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Toxic Halloween Makeup: 12 Scary Ingredients to Avoid

It’s not just razor-blade tainted candy you need to be on the lookout for this Halloween season. Childrens’ Halloween makeup is proving to be just as scary. 

An eye-opening report published in 2016 by the Breast Cancer Fund shed light on toxic Halloween makeup. The report included over 120 individual products from 93 cosmetic kits and revealed some shocking facts about childrens’ cosmetic products. 

The report, titled, Pretty Scary 2: Unmasking toxic chemicals in kids’ makeup, discovered trace amounts of toxic heavy metals, including lead, mercury, and cadmium, in some Halloween makeup kits targeted to children. They also discovered a number of carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Ingredients like these are harmful to adults, but for children? Even more so. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead, for example, affects “virtually every system in the body”. But lead is particularly harmful to the developing brain and nervous system of fetuses and young children.

It’s not just face paints that should give parents cause for concern. Children’s cosmetics are an ever-growing industry as companies market through trending Disney characters kids just can’t get enough of.

Chemicals and Children’s Health

The presence of these chemicals marketed to children is of serious concern. As tiny bodies develop, they also happen to be some of the most vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals. 

Children are generally more vulnerable to chemical exposure for the following reasons (1):

  • Children have a higher intake of air, water and food in relation to their body weight.
  • Children’s bodies are still developing, so they may be less able to process or eliminate some chemicals. Children lack the enzymes needed to break down and remove toxic chemicals from the body.
  • Exposure to certain environmental chemicals during pregnancy or during early childhood may produce negative health effects later in life. 
  • Children spend more time in direct contact with surfaces when they crawl. They also, quite often, put things (toys, dirt, etc.) in their mouths. Both of these behaviours mean they can accidentally ingest harmful chemicals.
  • Exposure to environmental chemicals beginning at a young age can potentially lead to longer-term cumulative exposures over a lifetime.

Recent research in pediatrics and developmental toxicology has delved into the concept of “windows of vulnerability”. This is the time in early development when exposures to even minute doses of toxic chemicals can disrupt organ formation. As a result, children may experience lifelong functional impairments (2).

In the United States today, chronic illnesses make up a majority of sickness, disability and death in children. The rates of these diseases are growing, with toxic chemicals at the forefront as cause for concern (3). 

Outdated Cosmetics Safety Laws

Recognition of the unique vulnerability of children to toxic chemicals should have banned Halloween makeup long ago. But that isn’t the case. And there’s a very good (but unfortuante) reason for that.

Contrary to what you might think, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USDA) actually has little authority to review the safety of chemicals in cosmetics. Though some companies make products that are less hazardous, other, more cheaper companies, pick the more toxic route. 

Cosmetic safety laws haven’t been significantly updated since 1938. The only thing that has evolved since then are the studies proving the harmful effects of chemicals used in the beauty industry. 

Under the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, cosmetics companies are self-regulating, meaning it is up to the company to decide if their products are safe. As you might have guessed (and seen), many companies still use harmful chemicals to this day, which is highly problematic. 

Nearly 1,400 harmful ingredients in cosmetics have been restricted under the European Union’s Cosmetic Product Regulation. But the United States? Only 11 banned ingredients. However, the number of substances restricted in the U.S. is misleading. The levels of mercury “allowed”, for example, far exceed any sort of “safe” level. 

The FDA also relies on voluntary reporting when it comes to ingredients and injuries. This means that the FDA, by law, cannot require manufacturers to register its cosmetic establishments, file data on ingredients, or report cosmetic related injuries. This also means that the FDA can’t even recall a dangerous cosmetic product harming consumers without an in-depth court case (4). This means that even though Halloween makeup has been burning children’s skin and exposing them to high levels of harmful heavy metals, we can’t really do anything about it. 

Toxic Halloween Makeup: The Tests

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics released their first Pretty Scary report back in 2009. They analyzed 10 Halloween face paint kits and found that every single product tested positive for lead. 

