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Survey: Sorority Students Fear Their Makeup Ingredients Cover Up More Than Their Skin

Survey: Sorority Students Fear Their Makeup Ingredients Cover Up More Than Their Skin

“Read the ingredient list!” - the call consumers have been hearing over the last couple of years as the Clean Beauty industry grows. We are constantly being reminded that we ought to know what’s inside our personal care products before we make the decision to purchase them. But why is that important and does it even make a difference?


Being women, we use twice as many personal care products as men do, on average, and in doing so we expose ourselves to more chemicals than men. According to a research by the Environmental Working Group [1], American women apply an average of 168 chemicals to their faces and bodies every day, while men apply 85 chemicals on average. The number is even higher for adolescent girls, who tend to use more personal care products than adult women on a daily basis.


Most of these personal care ingredients are completely innocent. But some ingredients commonly used today are linked by scientists and regulators to hormone disruption, infertility, birth defects and even cancer [2]. How is that even possible? Partly because under the U.S. law, cosmetic products and ingredients do not require FDA approval (except for color additives) before being marketed to consumers [3], and their manufacturers are not required to run specific safety tests.


This reality of unregulated cosmetic and personal care products, and its implications on women’s health were recently discussed in this webinar video, hosted by the National Women’s Health Network.

Janet Nudelman, Director of Program and Policy at Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP), who spoke at the webinar, described the findings from lab testing her nonprofit organization conducted for beauty, personal care and cleaning products. The product with the most toxic chemicals was a children’s shampoo marketed to kids of color in a hair relaxing kit. “Our end game has always been stricter federal oversight and regulation of the largely self-regulated $84 billion cosmetics industry and the $70 billion self-regulated fragrance industry.” Nudelman referred to the newly introduced ‘Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2019’ bill as “the gold standard for cosmetic safety,” which would “ban chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects from retail and professional salon products, and fund research into safer alternatives to toxic chemicals negatively impacting workers and communities of color,” and “mandates full fragrance ingredient disclosure across the entire supply chain.”

I couldn't agree more! meanwhile, can simply reading labels result in lower exposure to harmful ingredients?

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, the California Department of Health, and Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas investigated exactly that [4], by monitoring the exposure of 100 adolescent girls while replacing their personal care products based on product label information.


The research focused on common personal care ingredients that are known to be potential hormone disruptors: certain phthalates (commonly used in perfumed products), parabens (used as preservatives), triclosan (antimicrobial in liquid soaps etc.), and oxybenzone (used in sunscreens and lip balms). The researchers selected a group of “replacement products”, including shampoo, body wash, soap, makeup, and others, with labels indicating that they did not contain these chemicals. Priority was given to lower cost products available at local retail stores.


The 100 participating girls were asked to use the replacement products instead of their regular ones for three consecutive days. The concentration of these chemicals in their urine was measured before the test, and again once the three days were over. The results show a decrease of 27%-45% in urinary concentrations of some of the phthalates and parabens, triclosan and oxybenzone. Simply reading the labels and acting upon them was enough for reducing the exposure to potentially harmful ingredients


This sounds simple, but honestly being a girl in college is a very busy time and there are a lot of things that need to be balanced. Between academics, work, and a social life not a whole lot of attention is left to worry about the composition of your personal care products. Here at Clearya we decided to conduct our own survey to gain some insight into college students consumption habits and attitude towards clean beauty. We surveyed 59 female students in The Ohio State University using an online questionnaire, and had some interesting findings which we’d like to share:


  • 70% of the student respondents reported medium to high concern regarding the safety of the ingredients in their beauty products.
  • 83% responded they would you look for safer alternatives if they knew that some of the ingredients in their products may be harmful to their health (the remaining 17% responded they may do so.)
  • 55% buy skincare and makeup products online - mostly on Sephora, Amazon and Ulta.

Our survey shows that this segment of cosmetic shoppers is concerned, and that the concern is a driver for seeking safer products. The research we described earlier demonstrated that switching to safer cosmetics based on their labels can decrease the concentration of harmful ingredients in the body. So why are products containing unsafe ingredients still being purchased? I think it’s a combination of a knowledge gap and inconvenience.

How to spot unsafe chemicals in an ingredient list?

If you’ve ever tried to manually spot specific chemical names in a long list of ingredients you know how tedious that can get. How about trying a simpler way? Download Clearya. It’s a free browser extension that automatically scans the ingredient lists for you when you browse products at Sephora.com, Amazon.com and other online shops, and alerts on ingredients that are considered unsafe, according to regulators and official databases.


Which ingredients should be avoided?

If you’d like to familiarize yourself with the top ingredients to avoid, you can start here:


Unfortunately the entire list of unsafe ingredients would be too long to memorize - well, that’s what Clearya is for!. You see, the European Union bans about 1,400 ingredients in cosmetics [5], Canada bans about 600 [6], the government of California lists about 1,000 hazardous chemicals [2] (which are hazardous but still allowed in personal care and cleaning products and other uses). All of these are permitted for use in cosmetics in the U.S., where the FDA only bans around 10 ingredients in cosmetics [7].

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Disclaimer: the content in this blog post is provided for general information, and does not substitute any medical advice by your own doctor or another health care professional.

Scientific and regulatory references

  1. Environmental Working Group, “Exposures add up – Survey results”, https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/2004/06/15/exposures-add-up-survey-results/
  2. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, the California Environmental Protection Agency, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (Proposition 65), https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/proposition-65-list
  3. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “FDA Authority Over Cosmetics: How Cosmetics Are Not FDA-Approved, but Are FDA-Regulated”, https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetics-laws-regulations/fda-authority-over-cosmetics-how-cosmetics-are-not-fda-approved-are-fda-regulated#Does_FDA_approve  
  4. Harley KG, Kogut K, Madrigal DS, et al. Reducing Phthalate, Paraben, and Phenol Exposure from Personal Care Products in Adolescent Girls: Findings from the HERMOSA Intervention Study. Environ Health Perspect. 2016;124(10):1600–1607. doi:10.1289/ehp.1510514
  5. Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:32009R1223&from=EN
  6. Government of Canada, Ingredients that are Prohibited for Use in Cosmetic Products https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/consumer-product-safety/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredient-hotlist-prohibited-restricted-ingredients/hotlist.html#tbl1
  7. The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, title 21, §700: Requirements for Specific Cosmetic Products, https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=d8c4202f8c45e456851f5b4ab0d1d587&mc=true&node=pt21.7.700&rgn=div5#sp21.7.700.b