Is Revlon Filled With Cancer-Causing Crap? (Hint: No.)

Let’s all give a huge, collective eye-roll to the Breast Cancer Fund, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and UltraViolet. Ready?

These advocacy groups have targeted Revlon, demanding that the cosmetics company stop producing “makeup laced with cancer-causing chemicals”. Their list of suspects includes chemicals that are not used by Revlon and other chemicals that are not associated with cancer. Revlon has responded via a cease-and-desist letter, demanding that the incorrect information be removed. This, supposedly, is “bullying”.

These non-governmental organizations conducted a “survey” (they just read the ingredients list on Revlon products) to find alleged cancer-causing ingredients. The list of supposedly evil chemicals (“CHEMICALS” IS A SCARY WORD, YOU GUYS) includes:

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
What it is: BHA is the name for two very similar organic compounds containing conjugated aromatic rings.


Why it’s in your makeup: BHA is an antioxidant and preservative. Its conjugated aromatic ring is able to scoop up free radicals, preventing further damage to molecular structures. In other words, your makeup won’t go rancid!
Why it’s not giving you cancer: First of all, it’s not causing cancer because it’s not in your makeup at all. Revlon hasn’t used BHA in their products for years. Secondly, although it is true that high doses of BHA do cause squamous cell carcinomas in rats and hamsters (leading the National Institutes of Health to classify it as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”, the doses of BHA that one is exposed to as a human are so low that they don’t show up as a statistical risk factor at all. The Netherlands Cohort Study, a study of 120,852 men and woman, showed that there was no association between BHA consumption and cancer risk. This wasn’t just a case of “well, it didn’t quite reach statistical significance”– there was actually a statistically non-significant decrease in cancer risk associated with increased BHA consumption. BHA is currently recognized as a generally safe food additive in low doses. Finally, all the research on BHA and cancer risk has been on dietary BHA. This is important, since BHA is used in medicines and food. However, since you don’t eat your foundation, it seems pretty unlikely that it’s going to give you stomach cancer.

Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
What it is: BHT is structurally similar to BHA.

Why it’s in your makeup: Like BHA, BHT can neutralize free radicals and prevent rancidity.
Why it’s not giving you cancer: BHT has studies that indicate that it is a potential carcinogen, but there are also studies showing a protective effect. Regardless, at the dosage found in cosmetics, there is no indication that any harm is caused. A toxicology review on the potential for a carcinogenic effect “concludes that the concentrations of BHA and BHT nowadays used in food, drugs and cosmetics are probably harmless.” P.S. Remember that Netherlands Cohort Study? It looked at BHT, too, and also showed a statistically insignificant protective effect. And that is if you are literally eating the stuff.


What it is: An ammonia salt.
Why it’s in your makeup: Quaternium-15 is anti-microbial. It keeps the creepy-crawlies out of your mascara.
Why it’s not giving you cancer: There are a couple of different claims about Quaternium-15 and their fuck-up-your-health-ability.
Claim 1- Quaternium-15 is a teratogen [an agent that causes birth defects].: This is true, but misleading. As Becker and colleagues note in the International Journal of Toxicology, “Quaternium-15 [is] an oral teratogen, but not a dermal teratogen, in rats at doses that exceeded the expected cumulative exposure from cosmetics.” In other words, if you are pregnant, do not eat 25 Revlon lipsticks. Otherwise, carry on.
Claim 2- Quaternium-15 causes sensitization, increasing your likelihood of developing conditions like contact dermatitis.: This is also true, but misleading. This will only occur at high doses. Levels below 0.2% have never been shown to be sensitizing in either human or animal studies.
Claim 3- Quaternium-15 releases formaldehyde, which causes cancer. Quaternium-15 may or may not be a formaldehyde-releaser. A 2012 study in Dermatitis found a correlation between formaldehyde-sensitivity and quaternium-15-sensitivity, but there was no predictability based on severity. The authors concluded, “Despite coreactivity with formaldehyde, quaternium-15 may not be a significant formaldehyde releaser.” However, even if quaternium-15 does turn out to be a notable formaldehyde releaser, this concern will be primarily for individuals who are sensitive or allergic to formaldehyde.


What it is: Parabens are a class of preservatives.
Why it’s in your makeup: Parabens are also antimicrobial.
Why it’s not giving you cancer: I could wax poetic about parabens all fucking day, and, indeed, I already have. You can read the full post here. In summary, *Insert Raspberry Noise Here*.


