10 Toxic Chemicals In Your Mascara

I started reading and learning about toxic ingredients in my personal use products so many years ago now, I don’t even remember, but it was sometime around when I became a mother and my super strong momma bear senses were turned on.  I instinctively knew that avoiding toxic chemicals on my babies just made sense to me, but what I didn’t know was where all these toxins and chemicals were hiding or how to avoid them, beyond shopping for products that I thought were cleaner, like Aveeno and Burt’s Bees (those are just two that come to mind).


My babies are now 24, 14 and 10 (this Saturday)!  I don’t know how they grew up so fast but I blinked and sure enough, my 14 year old is now taller than I am!  I digress…but the point is, I’ve always shopped for what I thought were cleaner products since I first became a mother and as my children grew, my knowledge and awareness grew.  Having already raised one teenage daughter, with a second entering that realm soon, and a teenage son who is now getting into hair products, skin care and deodorant, I know it’s up to me to educate them and to protect them. 


So today, we are diving into mascara!  Mascara is literally the second most used cosmetic in the United States and Canada with 47% of Canadian women using mascara (lipstick is # 1 and we will be diving into that one soon – so stay tuned)!




So while I had been using safer, cleaner products for years, mascara was one of those products I just hadn’t even considered changing!  I literally had no idea how toxic the ingredients in mascara were until I learned about a company that was working on creating a safer mascara for their customers, and they had been working on this product for 3 years!!!  They wanted both safety and performance to be the best, and apparently it just wasn’t that easy to accomplish without these regularly used toxins and now I know why!  (I’ll let you know about that company at the bottom of this post, so keep reading!)


As the second most popular beauty staple in North American households, commercial mascara brands often contain ingredients that are inexpensive to obtain and may be harmful to your health. The hazardous chemicals can be found in many of the top brands such as Cover Girl, Maybelline New York, Mac, and even Neutrogena, among many others. These toxic ingredients can get into your bloodstream through and can be very harmful to your health.


Since the beauty care and personal use industry is largely unregulated (The United States has only banned 30 known toxins from this industry since 1938, which Canada has done a bit better by banning close to 600 ingredients, they still have a long way to go to creating the safety standards that the European Union has in place, with more than 1,400 banned ingredients), nasty chemicals make it into those slick black tubes, boasting claims of Kim Kardashian lashes and formulas that won’t smudge even if you find yourself face-to-face with a power washer.


Makes you wonder what is in the eye makeup remover needed to dissolve said mascara…


So to help keep you safer and protected from the nasty ingredients used in many commercial brands, I’ve compiled a list of 12 chemicals found in mascaras that aren’t doing you or your body any favours.


1. Parabens such as Butylparaben, Ethylparaben, and Propylparaben
Parabens are used as preservatives. This means that they are added to makeup to stop the growth of microbes, fungi and bacteria in order to extend shelf life. These chemicals are absorbed directly into the bloodstream through the tiny pores around your eyes.


Parabens have been linked to increases in breast cancer by mimicking estrogen and causing endocrine disruption. They have also been linked to reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, immunotoxicity, and skin irritation.  We also know now that 95% of breast cancer tumours contain parabens.  This is definitely one of those ingredients you want to avoid in all of your products.  (fyi – parabens are on the never list of ingredients of my favourite beauty product company!)


2. Phthalates
Phthalates are a chemical found in literally hundreds of beauty products, including mascara. Phthalates are an anti-androgen chemical, which means that they are a hormone disrupting chemical. In studies, phthalate exposure in young girls has been shown to cause early puberty.  Phthalates have also been shown to cause birth defects and deformities.

They can also damage the liver, lungs and kidneys whilst also interfering with the reproductive system. Whether you’re already pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or you are the mom of a young girl going through puberty, it’s definitely a good idea to steer clear of phthalates.  


3. Thimerosal
I have to say, this was one of the MOST shocking ingredients that I found in mascara. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that there are several brands that contain Thimerosal in their mascara.  Thimerosal is a mercury-based element used as a preservative and antiseptic.  It has been banned from most vaccines (with the exception of flu vaccines) because it is known to cause damage to brain function. In low doses, Thimerosal is still toxic as it is bio-accumulative – in other words, the body stores this metal.  Over time, repeated exposures and absorptions of this dangerous toxin can become a real health hazard.  The FDA has literally banned Thimerosal from all cosmetic products – EXCEPT those products used around the eyes. This may be due to the fact that produces used around the eyes must be bacteria-free.  That said, cleaner, safer products that do not use Thimerosal in their mascara have found other, safer, preservatives that are far less dangers. 


The EWG put it like this:


“According to FDA, ‘Mercury compounds are readily absorbed through the skin on topical application and tend to accumulate in the body. They may cause allergic reactions, skin irritation, or neurotoxic manifestations.’ Mercury is considered particularly toxic to the developing brain during pregnancy, infancy and childhood. FDA has banned the use of mercury compounds in all cosmetics except those used around the eyes, where levels are limited to 65 parts per million (ppm).”


That makes sense, because, you know, who cares about their eyes? Hmm….


4. Synthetic Dyes
Synthetic dyes are often used as a colorant to achieve the rich dark color that mascara offers. These are labeled as FD&C or D&C, followed by a color and a number (e.g. FD&C Red No. 6, D&C Green No. 6).

These are believed to be toxic and carcinogenic.


