Skin Deep: Behind the Ingredients List

From Generations Magazine Fall/Winter 2019-2020

By Victoria Williams

It’s a typical weekday morning: you wake up, start the coffee, and get your morning routine started. Part of almost every woman’s morning routine is using or applying personal care products that some may deem necessary: shampoo, conditioner, body wash, deodorant… and who could forget, makeup.

Almost every personal care product used by women (and men) is advertised viciously on social media, television, in print, and more. While these products may seem necessary, cool, fun, or even expensive or “elite,” many of these products have ingredient lists the size of the Constitution and, to some surprise, do expire.

The cosmetics and personal care industry is enormous, with the United States being considered the most valuable beauty and personal care market in the world, generating approximately 84 billion U.S. dollars in revenue in 2016.1 Part of what makes personal care and cosmetics such a large industry is the idea that some of these products are necessary: body wash so we are clean, deodorant so we don’t smell bad, and cosmetics and cosmetic procedures so we look flawless. There is no shame in using or enjoying these products or services, but everyone should have a level of concern for what is put into these products and who is providing a beauty product or service.

Although the cosmetics and personal care industry is so large, no other category of consumer products is subject to less government oversight. Overall, this means that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has limited authority to review chemicals in cosmetics and other personal care products. Each day, American women use an average of 12 personal care products that contain 168 different chemicals. Men use an average of six personal care products that contain 85 different chemicals.

These chemicals in everyday personal care products are often applied directly to the skin, the body’s largest organ, where ingredients can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. Cosmetic chemicals can enter the body through the skin, inhalation, and ingestion. Most chemicals in cosmetics pose little to no risk, but some chemicals in cosmetics have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer, reproductive and neurological harm, and developmental delays.

Chemicals in these products pose risks at very low doses and can interfere with the hormone system. Research shows that “endocrine-disrupting” chemicals such as parabens and phthalates may pose the greatest risk during prenatal and early postnatal development, when organ and neural systems are forming.2

Possibly you or a friend may have used a product before and have gotten an adverse skin reaction, like a burn or infection. One common chemical, a part of the “Toxic Twenty” chemicals that should be banned from cosmetics and personal care products according to The Environmental Working Group, is formaldehyde.2 This chemical has been known for its probable carcinogenic properties for many years. Formaldehyde can be found in cigarettes, some e-cigarettes, certain building materials, industrial cleaning products, and even some beauty products.3 Some keratin treatments (which straightens the hair) are formaldehyde-based, which has been linked to hair loss, rashes, blisters, nosebleeds, bleeding gums, and more.

So why is formaldehyde used? “Formaldehyde is a great preservative,” says Papri Sarkar, M.D. “You can make an amazing cleanser, moisturizer or beauty product, but without a preservative, it will likely only last a few weeks or months.”3 It is worth noting that many brands that once used formaldehyde have stopped doing so, but there is still a presence of the chemical (mostly from formaldehyde releasers) in some products to cheaply preserve them.

The biggest culprit in the beauty industry to include formaldehyde on its ingredient list is nail polishes and removers.3 Formaldehyde releasers, which contain or release formaldehyde over time, have the same health concerns and function as formaldehyde. Retailers like CVS, Rite Aid, Target and Walgreens, along with Whole Foods, has made a stand by creating their own ban on the use of formaldehyde in store-brand products that have been or will be in effect. This is among one of the only bans on formaldehyde use in the United States.

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers are not just used in products that are in the home, they can also be found in adhesives and other products used by salons for artificial enhancements, like eyelash extensions. Eyelash extensions, which are single synthetic fibers glued one-by-one to natural eyelashes, are typically applied using a formaldehyde-based adhesive or other biologic glues.4

You may have seen posts warning others about the effects of eyelash extensions, where women have gotten serious allergic reactions to the adhesive. Serious irritation from the glue can lead women to run or tug on their lashes, which can cause hair loss, and ultimately cause the woman to want to get eyelash extensions over again due to not having natural eyelashes left. Not only can the adhesive cause an undesirable reaction, the solvent to remove eyelash extensions can have the same effects. Eyelash extensions not only carry a risk of having an adverse reaction to the glue, but you also run the risk of bacteria and fungal infections.4

There should also be concern surrounding cosmetic procedures with the products used and the training or licensing acquired to perform certain procedures. To learn how to do eyelash extensions, anyone can go online and take an online training course and become “certified” to do eyelash extensions, with no prior knowledge or training. Although most states do require “Lash Artists” to have their cosmetology or esthetician license, Pennsylvania included, there are still many people who are applying eyelash extensions without the proper licensing.

With an abundance of salons and independent shops offering eyelash extensions, it’s important to make sure the person applying the lash extensions is licensed and knows exactly what they are doing in a sterile and safe setting. If anything, eyelash extensions should be your last option, with safer options out there like glue-on lash strips, magnetic lashes, and FDA-approved lash growth serums, like Latisse®. If you still wish to have those wispy, bold lash extensions, try limiting the application to once or twice a year and be sure to go to someone who will apply the lash extensions correctly and safely.

Not only should women pay attention to the chemicals in the products being applied to the skin and the people who are applying them, but also when the products expire. On every cosmetic or skincare item in your medicine cabinet, you will find on the back of the product a small cream jar icon which has the number of months a product is safe to use after it has been unsealed. This PAO (or “Period After Opening”) symbol is important for you to know when to dispose of old makeup or skincare products. Old makeup loses its quality, by drying out, getting clumpy or not applying as smoothly as it once did. The real danger in expired makeup is that it can cause irritation that can, in turn, lead to redness, bumps, a rash, or even blisters and swelling of the skin.6

Expired makeup can also start to harbor harmful bacteria that can cause additional irritation and bumps that look like acne. Built up bacteria can also cause eye infections, like pink eye. The shelf life on different products can be different, so it’s important to look at the PAO symbol to determine if the product has surpassed its shelf life. If it has, don’t hesitate to throw it away and replace with new product.

It’s no secret – over the course of history, women have used cosmetics and have received cosmetic procedures to improve their appearance and achieve their desired look for centuries. Although there are a lot of risks associated with receiving cosmetic procedures and using cosmetics, there are safe ways to go about using them, like going to a certified doctor, esthetician or cosmetologist who can do said procedures or cosmetic applications in a sterile and clean manner. ENT Associates of Central PA has certified and experienced physicians for all of your cosmetic procedure needs.


  1. Shahbandeh, M. “Statistics & Facts on the U.S. Cosmetics and Makeup Industry.” Statista, Accessed 23 September 2019.
  2. Faber, Scott. “The Toxic Twenty Chemicals And Contaminants In Cosmetics.” Environmental Working Group, Accessed 23 September 2019.
  3. Malacoff, Julia. “These Beauty Products Still Use Formaldehyde – Here’s Why You Should Care.” Shape, n.d., Accessed 23 Sept 2019.
  4. “Eyelash extensions can pose health risks.” Consumer Reports, Accessed 24 Sept 2019.
  5. “Eyelash Extensions State Requirements.” Lavish Lashes, Accessed 24 September 2019.
  6. Farrell, Shannon. “What Happens to Your Face When You Use Expired Makeup.” Women’s Health, 17 April 2015, Accessed 24 Sept 2019.
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