The newest report, Pretty Scary 2, is based on label reading and laboratory tests of face paint commonly used during special occasions like Halloween. It also includes body sprays, lip balms, as well as hair and nail products. 

Most of the products tested came from stores like Claire’s, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Justice, Target, and Toys “R” Us. 

The report tested 39 different cosmetics products commonly found in the Halloween aisle. They discovered that nearly half of the face paints contained trace amounts of at least one toxic heavy metal. Some products contained an alarming four heavy metals

All of the products tested also listed either styrene-based chemicals or fragrance on the labels, which could put children at risk of exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Not so surprisingly, over 20% of the products tested contained at least one VOC. 

Seven different VOCs were found, with four having the potential to lead to serious long-term health care effects:

  • Toluene, a reproductive toxicant
  • Styrene, a probable carcinogen and endocrine disruption compound
  • Ethylbenzene, a possible carcinogen
  • Vinyl acetate, a possible carcinogen

Here are some of the worst offenders when it comes to toxic Halloween makeup (and other kids cosmetic products), according to the Pretty Scary 2 report (5): 

Lead 

About 20 percent of the Halloween face paints contained the heavy metal lead. This is largely concerning, given the toxicity levels of the heavy metal on the development of children. There is no safe level of lead

Young children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning because they absorb 4-5 times as much ingested lead as adults from any given source. Once lead enters the body, it is distributed to organs such as the brain, kidneys, liver and bones. The body stores lead in the teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time. These lead stores may become remobilized into the blood during pregnancy, thus exposing the fetus (6). 

Lead is damaging to the brain and nervous system, and increases the risk for learning and behavior problems (like reduced IQ, and ADHD symptoms). Lead also slows growth and development and can trigger hearing problems, headaches and anemia (7). 

Darkly pigmented face paints tend to contain higher concentrations of heavy metals like lead. 

List of heavy metal concentration in common halloween face paints targeted for kids

Mercury

Thankfully, none of the Halloween childrens’ makeup tested came up positive for mercury.

The FDA banned mercury in most cosmetics in 1974. The FDA determined that mercury compounds may be used in cosmetic products only in trace amounts as a preservative in certain eye-area products. Mercury based preservatives like thimerosal should be avoided at all costs (read the ingredients of your cosmetic products!).

Arsenic

Four of the 48 face paints tested positive for arsenic, with levels ranging from 1.1 to 1.9 ppm. 

Arsenic is classified as a known human carcinogen by both the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (8). Naturally, you would think this ingredient would never be considered for a child’s Halloween palette, but nope! Batman yellow, black and blue, and Zombie kids black contain amounts that are NOT safe for children. 

According to the CDC, inorganic arsenic and arsenic-containing compounds are the most cancer-causing. Unusually large doses of arsenic can cause symptoms ranging from nausea, vomiting and diarrhea to dehydration and shock (9). 

Cadmium

Cadmium was found in nearly 30% of face paints tested, with values ranging from .58 to 14 ppm. This heavy metal is also classified as a known human carcinogen by both NTP and IARC (10). 

Cadmium can cause damage to the kidneys if exposed in sufficiently high amounts. It may also result in kidney disease. When inhaled, there can be damage made to the lungs and nasal cavity (11). 

Studies have found that there is an association between exposure to cadmium at low levels and lower IQ scores in children (12). 

Chromium 

Chromium was found in over 27% of Halloween face paints tested. This heavy metal is used as a colorant and can be toxic to non-reproductive organ systems (13). Chromium-6 (hexavalent chromium) is classified as a known human carcinogen by both NTP and IARC. Chromium-3 on the other hand, is an essential nutrient. 

Breathing in high levels of chromium-6 can irritate the respiratory system, causing breathing problems, nose ulcers, shortness of breath and wheezing. Skin contact can cause skin ulcers, with allergic reactions triggering severe redness and swelling of the skin. Long term exposure can cause damage to liver, kidney, circulatory and nerve tissues (14). 

