Women and STEM: What are we putting on our faces?

Credit: Anabelle Kang/ Credit: Anabelle Kang/

What is makeup made up of? Besides checking for the little animal-cruelty-free bunny rabbit on the packaging, most remain uninformed about the chemicals they put on their faces. It’s not that nobody cares — makeup users don’t want to get sick because of the products they use. But the makeup industry purposefully obfuscates the dangers involved with routine use of synthetic chemicals found in cosmetics, especially inexpensive drugstore products that are marketed towards lower-income buyers.

I do not think I can explain in one article what can make makeup dangerous and how to avoid it; the reality is that companies use a myriad of different ingredients. Now that there is more awareness about potential carcinogens and other risk factors, products labeled “clean” or “vegan” create more confusion than clarity for buyers.

To hopefully shed some light on the unadulterated chemistry and biology behind makeup, I’m going to conduct a case study on one of my favorite makeup products: e.l.f. liquid glitter eyeshadow (specifically in the color Disco Queen if anyone’s looking to get me a good birthday gift). I chose this product because it’s inexpensive, widely available at drugstores, and also claims to be cruelty-free, vegan, and free from harmful ingredients like phthalates, parabens, nonylphenol ethoxylates, triclosan, and hydroquinone. What does that mean?

Most of these ingredients have been identified as hormone dupes, meaning they look a lot like some hormones that already exist in the body. The problem with this is that hormones exist to signal important things to your endocrine system, so when you introduce a lookalike, your body may respond inappropriately. Phthalates, parabens, and triclosan can have this effect, some even causing the early onset of puberty in children or causing breast cancer. Nonylphenol is similar, but has been specially identified as an environmental hazard because of its ability to remain in the urine of human consumers. Many hormonal or carcinogenic concerns about particular products extend past humans because they can be unintentionally distributed to the environment through waste or water. Also, many of these ingredients, like hydroquinone, are banned in the U.S., so while I appreciate e.l.f.’s commitment to their consumer health, they’re not doing much more than the law requires.

So what ingredients are in this eyeshadow?

  1. Some generally non-concerning things: Water, Calcium Aluminum Borosilicate, Glycerin, Calcium Titanium Borosilicate, Hydroxyethyl Acrylate/Sodium Acryloyldimethyl Taurate Copolymer, Squalane, Acrylates Copolymer, Tin Oxide, Citric Acid, 1,2-Hexanediol, Caprylyl Glycol, Sorbitan Isostearate. I promise I researched each of these individually and they’re all safe. Many of them are synthetic, however, which means that you’re exposing your skin to something it was never intended to be exposed to. This is one main issue with makeup products in general, but all in all it’s not horribly pressing.

  2. Polyethylene Terephthalate: A type of plastic that can seep the toxic metal antimony into water.

  3. Polybutylene Terephthalate: Another plastic related to the one above. My main concern with these two is that they’re in the form of tiny pieces of glitter in this product, which inevitably end up in the water I use to wash my face, and then in the environment.

  4. Polysorbate 60: An emulsifier that keeps fats from separating in a mixture. If ingested or if it enters into the bloodstream, it may compromise the membranes of gastrointestinal cells and alter gastrointestinal function.

  5. Phenoxyethanol: This has been classified in some countries as a toxin because of some evidence of damage to the nervous system, irritation to the skin, and environmental hazard. Manufacturers in the U.S. can still use it, though.

  6. Aluminum: A controversial ingredient. A main component of many antiperspirants, some research indicates that it can cause breast cancer when it accumulates in breast tissue. Some scientists deny that this is a hazard in most products, and it certainly depends on the form that the aluminum takes and the quantity that you use. That said, it’s certainly something to watch out for.

  7. Titanium Dioxide (Ci 77891) : These dyes are coal-tar based and can be carcinogenic if ingested. Once again, the hazards of this ingredient depend on its usage.

Obviously, not every cosmetic product is deadly, and there are certainly a wide range of rules and regulations in place to keep us all safe. However, I want to emphasize that checking out the manufacturer and the ingredients in the products you use can only lead to you being a more informed, and thus safer, consumer.