What’s in your cosmetics? Historically, women suffered for beauty with makeup additives like lead, arsenic, belladonna, antimony and more. But all that is a thing of the past, right? Cosmetics are tested for safety (often unfortunately on animals) and consumers can apply them without needing to be worried about their health. The social and political ramifications of wearing makeup are another matter entirely, but at least makeup wearers aren’t killing themselves for fashion.
Not so fast, I’m afraid. The recent worldwide Minamata Convention, a UN treaty with roughly 140 signers, banned the use of mercury in a number of consumer products…but mascara wasn’t one of them.
Mercury is a known neurotoxin with potentially serious effects including the development of severe cognitive disabilities like poor coordination, memory loss and difficulty learning and retaining information. Especially in children and developing teens, it can hamper development and cause life-long health problems. And the eye, with its fragile mucus membrane, is one of the worst places to apply a product that contains mercury, because the delicate tissues of the eye can rapidly absorb it and feed it directly into the bloodstream.
Why on Earth is mercury even in mascara in the first place? Thanks to its toxicity, it kills bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms. That means it keeps mascara free of contaminants, extending its working life and incidentally reducing the risk of eye infections by ensuring that when the brush is applied, it’s not carrying a bacterial load right into the eye. For that reason, the Food and Drug Administration permits the use of mercury in eye makeup as long as the concentration is less than 65 parts per million, claiming that a safer and more effective alternative hasn’t been found.
Since mercury makes up less than 1% of the total product, companies are not required to label it on their cosmetics, which means consumers have no way of knowing if a mascara contains mercury or not. This is bad news for consumers worried about the health risk and those trying to limit their exposure to mercury and other toxic compounds, as they have to rely on companies to disclose information about cosmetics ingredients, and few companies will voluntarily discuss toxins in their cosmetics if they can possibly avoid it.
Are there alternatives available? Yes, actually. Parabens and formaldehyde can provide the same preservative and infection-prevention effects as mercury. You can see why the FDA has essentially thrown up its hands and admitted that mercury may be the best of an array of bad options: parabens may be linked with cancer, and formaldehyde is definitely a carcinogen.
Will cosmetics companies start developing healthier options for consumers who prefer to skip the poison with their makeup? We can only hope so, especially with growing awareness of the health risks of many common cosmetics ingredients. Wearing mascara shouldn’t have to be deadly, and while we’re excited about the Minamata Convention and the overall reduction of mercury in the environment that will result, we’d love to see makeup included too!
Photo credit: Sergio Fabara Muņoz.