As any young girl knows from the time she has her first Tinkerbell cosmetic case, makeup is now an essential part of being female. However, a new study-the first of its kind to study cosmetic use in teenagers-shows that even young girls are now contaminated with a toxic brew of chemicals found in cosmetics that can interfere with the normal maturation process and, eventually, even cause cancer.
According to this landmark survey, carried out by the Washington, DC-based non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), even young teenagers show evidence of the presence of multiple carcinogens and serious hormone disruptors from makeup at levels far higher than reported by government agencies such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In this 2007 study that lasted for six months, the EWG tested 20 girls, aged 14 to 19 years, from 18 cities scattered across eight US states and the District of Columbia. The researchers identified 16 chemicals in the girls' blood and urine that are linked to hormone disruption.
Exposure among this age group tended to be higher than among adults, largely because of a heavier use of and experimentation with makeup. The young girls in the sampling used at least 17 products-at least 30 per cent more products than adult women-thereby exposing themselves to 174 chemicals every day, compared with the 168 present in the 12 products used daily on average by adult women.
Of the 25 chemicals that were specifically looked for, 16 (64 per cent) were found in the blood and urine samples of the participants, each of whom was contaminated by 10-15 chemicals apiece-and nine of these chemicals were found in every teen tested.
The 16 chemicals present in these young women came from four chemical families: phthalates; triclosan; musks; and parabens-all of which are known to mimic the activity of hormones.
In laboratory studies examining the effects of these chemicals on cell lines and animals, all four chemical families were capable of disrupting the hormonal system (Environ Health Perspect, 1986; 65: 229-35; Environ Sci Technol, 2004; 38: 997-1002; J Toxicol Environ Health, 2005; 68: 239-51). Musks, for instance, have been found to interfere with the communications system of aquatic animals, which is controlled by hormones (Environ Sci Technol, 2004; 38: 997-1002), and parabens have proved to have oestrogenic activity in rats (Toxicol Appl Pharmacol, 1998; 153: 12-9). Triclosan is also known to adversely affect the thyroid gland (Aquatic Toxicol, 2006; 80: 217-27).
The scientists were also alarmed to note the high levels of parabens, used in cosmetics as preservatives. Every girl studied was contaminated with at least two parabens-methylparaben and propylparaben-both known to be moderate hormone disruptors, and two of the girls were contaminated by all six of the para-bens studied.
As the first study to examine paraben levels in young girls, the high levels found here suggest that parabens form a large part of the chemical burden in the bodies of women from a very young age. This is hardly surprising as this preservative is ubiquitous, present in 90 per cent of all cosmetics.
Of the 11 musks tested by the EWG, researchers found two types: nitromusks and polycyclic. These artificial fragrances are present in anything with a scent-from soap to lipstick. The scientists also noted that levels of the antibacterial agent triclosan were far higher than reported by the CDC. In fact, all of the participants had measurable levels of triclosan, compared with only 78 per cent of teen girls tested by the CDC.
What's more, although all the girls demonstrated measurable levels of chemicals, the degree of exposure varied considerably, with some carrying a body burden 1000 times higher than others.
Nevertheless, and most interesting of all, the measured levels of certain chemicals did not correspond with the ingredients in the makeup the girls were currently using.
From this finding, the scientists concluded that these agents, including musk, are used in all sorts of personal-care products-from toiletries and shampoos to nail polish-and are now present in most of the population. In a blood-sample study carried out in Germany, for instance, 90 per cent of the samples contained significant levels of these synthetic musks (J Chromatogr B Biomed Sci Appl, 1997; 693: 71-8).
The most worrying aspect of these findings is the potential effect of hormone disruptors on a young person's rapidly changing body. During adolescence, a number of systems-the reproductive, immune, blood and adrenals-are rapidly changing in preparation for maturity, as are also the bones and brain. These rapid changes are accom-plished by an array of hormones present in minuscule amounts-as tiny as 1 part per billion (ppb) and even 1 part per trillion (ppt)-which operate according to an intricate system of signaling. Any hormone able to mimic this activity could wreak havoc on the developing body, as has also been shown in animal studies (Toxicol Sci, 2004; 82: 598-607).
