The not-so-pretty ‘more than skin deep’ problem with cosmetics

Many of the cosmetic and household products we use are designed to try and help us look and feel more beautiful, and to make out environment look more beautiful. But using the wrong ones can make your body feel ugly on the inside, and eventually very sick.

A disturbing study out of the University of California, Riverside, shows that many of the products we use to spruce up our appearance, brush our teeth or make our houses look more attractive are causing worrying changes in our body’s interior environment.

The problem pinpointed in this study starts with the inclusion of metal oxide nanoparticles (very small, microscopic particles) in cosmetics and other consumer products. It turns out, say the researchers, that once nanoparticles get inside your body (if you absorb them through your skin, lick at your lipstick, accidentally swallow a tiny portion of toothpaste, etc.), the probiotic – good – bacteria in your body that help your immune system and support your health can be altered.

The scientists say that these changes could, in turn, alter your health even though it’s not clear what direction the potential change in your well-being could take.

The California research specifically focused on cerium dioxide, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These nanoparticles are often incorporated in cosmetics, toothpaste, sunscreen and paints. In the lab, the researchers introduced the substances into a model of the human colon. This laboratory colon reproduces what takes place in the digestive tract and includes the bacteria and other organisms that live there.

The uses of these nanoparticles include:

  • Zinc oxide: Used in calamine lotion, sunscreens, baby powder, dandruff shampoos, athletic tape, cigarette filters, paint and paper coatings.
  • Cerium dioxide: Incorporated into the walls of self-cleaning ovens.
  • Titanium dioxide: Used in sunscreens, skincare products, toothpaste and tattoo ink.

The scientific jury is still out on the long-term effects of these additives. But a frightening aspect of the nanoparticle scenario is that the three types of particles analyzed in this research represent just a tiny fraction of the nanoparticles that are being added to consumer products.

You can avoid some of these chemicals by reading the labels on the products you buy. And, hopefully, researchers will wake up and start taking a closer, more detailed look at how these substances influence health.

My own preference is to spend a little extra for organic cosmetics and personal care products that mostly omit these types of potential toxins. Besides the labels, there are now a lot of resources you can use to know whether or not an ingredient is potentially harmful, including the Environmental Working Group’s “Skin Deep” website, and the Organic Consumer Association’s website.

Carl Lowe

By Carl Lowe

has written about health, fitness and nutrition for a wide range of publications including Prevention Magazine, Self Magazine and Time-Life Books. The author of more than a dozen books, he has been gluten-free since 2007.