It goes without saying that the area around your eye is delicate and can be sensitive, so it only makes sense that we should be careful with our eye makeup. But if you’re anything like me, you’ve been using some of the same mascara for eons and have never stopped to wonder about the chemicals (aka mascara ingredients) that might be lurking in your products.
Well, if you haven’t, it’s time. Because eyes matter. Seeing is cool. And we only get one pair of peepers in our lifetime, why would we take the chance of messing them up? So let’s get to it!
Mascara Ingredients You Should Try To Avoid:
- Retinyl Acetate: Retinyl acetate (aka vitamin A acetate) is a synthetic form of vitamin A that is used as a moisturizing ingredient (or “skin conditioner”) in some mascaras. EWG gives it a whopping 9 on their hazard scale. The FDA classifies retinyl acetate as a “known reproductive toxicant”; it’s also a possible carcinogen.
- Butylparaben, Ethylparaben, and Propylparaben: Parabens are a family of preservatives that are found everywhere, although many companies are now making paraben-free products. They’re used as preservatives 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 mimic estrogen and are implicated in breast cancer. No causal relationship has been proven, but because we’re exposed to parabens from many products, I recommend avoiding them wherever you can—including in mascara.
- Formaldehyde or Formaldehyde Releasing Preservatives: 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 (in addition to potentially causing cancer, this ingredient can cause skin sensitivities and irritation), which work together to form formaldehyde releasing preservatives. Other formaldehyde releasing preservatives are Imidazolidinyl Urea and Diazolidinyl Urea (which has an EWG score of 6). 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. Exposure to formadehyde-releasers have 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.
- Propylene Glycol: Propylene glycol is a skin conditioner known to be allergenic and potentially toxic to non-reproductive organs. As a penetration-enhancer, it can make the skin vulnerable to other harmful ingredients.
- Triethanolamine: This is used in some mascaras as a pH adjuster and emulsifier. It’s considered a skin toxicant or allergen, may be harmful to non-reproductive organs, and can be contaminated with nitrosamines.
- Fragrance: Be suspicious when you see fragrance or “parfum” listed on a any label, including mascara. Many nasty chemicals can hide under that umbrella, including phthalates, which are hormone disrupters and possible carcinogens.
- Geraniol, Limonene, Linalool, Citrol and Citronellol: All are potentially irritating and allergenic components that have synthetic as well as natural versions (the latter being a naturally-occurring component of some essential oils). Honest companies disclose them on their ingredient labels. In mascara, they are scent ingredients, and some, like d-limonene, also have preservative qualities. If you’re particularly sensitive, try to avoid mascaras that contain them, and note that carcinogenic properties seem to happen only when these compounds go rancid, so adhere to the expiration dates on your mascara.
- Synthetic or Coal Tar 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. Coal tar 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 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’ve also been linked to an increased risk of Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma.
- Thimerosal: The EWG found several mascara brands contain Thimerisol, a mercury-based element used as a preservative and antiseptic. It’s known to damage brain function. 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).”
- 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.
What Does Mascara Need To Be Mascara?
While I’m no chemist, my basic understanding of mascara formulas is that they generally include the following:
- Solvents or diluents are the unifying base for the formula (water, isododecane, alcohols, glycerin, propylene glycol, etc.).
- Pigments provide color (iron oxides, ultramarines, titanium dioxide, mica, etc.).
- Waxes, gums, polymers, fibers and starches stabilize and thicken the formula; some form a film on the lashes and provide “volumizing” benefits; fibers “lengthen” lashes.
- Fats like oils and butters provide moisturizing benefits; other ingredients with humectant/emollient/“skin-conditioning” properties include glycerin, silicone and some plant extracts.
- Some waxes, fatty acids, and surfactants act as emulsifiers to mix water and water-soluble ingredients with non-water soluble ingredients.
- Preservatives and pH adjusters prevent (or at least limit) the growth of microbes.
- Fragrance ingredients mask the unsavory smell that many mascara formulas would otherwise have, or in some cases, give mascara a signature scent.