What it is: An ester formed by methoxycinnamic acid and 2-ethylhexanol.
Why it’s in your makeup: This sunscreen can absorb UVB rays.
Why it’s not giving you cancer: I’m really struggling to find evidence that there is a notable risk to octinoxate use. Regardless, octinoxate doesn’t penetrate the skin enough to be concerning. Hayden and colleagues wrote in the Journal of Skin Pharmacology and Physiology that “the human viable epidermal levels of sunscreens are too low to cause any significant toxicity to the underlying human keratinocytes.


What it is: A dyhydroxy benzene that is the major natural phenol in argan oil.
Why it’s in your makeup: It’s an antiseptic that is used in hair dye and shampoo.
Why it’s not giving you cancer: To be fair, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and their partners are not claiming that this gives you cancer, which is good, because that would be ridiculous. They’re claiming it is an endocrine disruptor, which it totally is. However, there is no evidence that the levels found in shampoo (or argan oil or whatever you want to use) are sufficient to cause medical problems.


What it is: This is an aniline derivative that oxidizes from a white color to a darker brown.
Why it’s in your makeup: p-Phenylenediamine is commonly found in hair dye. For those of you who have home-dyed your hair– you know how the dye starts out white and then changes in color to be more reflective of the shade on the box? p-Phenylenediamine is one the ingredients that causes this color shift. Its oxidized state is a dye.
Why it’s not giving you cancer: According to the EPA, p-Phenylenediamine was not carcinogenic in a study of rats and mice exposed to the compound in the diet. Other studies have also demonstrated that p-phenylenediamine is not carcinogenic by oral or dermal exposure. ” And, again, you’re probably not eating your hair dye.

p-Phenylenediamine is definitely not completely risk-free, but that risk is adequately addressed by cosmetics companies. It is a contact allergen. However, if you follow the instructions on the hair dye which recommend patch-testing, this is not a significant concern.

Carbon Black

What it is: A color additive produced by incomplete combustion of petroleum products.
Why it’s in your makeup: It’s black. Sometimes you want your makeup to be black.
Why it’s not giving you cancer: Carbon Black has been identified as a potential carcinogen, and was originally eliminated from cosmetics in the United States in 1976. In 2005, the FDA granted one teensy tiny exception: High purity furnace blacks are allowed up to 2.5%, subject to batch certification. Research on carbon blacks that do not take into account current US law are kind of silly, to be frank, since random-ass carbon black that factory workers are exposed to isn’t exactly comparable to the samples used in modern cosmetics. Furthermore, I’m not necessarily sure that the carcinogenicity research on carbon black in general is particularly relevant to cosmetics, since all of it is based on accidental inhalation, and I generally refrain from snorting my mascara. There are no carcinogenicity studies based on topical exposure.

Is it possible that we will find sufficient evidence that the ingredients listed above are unsafe for use?
Fuck yeah, it’s totally possible. However, the evidence right now suggests that they are safe.


1. Ingredients broke down so a dummy like I can understand? A Joan Watson gif?! Brightest Bulb in the Box is the beauty blog the world DESERVES

Thank you!

2. This is great. I hate those fear mongering groups so much. There are plenty of realistic health risks and industrial environmental pollutants out there to worry about. Lay off the blush. I think it can promote a type of healthism: “You have cancer? Did you wear lipstick? Well . . . “

3. I think a big part of it comes from wanting a controllable scapegoat. You can control whether you wear lipstick, but you can’t control whether you are exposed to air pollution.

4. This post is the perfect example of why I love your blog, and why I come here first before I buy ANYTHING. Thank you!

On that note, I got a sample of the Algenist Multi-Perfecting Pore Corrector Concentrate, and alas I freaking love it. Why alas? It is SEVENTY FIVE dollars an ounce, is why. That is so far outside my budget it’s not even funny. But it makes my skin feel wonderful, calms it down from being irritated, and stopped a bunch of emerging zits in their tracks.

Any chance you could do a little investigation and tell me what’s in it that is giving me these lovely results, in the hopes that I could find something a little more wallet-friendly? These are the ingredients, from the Algenist website: Water/Eau (Aqua), Glycerin, Dimethicone, Bellis Perennis (Daisy) Flower Extract, Polymethyl Methacrylate, Hydroxyethyl Acrylate/Sodium Acryloyldimethyl Taurate Copolymer, Butylene Glycol, Vinyl Dimethicone/Methicone Silsesquioxane Crosspolymer, Algae Exopolysaccharides, Salix Nigra (Willow) Bark Extract, Salicylic Acid, Hibiscus Sabdariffa Flower Extract, Lens Esculenta (Lentil) Seed Extract, Rosa Multiflora Fruit Extract, Glycine Soja (Soybean) Extract, Squalane, Caprylyl Glycol, Polysorbate 60, Dimethicone/Vinyl Dimethicone Crosspolymer, Dimethicone/PEG-10/15 Crosspolymer, Sorbitan, Isostearate, Potassium Sorbate, Ammonium Acryloyldimethyltaurate/VP Copolymer, Sodium Phosphate, Ethylhexylglycerin, Sodium Benzoate, Chlorphenesin, Phenoxyethanol, Fragrance (Parfum).

