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.
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.