Are your Cosmetics Toxic?

Fiona Canning investigates Ireland’s cosmetics chemicals regulations…

Your mother might have given you the best advice you’ll ever receive when she told you to ‘wash that muck off your face’. Parabens and petrochemicals have been found in many of the products we use daily to mask our blemishes, lengthen our eyelashes and highlight our cheekbones.

Skin is the largest organ in the human body and it absorbs up to 60 per cent of any product applied to it. The issue of chemicals in cosmetics is well covered in the media, but do we know what these ingredients really are? Is anyone protecting us from them and what are the alternatives?

Parabens are harmful chemicals that are artificially synthesised and used in cosmetics for preservation purposes. Typically the concentration of parabens in cosmetics is low, often less than one per cent, yet scientific research suggests that they can generate an increase in oestrogen which can result in menopausal symptoms and an increase in female cancers.

Petrochemicals are derived from petroleum and often contain harmful phthalates, which are chemical compounds of phthalic acid. Three sub categories of phthalates, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) have been banned from use in cosmetic products within Europe.

The highest levels of phthalates are found in women aged 20-40, as women in this age group are the heaviest users of personal care products on a day to day basis according to Irish skin care experts Nádúr Organics.

Chemicals such as these are cropping up in well known, trusted brand products. A leading cosmetic brand for the 15-18-year-old consumer, called 17 Cosmetics, uses methylparaben in several of its foundations. Maybelline, L’Oréal and Max Factor all use propylparaben in their foundations and lip products. Although propylparaben is a natural substance found in plants, it is manufactured synthetically for its use in cosmetics such as lipstick. Triethanolamin, which can cause allergic reactions including eye problems, is found in Max Factor Whipped Crème Makeup, Shimmering Bronze. True Match Powder by L’Oréal Paris also contains butylated hydroxytoluene . This ingredient is suspected of causing immunotoxicity, a disorder which affects the immune system.

Although this information crops up on a slow news day in women’s magazines it doesn’t merit any real cause for concern for many journalists. Manufacturers and importers both in the EU and the US are responsible for ensuring that cosmetic products comply with the law before they are marketed. They must demonstrate that the product is safe for its intended use. Regulations are then enforced at national level, and each country in the EU has an authoritative body that is responsible for upholding these rules.

The Irish Medicine Board (IMB) became the Competent Authority for cosmetics on the 1st October 2010; previously they were the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children. The IMB, in partnership with the Health Service Executive’s (HSE) Environmental Health Officers and Public Analysts’ Laboratories, is the body in charge of the regulation of cosmetics and ensuring compliance with legislation in Ireland They are the first line of defence against cosmetic safety concerns in Ireland by order of the EU.

A spokesman from IMB says “IMB take the appropriate measures to restrict or cease the distribution of products which are investigated and considered to present a safety risk or which are non-compliant with requirements. We ensure the temporary or permanent cessation of product distribution or product recall depending on the type of cosmetic and the safety risk which it poses to the public.” The spokesman continued: “to date, market action has been taken on a number of products investigated within this programme. These include a number of hair straightening products, marketed as having a ‘permanent blow-dry type effect’, skin lightening creams and various colour make-up products.”

Worryingly, cosmetics are not subject to an approval process before they are placed on the market. The manufacturer or importer is responsible for ensuring that the products are safe and compliant with legislative requirements. The system of regulation for cosmetic products does not include approval prior to marketing. However, the importation or manufacture of a cosmetic product in or into Ireland is subject to the notification of the IMB so the onus is solely on the manufacturer to follow the legal requirements when producing a cosmetic in Ireland, and overseas products that are made available here do fall under the IMB’s radar.

There is an endless choice of natural, organic and chemical free cosmetic products available to the Irish consumer. Any product you can think of is available organically or with natural non-toxic ingredients in health food shops, online shops, pharmacies and supermarkets. is an online organic and natural beauty specialist which stocks a wide range of natural products. Their makeup brands come from all over the world and include Elysambre, Nvey Eco, Lavera, Burts Bees, Bare Escentuals, bareMinerals, Mineral Cosmetics and Green People. All their products are free from parabens, SLS’s and petrochemicals such as propylene glycol and benzene, artificial colours and fragrance, formaldehyde and phthalates. ships to Ireland.

Out on the footpaths, bareMineral products are available in the three BT2 stores in Dublin as well as in Debenhams in Cork, Newry and Belfast. Flourish organic cosmetics and organic skincare are handmade in Killarney, Co. Kerry and use only natural ingredients. Their products can be purchased online as well as in a number of locations around Ireland from Cork to Mayo. Lush is another skin and body care company which sells ‘homemade’ grooming products packed full of natural ingredients.

It’s comforting to know that there are bodies out there whose job it is to regulate the dangerous ingredients that are used in our cosmetics, but it is the public who will often bring their attention to a flawed product first. This means we must remain vigilant and get into the habit of checking the ingredients on the back. If this seems like too much hard work then there are plenty natural brands available that do the work for you.


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