COSMETICS HAVE a prominent role in Korean society, as we are often bombarded with images of pale, radiant skin, tinted red lips and perfectly lined brows. Makeup and cosmetic surgery advertisements are exhibited in every corner—from internet banners to subway billboards — and we cannot help but always be conscious of our physical appearance. We constantly run into mirrors installed in school entrances, subway stations, and cafés: a daily reminder and catalyst to society’s collective obsession with beauty. Along with the growing fascination of makeup, many have now become increasingly aware of the fact that some products may hold toxic ingredients. And amongst widespread panic are exaggerated misconceptions. But is there an explanation of the truth behind the suspicions of “toxic” cosmetics?
The building blocks of foundation, mascara, and more
Over the past couple of years, interest has sparked over the ingredients inside cosmetic products, especially the hidden harmful chemicals that many consumers may not know they are applying to their face. The interest later became a trend as Youtubers, such as Director Pi and Man Who Reads Your Makeup, started creating videos that would analyze the ingredients in cosmetics and categorize them as “harmful” or “non-harmful.”
The seven principal ingredients in any cosmetic product include: water, emulsifier, preservative, thickener, emollient, pigment, and fragrance. Water, to begin with, serves the most important role as a solvent. Ingredients dissolve when in contact with water and emulsions are formed, hence the lotion-like consistency of the product. Emulsifiers then help polar substances stay together (for instance, water and oil). Preservatives, as the name suggests, preserve the products, extending their shelf life expectancy. Thickeners are agents that determine the product’s consistency. Makeup varies from liquid lotions to waxy lipstick depending on the amount of thickeners added. Emollients prevent water loss and serve as moisturizing agents. Pigment is used for color and is categorized into two groups: organic carbon-based molecules and inorganic metal oxides. The former is produced naturally in the body (e.g. lipids, nucleic acid) and the latter is created artificially in a lab. Lastly, fragrance is added, even in the products that seem “unscented” to cover the unpleasant scent of chemicals*.
The seven principal ingredients mentioned above are crucial in the production of cosmetic products, yet misconceptions have risen in recent years over frequent scandals on health risks linked with common ingredients such as petrolatum, silicone, urea, and paraben. Here we ask: are these substances really “toxic”?
Petrolatum: Experts often warn users to avoid the common ingredient in Vaseline as it holds polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a cancer-inducing chemical. However, this is only true in the case of industrial petroleum. Petroleum in cosmetics is repeatedly purified; thus it contains low to no PAH. Users who claim to have experienced allergic reactions or breakouts most likely experienced a reaction to a mixture of other ingredients rather than the petrolatum alone. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Yonsei University Professor Park Tae-sun from the Department of Food and Nutrition stated, “One cannot assume any cosmetic product to be perfectly free from hypersensitivity. Consumers have allergies. Thus no product can please all consumers.”
Silicone: Many confuse this with “silicon.” The main difference between silicone and silicon is that silicone is a synthetic ingredient whereas silicon is a natural ingredient. Silicone’s primary purpose is hydration and the creation of a silky consistency, and such is found in foundations, primers, shampoo, lotions, and sunscreen. However, misconceptions have spread, as people firmly believe the ingredient forms a film over the surface of the skin, disrupting essential processes, such as sweating, and causes breakouts on people with sensitive skin. This misconception cannot be sufficiently regarded as true, as there isn’t yet any reliable scientific data that proves the dangers of silicone when in contact with skin. It is also ironic that the ingredient is regarded as toxic because it supposedly forms a layer on the skin, when the main reason why silicone is in products is that it is “breathable.”
Urea: Urea is a popular humectant, a hydro-base substance that stores moisture. Misconceptions of the ingredient have sparked as studies have claimed to find formaldehyde, a substance that could cause cancer, as a product of urea. In its raw state, urea is a natural moisturizing factor (NMF), and our body naturally produces urea, just like we produce blood, sweat, and tears. Allergic reactions only occur when the concentration surpasses the legal maximum of 1.0%**. Cosmetic products in the market do not hold high concentrations of preservative urea. Professor Park emphasized, “Upon release, cosmetic products undergo several assessments to confirm their safety. Their production, although relatively shorter than pharmaceuticals and edible products, is subjected to multiple processes of examination.”
Paraben: Parabens are added in cosmetic products because they are one of the most effective preservatives with the least irritant properties. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes studies that associate parabens with breast cancer, depreciated sperm count, and skin cancer as parabens happen to mimic the chemical estrogen. The FDA, however, did not officially claim the substance to be harmful. Allergic reactions from paraben chemical sunscreens have provoked scandals. However, such was only true for ingredients in earlier paraben chemical sunscreen such as oxybenzone, an organic compound that absorbs ultraviolet light. New paraben sunscreens are known to protect skin from UV-A lights effectively.
How to be an informed consumer
Many brands nowadays advertise their products as “organic” and “paraben-free” or “silicone-free,” despite the fact that most misconceptions regarding these “toxic” chemicals are proven to be highly misleading. Professor Park further clarified that “Organic does not always equal ‘healthy,’ or ‘good’ for the skin. Consumers blindly follow the misconception that skin only benefits from ‘natural’ ingredients and therefore believe they should avoid the ‘artificial’.” Then who do we trust? How can we become informed consumers?
There are multiple ways to review cosmetic ingredients and make smart purchases. Reading the product labels before any purchase is one way, but there are also digital apps for that. Hwa-Hae is a mobile application that first launched in 2013 to provide users with information supplied by Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) on ingredients in cosmetic products along with real-time reviews, ratings, and more.
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Makeup has become a constant in the lives of many, and clearly, consumers want the best for their skin. But there is no reason to worry about all the chemicals rumored to be “toxic.” As Professor Park emphasized, “Before releasing for sale, all products go through a meticulous process of revaluation and reexamination.” The process takes months, and sometimes even years. The question, now, should not be “how toxic is your makeup?” But rather, “is makeup really that toxic?”
*“The chemistry of cosmetics,” Australian Academy of Science
**Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Diazolidinyl Urea (1990)