5. Coal Tar Dyes
Coal Tar is a thick liquid or semi-solid obtained as a by-product in the destructive distillation ofbituminous coal. These dyes are also used as a colorant in mascara and contain heavy metals. To avoid coal tar dyes, look for FD & C Blue no. 1 on the label. Also, you may find them listed as a five digit number that is preceded by a Cl. (includes D&C Blue 1, Green 3, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 33, etc.) They may also be labeled as Aminphenol, Diaminodenzene or Phenylenediamine.


Despite the fact that they have been proven carcinogenic, the 1938 US Act includes a specific exemption for them. Risks associated with coal tar dyes include severe allergic reactions, asthma attacks, headaches, nausea, fatigue, lack of concentration and nervousness. They are also link to an increased risk of Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma.


Coal Tar dye has been banned or found unsafe for use in cosmetics in Canada.


6. Aluminum Powder
A metallic substance used as a cosmetic colorant. Rated as a high concern by the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) Skin Deep Cosmetics Database for being a neurotoxin. Long term exposure of aluminum powder can impair the body’s ability to excrete mercury. This can result in making any amount of mercury that is in the body even more toxic. So let’s see, companies are using both Aluminum Powder and Thimersal in their mascara.  Yikes!


7. Retinyl Acetate (Vitamin A Acetate)
Found in many brands of mascara, this ingredient is a high concern by the EWG because it can cause biochemical or cellular level changes. Side effects include developmental and reproductive toxicity, and organ system toxicity. Acetate has been prohibited and restricted in Canadian and German cosmetics. Retinyl Acetate, also known as Retinyl A, is one of the banned ingredients in the European Union. Retinal A is a synthetic vitamin A ingredient found in many brands of mascara and anti-aging eye creams.  One or more animal studies show tumor formation at very low doses.


8. Formaldehyde
Formaldehyde is used in mascara as a preservative and is a known carcinogen.


Even absent as an ingredient it can be present from the combination of chemicals such Bronopol and Quaternium-15 which work together to form formaldehyde releasing preservatives.


In addition to being a known carcinogen, formaldehyde is a skin irritant and suspected to increase liver toxicity. It also can cause severe allergic rashes (think burning sensation and visible blistering) which becomes more likely with long term exposure.


It’s restricted for use in cosmetics in Canada and is suspected as an environmental toxin by Health Canada as well. 


9. Imidazolidinyl Urea
Imidazolidinyl Urea is used as an antimicrobial preservative, but it also acts as a formaldehyde releaser.


“Imidazolidinyl urea is an antimicrobial preservative that works by forming formaldehyde in cosmetic products. People exposed to such formaldehyde-releasing ingredients may develop a formaldehyde allergy or an allergy to the ingredient itself. In the U.S. approximately 20% of cosmetics and personal care products contain a formaldehyde-releaser and the frequency of contact allergy to these ingredients is much higher among Americans compared to studies in Europe.”  - EWG


It has been shown to trigger an immune system response that can include itching, burning, hives, and blistering of skin, in addition to possible severe respiratory reaction. It has also been suspected to cause gastrointestinal and liver toxicity issues.


10. Fragrance
You might not think that fragrance would have a huge effect on the toxicity of a mascara, but it really does. Most beauty products contain fragrance as the smell of chemicals isn't really very pleasant, but hundreds of thousands of different chemicals could be added to mascara in order to give it a distinctive scent. In the beauty care industry, companies essentially have the right to put any toxic chemicals together to create a fragrance that can be added to their products and they do NOT have to disclose these ingredients to you.  Many of these fragrances contain over 100 ingredients, which are often carcinogenic and/or hormone disrupting chemicals but the FDA has given them proprietorship over this ingredient.  So they never have to release these ingredients to you! Shocking, right?  One of my favourite documentaries on this topic is the movie Stink


As for mascara, The Environmental Working Group rates fragrances in mascara at an 8 out of 10, 10 being the most dangerous for your health. Some chemicals used to create certain fragrances have a vast range of side effects, including rashes, mood issues, headaches and hormonal imbalances.  


11. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
SLS is used in everything from mascara to toothpaste and shampoo and everything in between.


SLS is a really rather nasty skin irritant and it's even used to irritate skin in tests, causing dryness and roughness, in order to test the effectiveness of other chemicals that heal the skin. There's also increasingly strong evidence to show that repeated SLS exposure is linked to an increased risk of developing cancer, because it reacts with other minerals within your body to produce carcinogenic toxins and nitrates.


Unfortunately, even some well known “safer” and high end beauty brands use these chemicals - and hundreds and sometimes thousands more.


Be ruthless in your choices for safer beauty and remember, you never have to sacrifice your health for the sake of looking beautiful!  


One of  the best pieces of advice I can give you going forward is to shop safer.  Get an app.
It can take hours to read labels, compare products and find safe brands. Download an app like Good Guide, Think Dirty or the Environmental Working Group’s Healthy Living.  These are all great resources that can be used right from your smart phone while shopping to help you find safer brands.


Looking to transition your mascara and other beauty products to a cleaner version? I chose this specific company (remember the one that took 3 years to formulate their mascara with safer, cleaner ingredients that really performs) because they have a Never List of ingredients that Exceeds the European Standards list with over 1,500 banned ingredients.  They are also EWG Verified (you can check all their products out on the EWG App and they have excellent ratings)!  You can start shopping here for safer mascara right now!  I also have a FB group set up where you can join in and learn more.  You can join Meet Beautycounter here


(Resources: EWG, SkinDeep, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, FDA.GOV, )









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