5. Hm… the only thing that’s in there that’s really functional is that little bit of Salicylic Acid… it looks like it would have a nice texture, though…

6. Humorously, when it comes out of the pump dispenser, it looks exactly — and I mean EXACTLY — like semen.

7. I have had lotions like that before!

8. Thank you for this. I’ve heard or read a few stories here and there from those organizations, or ones like them, getting me all scared about makeup. (I mean, I totally slather myself in it anyway, but something in the back of my head still nagged me about it.) The one thing I’m still a little concerned about are toxic metals in makeup, such as lead, cadmium, etc. – particularly in red lipsticks. If you get around to it, I’d be interested in hearing about those.

9. I’ve had a few requests for this and I’ve held back because I thought it was pretty well-covered elsewhere, but there is clearly interest. I can do a post about it. (The short answer, by the way, is that there is no danger.)

10. Thanks for this! We’re all gonna die someday anyway, and if cancer is the way I’m destined to go, I’m going to go out looking goddamned amazing in a full face of makeup. I’ll make sure it’s Revlon, too. 😉

11. If you die of cancer, it won’t be the fault of your makeup. 😉

12. “If you die of cancer, it won’t be the fault of your makeup. ;)”

That’s not an evidence-based statement. I think you need to understand what a beta error is. Really, lay people who don’t understand statistics or toxicology, including why animal studies are very useful in toxicology to simulate long term human intake, shouldn’t be blogging about the harm/safety of chemicals.

13. You cannot assume Type II errors. You need to have the research to back up your assertions.

14. Amen.

15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

16. So for instance, when a cohort study finds no evidence of harm, it doesn’t even have the power to detect a 20% or less difference in means between the two groups. So if 19% more people develop cancer in the group taking for instance parabens, then in the group not exposed to parabens that will be reported as ‘no evidence of harm’ or ‘no statistically significant difference’. It is utterly silly in the first place to attribute a 19% increase in cancer due to ONE CHEMICAL alone because cancer is a multifactorial disease, caused by multiple genetic alterations of oncogenes. One chemical (i.e. paraben) may cause alteration of one proto-oncogene but that doesn’t mean it will cause cancer by itself because it acts synergistically with other chemicals. So when you say a cohort study found no evidence of harm, that is a statement that is almost devoid of any meaning.

17. Helpful tip: if you want your internet criticisms to be taken seriously, do not begin by addressing an adult woman as “a very dumb girl.”

18. I am deleting this comment due to the use of personal insults.

19. “BHA is an antioxidant and preservative. Its conjugated aromatic ring is able to scoop up free radicals, preventing further damage to molecular structures. free radicals free radicals”

Ok, lets start with the absurd assumption that these things are even absorbed by the skin at all. Evidence, I mean, other than the usual direct extrapolation from giving a bunch of rats “internally”, in their food, vitamins, to the notion that this will naturally work if you slap some on your skin? But, then, there is the second issue:

“james watson says antioxidants may actually be causing cancer”

“Multivitamins and antioxidants may promote cancer growth in late stage patients warns Nobel laureate”

Or, there is the other problem

“new research shows cells produce antioxidants”

Which basically states that your own cells make the damn things already, and more can, if anything, mess with “necessary” processes, such as

“is free radical theory of aging dead”

“Recent experiments, however, show that increases in certain free radicals in mice and worms correlate with longer life span. Indeed, in some circumstances, free radicals seem to signal cellular repair networks.”

So.. The wrong ones, in wrong amounts… might actually “prevent” your cells from repairing themselves, instead of saving them. Whoops!

Of course, searching won’t help you find these sorts of things. Put in nonspecific terms, and all you get is “glowing praise” of their “positive effects”.

Another problem is, even vitamin research is now showing that, for no reason the vitamin industry is willing to do anything to research, never mind admit, supplements **often do not work as well, or the same way, or at all, compared to the natural versions of the same things, found in fruit and vegetables.** Are we supposed to, without good reason, assume that, if they don’t work right if you take them in a pill, instead of a carrot, they **will** work better, when smeared on your face? Why?

As near as I can tell, knowing people in the field of cancer, and genetics, and having read papers, including recent ones, like the paper by the very man that coined the term “free radical”, and proposed the idea it was linked to aging, its not as simple as “antioxidants are good”, and, “free radicals are bad”, nor does taking one slow, reduce the risk of, or “cure” cancer, at least not without “also” possible causing others. Why? Well, it might be nice to research that.