Under current law, the FDA doesn’t require cosmetics companies to conduct safety assessments on their products. Harmful mascara ingredients can be easily masked under confusing or deceptive titles like “fragrance.” They may even be listed, plain and simple, on the label, but with no messages to inform consumers of their potentially harmful effects.
Understanding that mascara can’t be made from magic, our job is to find the product can perform the same or similar actions… but with ingredients that won’t cause us harm. That’s the sweet spot. Be healthy AND look pretty. =)
Mascara Ingredients You’ll Find In The Good Stuff:
Obviously the best option would be just going au naturel. And some days I’m not opposed to that. But if I’m going to be out and about I generally like wearing mascara, it perks my face up a bit. So this means finding something that optimally is very clean, and at the very least, better than the average options.
Here are some of the ingredients you might find (and should look for) in the better mascaras:
- When it comes to mascara, “food-grade preservatives” like sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate are an okay choice. They’re definitely lesser evils than parabens and might be better than some naturally derived preservatives that are newer and haven’t been extensively studied for safety. Note: You might see phenoxyethanol in some mascaras. While it’s a potentially irritating preservative, with an EWG score of 4—but it’s better than spoiled or contaminated mascara. But skip phenoxyethanol-containing mascaras if you’re sensitive.
- Good mascaras include natural and organic waxes, such as beeswax, candelilla wax, and carnauba wax.
- Good mascaras also contain natural and organic oils and butters, such as jojoba oil, sunflower oil, cocoa butter, and shea butter.
- Starch, oil, wax and gum derived from organic rice is optimal. It doesn’t carry the same pesticide-contamination concerns as conventionally farmed rice.
My Favorite Mascara:
An example of the good stuff, the Fruit Pigmented Mascara® by 100 Percent Pure (my favorite), uses a variety of beneficial ingredients such as:
- Black Tea: Used to create the black pigments in the Fruit Pigmented® Ultra Lengthening Mascara – Black Tea, but included in most shades of the fruit pigmented mascara. Black tea contains caffeine, which can help to stimulate lash growth.
- Vitamin E: A powerful antioxidant that conditions lashes.
- Blackberry Extract, Blackcurrant Extract, Raspberry Extract: These are fruit extracts used to color their natural mascaras, and contain loads of vitamins and antioxidants. I can’t begin to tell you how delicious they all smell! I’ve tried the Blackberry and Dark Chocolate in the Lengthening Mascara as well as the Maracuja Mascara in Black Tea.
- Oat Protein: Helps to strengthen and lengthen lashes.
- Wheat Protein: Helps to strengthen and lengthen lashes by helping to heal dry brittle lashes, as well as helping to make lashes look thicker and longer.
- Pro-vitamin B5: Nourishes and moisturizes lashes, and seals in moisture.
- Seaweed Powder: Contains vitamins and minerals that are nourishing to lashes and may even help to thicken lashes.
- Lavender Honey,Oregano Extract, Thyme Extract,Rosemary Extract, Lavender Extract, Goldenseal Extract: Their natural preservative system.
Here’s a complete list of ingredients:
What I Love About 100% Pure Mascara:
- The mascara ingredients are not a laundry list of toxic, harsh irritants, thus I don’t feel guilty wearing it.
- Unlike others, it actually conditions your lashes (without toxic chemicals) while you wear it. It’s nice to have a mascara that enhances the health of the lashes while it makes your eyelashes beautiful. In the lengthening formula, they use organic green tea and vitamin E.
- Because it’s water resistant, it holds up to normal daily wear, but it’s not hard to remove at the end of the day. (Yay!)
- The smell! Ohmygosh. It smells so GOOD! I know, smell isn’t the best way to pick a mascara, but it certainly doesn’t hurt! (Bonus!)
- The colors are amazing. The black is actually an intense black, which is nuts considering they use mascara ingredients such as blackberry, blackcurrant, cocoa, raspberry or tea leaves to color their mascaras.
If you happen to be looking for a new foundation, I’ve been using their fruit pigmented foundation for years and love it. That’s another post for another time, but make sure to subscribe for updates so you don’t miss it. 😉 I’d love to hear from you! Leave your comments below if any of this has been helpful for you!