Toxic Makeup: The Beauty Dilemma | You’d Be Surprised What Lurks in Your Lipstick, Mascara,  Eye Shadow, and More

Coal tar is a commonly used to make those deep colors you love in lipstick.

The skin is an amazing organ, the largest we’ve got. This thin 0.5 mm to 4 mm layer provides a first line of defense against harmful substances. Ironically, many of those harmful substances are deliberately applied by us in the form of personal care products such as shampoo, moisturizer, and makeup. Women who use makeup regularly absorb close to five pounds of toxic chemicals through their skin every year. And then there are the six tubes of lipstick a year that the average woman ends up eating off of her lips, according to Lonica Eisenbraun, a passionate advocate of toxin-free makeup and owner of Natural Selections and the Organic Company.

No Rules Apply

The makeup industry is astonishingly unregulated. Cosmetic companies can put almost anything that they want into their products without any oversight by the FDA—and they do. Common ingredients include hormone-disrupting and cancer-causing chemicals like pthalates, formaldehyde, and paraben preservatives. And the unpronounceable list of chemical ingredients found on the label may just be the tip of a toxic iceberg. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), companies are not even required to list all the ingredients that their products contain. For instance, there are over 3,000 chemicals that can be listed under the blanket term “fragrance” rather than by name.

So what’s a lady who wants to look her best to do? Giving up makeup completely is not something that most women will want to embrace. But neither is paying for beauty with compromised health. The standard advice for looking great naturally—getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and eating well—won’t darken and lengthen stubby blond lashes, even your skin tone, or eliminate dark circles caused by genetics. And frankly, wearing makeup is fun!

Watch Out for Misleading Claims

The obvious solution to this dilemma is to use makeup marketed as natural or organic, but even this is no guarantee of non-toxicity, according to Joelle Grabowski, an Iowa State Board Certified Esthetician who works at New Pioneer Food Co-op in Coralville. “Natural and organic cosmetics are not regulated in the same way that organic and natural food are regulated, making it easy for companies to make claims that can be misleading,” she explains.

How to solve this dilemma? Pam Slowick, who sells natural cosmetics and health products in her store Thymely Solutions, starts with the label. “When I read an ingredient list for makeup or for anything, I look for words that I can pronounce!”

Researching cosmetic companies and buying makeup from those you can trust is another solution. However, since companies are always changing their formulations, Lonica rechecks the label whenever she buys a new package of a favorite product to make sure nothing toxic has been added to the ingredient list.

A third solution mentioned by all three of our beauty experts is to use EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database, which rates the safety and toxicity of beauty products on a scale of 0 to 10. You can find their database online at

What The Experts Recommend

For the best in non-toxic make-up, check out what our three experts recommend.

Foundation: Foundation can make your complexion look smooth and even. But if it contains mineral oil and isopropyl myristate, it can make your skin worse in the long run by causing breakouts. Stick to a foundation like those by 100% Pure or a tinted moisturizer by Suki, both of which avoid these ingredients. Lonica recommends using a primer before putting on foundation to achieve a super-smooth finish.

Concealer: Concealer is a gift from the gods for those prone to dark circles or acne, but it often contains propylene glycol, polyethylene glycol, and TEA—all possible carcinogens as well as skin irritants. Try 100% Pure Brightening Concealer, which won’t damage the delicate skin under the eyes, or Suki Correct Coverage Concealer, which contains ingredients to actually treat blemishes, puffiness, and dark circles.

Blush: Conventional blush usually contains neurotoxic coal-tar dyes and talc, which is carcinogenic and can contain asbestos. Joelle recommends Mineral Fusion because it is free of talc, parabens, artificial colors, and fragrances. Lonica loves 100% Pure because they get their colors from fruit pigments.

Mascara: Who knew that achieving long, thick lashes could be so dangerous? Conventional mascaras can contain cancer-causing parabens and triethanolamine, organ-toxic phenoxyethanol, and other dangerous chemicals. For amazing lashes the safer way, Joelle likes Mineral Fusion Lengthening Mascara and Pam loves Dr. Haushcka’s mascara, while Lonica prefers 100% Pure. Unfortunately, natural mascara is not waterproof, so Lonica skips it when swimming or watching sad movies.

Eye shadow: Most cream eye shadows are made with toxic petrochemicals like mineral oil or petrolatum. Look for a cream eye shadow that uses a natural oil base instead, like the avocado butter in 100% Pure eye shadow. Or use a talc-free powder eye shadow like those by Mineral Fusion.

Lipstick: The berry-colored lipstick that you love so much? It’s more likely to owe its luscious color to coal tar than anything resembling fruit. And many conventional lipsticks have been found to contain lead. Our experts suggest trying 100% Pure, EcoLips, EcoTints, Mineral Fusion, or Dr. Hauschka brands for a beautiful color that won’t harm you when you inevitably eat some of it.

Nail polish: Who doesn’t feel cheered up by having brightly colored toenails peeping up at you? For a non-toxic nail polish, look for ones that are free of dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde, and toluene. Don’t expect non-toxic polish to last as long. Pam recommends the Honeybee Garden brand.