Instead, thanks to a bill that the Times labelled the “Snake Oil Protection Act”, and which congress passed in the 90s, the FDA wasn’t even allowed to inspect manufacturers of “supplement makers”, until 2010; when 50% of them failed inspection, for reasons that would make you sick, like.. rats poop in the product; and is explicitly denied the right to demand that they ‘A’ prove they are actually safe, or ‘B’ prove they actually work as described. Cosmetics.. only have to be proven “safe”. No law requires that any other claims they make hold water either.

Its unfortunate that the there are public versions of some scientific papers. The studies where almost all “preliminary”, including those by the father of free radicals. They where the, “We think something is going on here, but its going to take 20-30 years to figure out what it really is.” It took less that two for every fashion magazine , every guy with access to a vitamin processing plant, every TV show host, every, “Facts, why check facts?”, news media outlet and newspaper, and thousands of makers of the latest fad “supplements”, to see dollar signs.

It took even less time than that for them to find someone to run an ad campaign, to convince the public to demand a law be passed to deny the ability of the FDA to *require* the claims be tested.

20. The free radical stuff isn’t talking about benefits to your skin, it’s talking about preventing your makeup from going rancid (which it does). I totally agree that people who tout antioxidants as the be-all-end-all are putting the horse before the cart, but I said nothing of the kind. ” Its unfortunate that the there are public versions of some scientific papers” [sic]. See, I totally disagree. It’s unfortunate that there are not public versions of ALL scientific papers.

21. BTW…  The sites letter count is “off” by… 300 characters, maybe? It kept telling me I couldn’t use HTML (which is always bad when trying to present links to articles explaining what would be otherwise mere opinion) and might be using too many letters. Instead of.. one or the other. Definitely used to posting stuff where it’s expected that you can show your work. Hopefully, googling with the terms will result in the right articles. Using basic ones, like antioxidant, and cancer, will get you probably billions of pages, not one single one of which acknowledged recent research, problems, refutations of prior studies, discoveries of the dangers of taking some antioxidants, or especially the even vague hint that the whole premise behind it might be both a massive jumping of the gun, and even, possibly, the worst possible advice you can have, with some diseases, and types of cancer. The fashion industry, definitely, isn’t saying anything. They are “funded” by the cosmetic industry, and won’t admit to, at the same time they talk about saving the rain forest from being burned down for crops, ignoring the same thing being burned down to plant cocoa, to get all the cocoa oil needed to produce makeup. After all, farmers are not advertising for them, but the people making cocoa butter skin lotion are. Best advice – don’t trust anyone actually trying to sell you something, unless you are sure the facts are on their side. The more they promote something as a cure-all, or major discovery, etc., but you can’t find more than a handful of studies to support it, and every single statement about it is some rosy repeat of the same “facts”. Odds are someone is pulling a con. Science doesn’t work that way. It goes from asking, “Do antioxidants have an effect?”, to, “How specifically, in what amounts, in what cases, when applied, eaten, etc., in what way, and are there side effects?” I challenge you to find one single article, anyplace, which explains them in any more detail than claiming that free radical “somehow” damage cells, and this “somehow” causes aging, and that antioxidants, “somehow” help this, while being pretty much totally and completely devoid of anything beyond those basic sound bites. And, that is without even going into the failed attempts on my part to link to articles challenging the very premise that such damage is a) permanent, b) actually always happens, c) is truly the cause of aging at all, instead of just an unproven theory, and d) that more of something that is, presumably, good, is always better (kind of like water.. which, oh wait, no.. that can kill you if you drink too much. Err, oxygen? Nope – blindness or even death from too much. Maybe….) But, supposedly, we should be like bathing in this stuff, using it to wash down everything we eat, or possibly only eating it, and adding it to everything from our mouthwash to our toilet paper. Why bother with silly things like, whether or not even even absorbs through the skin, or does anything at all when it gets there. Question you can’t answer with a 20 person study, over 3 months, instead of a 20 years research program, with thousands of subjects, dozens of independent results, and actual physical, entirely *not* self reported, physical results, showing that something changed in the cells themselves, as a result of it.
In other words, the silly stuff done by people that want to understand what its doing, not market it for huge masses of money, because its the latest super-cure.

22. …I feel like you just saw the keywords in my post but didn’t read it. I didn’t say a damn thing about free radicals damaging cells or antioxidants being anti-aging.

As for my comment system… I just have what Blogger gave me.

23. This comment seems like a non-sequitur. What’s it supposed to be a comment on?

(And why on earth not post two comments if you run out of the room (speaking as someone very long-winded here!) and post the URLs without linking to them? Unless it doesn’t allow words starting with HTTP either?)