other hazardous ingredients are turning up in makeup, skin creams, and hair styling products. Here, the latest and most dangerous beauty alerts, and how to protect yourself without compromising your beauty routine.

Mercury in Skin Creams?

That was the headline-grabber last week, when an FDA investigationfound imported skin creams may contain toxic levels of mercury and other heavy metals. The risk is serious; people are actually getting sick from mercury contamination from these products.

The list of dangerous skin creams is fairly long, but — so far at least — contains only products you’d purchase from an import store or Latino, Asian or Middle Eastern market, and no American-made brands or products. The creams are intended primarily for “skin lightening” and anti-aging and include Stillman’s skin bleach cream, Diana skin lightening formula, and numerous products with labels in Chinese, Hindi, and other languages.

If you’ve been using a lightening skin cream that’s imported from China, India, Mexico, or some other exotic locale, check the label for mercury. But be aware the ingredient might also be listed as  “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” or “mercurio.”  If there is no list of ingredients, don’t use the product. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include tremors, memory problems, irritability, and changes in vision or hearing. The creams have turned up in seven states so far, and several cases of serious mercury poisoning have been reported.

Lead in Lipstick?

Once considered an “urban legend,” the rumor that some lipsticks contain lead turned out to be deadly true when the FDA tested hundreds of lipsticks following an alert issued by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Two consecutive FDA investigations found lead in100 percent of the lipsticks tested. And the amounts of lead found aren’t small. The first FDA test revealed lead levels up to 3.06 ppm (parts per million), and the second FDA test — scheduled for publication in the May/June 2012 issue of Cosmetic Science – found lead levels up to 7.19 ppm.

The brands that tested positive for lead levels  included well-respected national brands including L’Oreal, Revlon, Avon, and Cover Girl. And high-end brands like Dior and M.A.C. weren’t exempt either. Five of the ten most contaminated lipsticks were manufactured by L’Oreal USA. Perhaps most disturbing, in some ways, is that even the “natural” brand Burt’s Bees had one lip shimmer that tested in the middle range for lead. (Stay away from Toffee if, like me, you love these products.)

I’d like to hear from the chemists at L’Oreal formulating these products as to what purpose the lead serves, and which shades of lipstick are most likely to contain lead. If the lead is getting into the products accidently, for example via dyes, I’d like to know why they can’t make ingredient changes to banish the lead.

Consider that there is no safe level for lead (in other words there needs to be zero lead in order for a product to be considered safe) and you can see we’ve got a serious problem here. Then consider that the FDA issued a consumer Q&A concluding that the lipsticks posed no danger if used correctly and you can see we’ve got another more serious problem here. In other words, gals, don’t lick your lips, eat anything while wearing lipstick, or kiss anyone and everything’s fine.

Bacteria in Mascara?

Yes, this can happen too, but it’s the result of keeping mascara too long. The microbes don’t arrive in the mascara itself. According to a study in Optometry, bacteria that are naturally present in the eyes can be transferred into mascara via the wand. When the researchers tested mascaras, microbes were present in 33 percent of the products tested.

And these weren’t innocent little beasties; in most cases the bacteria were found to be staphylococcus or Streptococcus. Fungi were also found. Mascara contains preservatives that prevent bacteria from breeding. Typically, mascara is considered to be safe for three months, the amount of time the preservatives are designed to last. However, the Optometry study tested mascara samples that were less than three months old.

An additional warning for all of us who keep our mascara in our purses; heat will quickly degrade the preservatives, allowing bacteria to proliferate faster. A few tips for mascara safety:

  • Store mascara in a cool place.
  • Toss mascara after a few months and replace.
  • When applying mascara, stop at two coats. (Multiple layers can plug the oil glands  along the edge of eyelids, causing sties.
  • Don’t ever apply mascara in the car; according to opthalmologists, you’d be surprised how many women arrive in their offices with scratched (and possibly infected) corneas from poking themselves in the eye.

These three hazards are certainly the top three beauty concerns today. However, there are a few other concerns to be aware of.

4. Formaldehyde in Hair Straighteners

Despite label claims of being “formaldehyde-free”, many keratin-based hair straighteners, when tested, were found to contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. The levels of formaldehyde found were fairly low, and shouldn’t pose a hazard if you’re only straightening your hair a few times a year, but more often than that isn’t a great idea. And stylists, who use the products on their customers regularly, are at risk.

5. Mineral Makeup

Often considered a natural alternative to makeup, mineral-based products often come in the form of powders. The problem results because the particles of minerals such as mica are so small, they float through the air and can be inhaled into the lungs. (Consider this: When construction workers use spackle and other products containing mica, they wear masks to avoid breathing them in.) There hasn’t been any warning issued for mineral makeup yet, but some experts, such as pulmonologists, are warning women that lung damage could result from frequent use.

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