Who doesn’t love a good red lip? Lipstick is the easiest way to look like you spent more time on your makeup than you did. And you can use it for much more than your lips. Dab a tiny amount on either cheek and blend it in to create a matching blush. Or use a brown-toned lipstick in place of eyeshadow if you’re in a pinch. But as fun as it is to give ourselves a classic, elegant look with lipstick, it may be causing our bodies a lot of harm. Certain lipsticks have ingredients that may cause breast cancer.
To better understand why some chemicals in makeup are harmful, we talked to oncologist Deena Mary Atieh Graham, M.D., from Hackensack Meridian Health. According to Dr. Graham, many forms of lipstick (including glosses, crayons, and lip stains) contain parabens and phthalates, both of which can negatively affect our hormones.
What is lipstick made of?
These days, cosmetic companies use all sorts of ingredients to differentiate their lipsticks from others. However, nearly all lipstick ingredients include wax, oils, and pigments. Wax and oil are the main ingredients you spread on your lips, that give the product a creamy, smooth feel. Pigment is usually a combination of shades that help create a unique color.
In addition, many lipsticks contain preservatives, alcohol, fragrance, and certain other chemicals that help the pigment blend with the oil and wax. Preservatives, of course, boost the shelf life of the product. Alcohol is used as a solvent – an ingredient that helps dissolve other ingredients – to ensure that the wax and oil don’t separate. Fragrance helps mask the smell of all the ingredients in lipstick. Sometimes, manufacturers add a stronger fragrance, so you’ll enjoy the product more (ever had a cake-flavored lipstick? We’ve all tried it!)
What are parabens and phthalates?
Parabens are the preservatives in lipstick, and they help to prevent the growth of bacteria and molds in the product. Phthalates are often used in plastic products to make plastic more flexible. In lipstick, however, these chemicals act as binding agents and solvents. They hold the color inside the product so that it doesn’t separate from other ingredients.
How Lipstick Ingredients Like Parabens and Phthalates Harm the Body
While parabens and phthalates certainly seem like necessary lipstick ingredients, they can cause more harm than good. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) notes that parabens are endocrine disruptors, meaning they can negatively affect the hormones in your body. But how do endocrine disruptors work?
“Estrogens work on cells through estrogen receptors,” Dr. Graham tells First for Women. “Once estrogen binds to the receptor, cell activities can change. Most of the time this is a normal and important process for our bodies. However, some types of breast cancer are estrogen sensitive and therefore, if there are ‘extra’ estrogens around, this could be problematic. An estrogen ‘disruptor’ can mimic estrogen and therefore make cells act like estrogens are around – but they are not.”
As a result, endocrine disruptors can trigger fertility problems, reproductive organ issues, and breast cancer. “Over time, these disruptors could potentially affect how estrogen and other hormones function in the body,” Dr. Graham says. “In cases of large doses, these ingredients could theoretically promote tumors, including breast cancer.”
Phthalates act as endocrine disruptors as well, though they don’t mimic estrogen. Instead, they alter the balance of other hormones that estrogen normally regulates.
How to Shop for Paraben and Phthalate-Free Lipstick
Fortunately, many non-toxic lipstick brands proudly advertise that they use zero parabens or phthalates, like Burt’s Bees (Buy on Burts Bees, $8.99) and Mineral Fusion (Buy on Amazon, $13.98). You can generally trust these claims, as long as you are shopping through a reputable website. If you want to check the ingredients of a lipstick that you currently own, visit the EWG Cosmetic Database. The EWG will tell you about the ingredients in your products and how harmful they are, on a scale of low to moderate to high. It might seem nit-picky to worry about the ingredients in your makeup, but that extra worry will keep your lips safe!
We write about products we think our readers will like. If you buy them, we get a small share of the revenue from the supplier.