Toluene

Toluene, a hormonally active, development and reproductive toxicant was found in nearly 11% of all products tested. Toluene can be manufactured into the face paint itself, or it can come as a by-product of synthetic fragrance additions. 

Toluene targets the central nervous system, and can trigger symptoms of fatigue, sleepiness, headaches and nausea. CNS depression and even death have occurred at higher levels of exposure. CNS dysfunction, attention deficits, minor cranio-facial and limb anomalies, and developmental delay were observed in the children of pregnant women exposed to toluene (15).  

Parabens

At least one paraben was found in 34 percent of products. Two to three parabens were found in 3 percent of products. 

Parabens are known endocrine disruptors, and have devastating effects on the body’s hormonal system. They produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune effects in the human body. 

Parabens negatively target our endocrine system because of their ability to mimic estrogen. In cell studies, parabens have been found to weakly bind to estrogen receptors (16). Other studies have found that parabens can increase cell proliferation in human breast cancer MCF-7 cells, which are often used as a sensitive measure of estrogenic activity (17). 

Formaldehyde

Three percent of products tested contained formaldehyde-releasing preservatives like DMDM hydantoin, diazolydinal urea and imidiazolydinal urea. 

Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen, and is capable of directly causing cancer on living tissue (18). 

Ethoxylated Ingredients

The study found over 28% of products contained ethoxylated ingredients just from reading the labels. Ethoxylation can result in two toxic contaminants linked to breast cancer and other cancers: ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. 

Ethoxylated ingredients show up on product labels as ingredients ending in -eth (like laureth, steareth, ceteareth, etc.), PPG or PEG, or polysorbate. These ingredients have lower hazard profiles on their own. However, when ethylene oxide (a known breast carcinogen), is reacted with ingredients to make them less harsh, small amounts of 1,4-dioxane are created. This can leave trace amounts of residual ethylene oxide in the product, which is highly carcinogenic (19). 

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Over 20 percent of products tested contained VOCs.

As mentioned above, highly concerning VOCs found include styrene (probable carcinogen and endocrine disruptor), ethylbenzene (possible carcinogen) and vinyl acetate (possible carcinogen). 

List of volatile organic compounds in kids' makeup products

Fragrance

Fragrance is found in over 40% of the cosmetics and personal care products on the market today. It was found in half of the products tested by Breast Cancer Fund. 

Fragrance doesn’t just mean one chemical, however. It can be a combination from a list of over 3,000 unregulated chemicals. 

Fragrance is so bad that it is even being called the new second-hand smoke. It can include ingredients like benzene derivatives (highly carcinogenic), aldehydes, toluene, and others. These chemical compounds are linked to cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions (20). 

Talc

Talc was found in over 18% of products tested. 

Talc may be contaminated with asbestos and is classified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (21). 

Inhalation of this mineral may cause respiratory distress, mesothelioma, and inflammation.

Non-Toxic Halloween Makeup Alternatives

Fortunately, there are now plenty of non-toxic Halloween makeup manufacturers out there catering to families and children. Companies like Earth Paint have created a line of safe, organic and hypoallergenic face paint. They’re made with certified organic ingredients and mineral pigments. 

There is also a company called Go Green, which have rich, pigmented face paints that are lead and paraben-free. They’re regularly tested for purity and produce lovely results. They also have great reviews on Amazon. 

Another great company listed in the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database is Elegant Minerals. Their products rank a 2/3 on a scale of 1 to 10 for toxicity.

Living out a toxin-free Halloween doesn’t have to be boring! If you’re concerned about the levels of toxic chemicals in Halloween makeup, opt for the brands mentioned above.

adult woman applying halloween makeup to child dressed as witch with text - Kids' halloween makeup brands test postiive for organ-damaging lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury + more: Use these non-toxic makeup alternatives instead

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