Indeed, scientists are particularly concerned that the presence of these hormone mimics may be responsible for the epidemic of premature adolescence in girls. In the US, the onset of breast development now occurs one to two years earlier than it did 40 years ago, with nearly 15 per cent of girls already beginning the process between their eighth and ninth birthdays (Pediatrics, 1997; 99: 505-12). Also, preliminary studies of phthalates show that exposure may be linked to early puberty (Environ Health Perspect, 2000; 108: 895-900).
Furthermore, exposure to these chemicals during puberty may even be a timebomb, causing unusual health effects that are not even seen in adults. Numerous studies show that adolescent rats exposed to phthalates are more likely to have testicular toxicity than adult rats (Environ Health Perspect, 1986; 65: 229-35). Furthermore, based on animal studies, the EWG scientists believe that exposure to chemicals during breast development may predispose the breast to cancer later on.
In animals, parabens have already been linked to breast cancer (Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab, 2006; 20: 121-43), although this may not be applicable to humans. The various synthetic, nitromusk compounds have also been found to be potentially carcinogenic, increasing the growth of human breast cancer cells in test-tube studies (Arch Environ Contam Toxicol, 2002; 43: 257-64).
Phthalates, used in cosmetics such as nail polish-usually those containing fragrance as a solvent-have been found to damage the reproductive system of male rat fetuses in a Scottish study (The Daily Telegraph, 31 August 2008). Furthermore, studies in humans have shown that pre- and perinatal exposure to phthalates (through breast milk, for example) can cause incomplete virilization in infant boys (Environ Health Perspect, 2006; 114: 270-6).
These high levels of exposure don't simply reflect the use of grownup makeup, but also the widespread use of these toxins in toiletries and household products in general. Furthermore, girls are exposed to them at a very early age, as even play makeup and kiddy perfumes contain large amounts of chemicals (Contact Derm, 1999; 41: 84-8).
At this time, all such products can slip through the very loose net of regulations for cosmetics. Incredibly, in the US, official government health statutes don't require companies to test products or ingredients for safety before they are sold. Virtually all cosmetics contain ingredients that haven't been assessed for safety by any agency anywhere and so are not held accountable to any standards.
Of the 20 most common fragrance ingredients on the market, seven have no safety data whatsoever.
Indeed, even though in most European countries cosmetics are subject to more regulations, they are still more lax than those for food-or, indeed, vitamins.
In the UK, more than 100 artificial colours are allowed in lipstick, including coal tars, but not in food-even though coal tar has long been associated with cancer, accordingto the First Annual Report on Carcinogens (in 1980) from the US National Institutes of Health, and DNA damage in fish (J Toxicol Sci, 1979; 4: 211-9).
All the more reason for parents to realize that giving teens the facts of life includes providing them with important safety information about cosmetics, the dangers of which are far more than skin deep.
Cocktails for teens to avoid
Many 'organic' products, such as nail polish, may still contain potential carcinogens. The following chemicals are dangerous for teens (and grownups, too), so always read the labels carefully.
- Phthalates, a solvent found in nail polish and other cosmetics, particularly those with fragrance
- Triclosan, a preservative used in liquid hand soaps and toothpaste
- Artificial fragrances, particularly musk, which accumulate in fat tissue and are slow to clear from the body
- Parabens, preservatives linked to cancer and hormone disruption in animal studies, and particularly found in deodorants
- Hair dyes containing p-phenylenediamine, diaminobenzene and/or all dark permanent hair dyes, which have been linked to cancer in human studies
- Emulsifiers diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA), solvents that are not harmful in themselves, but become dangerous when they react with other ingredients to form nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA), linked to stomach, liver and other cancers
- Nail polish and nail polish removers, which contain formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen.
Safer products for teens
The following companies offer products that are made up of mostly benign ingredients.
- Aubrey Organics www.aubreyorganicsuk.co.uk,
mail order: 020 8688 2366
- Aveda www.aveda.co.uk, mail order: 0870 034 6700
- Dr Hauschka www.drhauschka.co.uk, mail order: 01386 791 022
- Green People www.greenpeople.co.uk, mail order: 01403 740 350
- Jurlique www.jurlique.com, mail order: 08707 700 980
- Lavera www.lavera.co.uk, mail order: 01557 870 203
- Living Nature www.livingnature.com, mail order: 01794 323 222.