Here’s how to go makeup-free and DIY instead
By Lauren Kirchner
Around Halloween time, many parents worry about trick-or-treat safety and lockdowns, sugar crashes and ruined bedtimes. But here’s something you might not be thinking about, but you should: toxic ingredients in your kids’ face paints and powders.
Studies in recent years have found Halloween face paint containing heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, and make-up powder marketed to children contaminated with asbestos. Even low levels of exposure to these toxins are dangerous: lead impairs brain development, asbestos is a carcinogen, and cadmium is an endocrine disruptor, which are chemicals linked to certain cancers and other health problems.
It’s a common misconception that if you put a product on your body (or on your kids) to be sold in the US, it has to be safe. But unlike its oversight of foods and drugs, the Food and Drug Administration has very little power to regulate the safety of cosmetic ingredients. The agency assesses products that are already on the market, but does not certify their safety beforehand. It can issue public notices if it finds anything of concern, but it can’t order product recalls.
When it comes to cosmetics, companies and the individuals who market them are responsible for their safety and labeling, the FDA said in a statement about makeup contaminated with asbestos. “This means that a cosmetics manufacturer can ultimately decide whether to test their product for safety and register it with the FDA. To be clear, there are currently no legal requirements for cosmetic manufacturers [do this]”, the statement said.
This lack of oversight puts the onus on individual consumers to research the ingredients and somehow figure out which brands they can ultimately trust. Experts say the stakes are raised when the cosmetics in question are intended for children, whose bodies are more vulnerable because they are smaller and still developing.
“We’re certainly concerned that people at such a young age, like before puberty, are using products that might contain endocrine disruptors or other harmful chemicals,” said Alissa Sasso, project manager at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Children’s cosmetics, frightening findings
Some organizations focused on health have taken over oversight.
In 2016, The Breast Cancer Fund purchased dozens of cosmetic products marketed directly to children and tweens to screen for carcinogens and other toxins linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. As part of this study, they took a close look at 48 face paints from Halloween makeup kits with themes like Zombie, Batman, and Paw Patrol.
When they sent the paints to an independent lab to be tested for the presence of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury, the results were scary. Twenty-one of the paints tested positive for at least one of these chemicals, and some had as many as four. They also found that the darker the color, the higher the heavy metal concentration.
You can’t always tell from a label that a product might be contaminated – the face paints tested by the group certainly did not contain “lead” as an ingredient. But sometimes labels include clues as to which products to avoid. For example, talc is still commonly used in powder makeup like eyeshadow, blush, and foundation — and it’s listed as an ingredient.
Manufacturers use talc as a filler and to give powdered cosmetics a slippery consistency. Unfortunately, talc and asbestos tend to coexist in nature, and when talc is mined, asbestos can be mixed in and contaminate it. When inhaled, asbestos can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other health problems.
In 2020, Johnson & Johnson announced it would discontinue its talc-based baby powder in the United States and Canada after years of lawsuits alleging it contained asbestos. While the company claims its talc-based products are safe, the FDA says talc has “the potential for contamination.” However, talc is not banned from cosmetics and, in fact, is still present in many of these products, including those marketed directly to children.
The nonprofit environmental working group sent talc-based makeup to be tested for asbestos in 2020 and found the carcinogen in two eyeshadow palettes and a toy kids’ makeup kit. The FDA had also previously found asbestos in two brands of children’s powder makeup sold by retailers Claire’s and Justice.
Because of the nature of asbestos contamination, it’s difficult even for manufacturers to know if the talc they use contains asbestos, says EWG scientist Tasha Stoiber, PhD.
“The only way you would really know would be through rigorous testing, or from a company that had their shipments subjected to extremely rigorous testing, which doesn’t typically happen, especially on the cheapest products,” says Stoiber. “So it’s a good bet to avoid products that contain [talc] as an ingredient because it’s really hard to know if it’s contaminated or not.”
What’s a parent to do?
When children insist on using face paint and powder, The Breast Cancer Fund says the darkest pigments are the ones to avoid the most. Or better yet, skip the store-bought stuff altogether this Halloween and make the makeup a part of a DIY costume project.
EWG’s Stoiber suggests instead buying (or making your own) natural plant colors to mix some makeup at home. Cherry juice plus cornstarch plus sugar can make believable blood for your little Dracula, believe it or not. And facial moisturizer plus cornstarch plus carrot juice can help turn your kid into a pumpkin.
“As a rule of thumb, I would avoid buying a toy makeup kit…there have just been too many red flags in tests that have been done in the past,” says Stoiber. “There will be many questions about the safety of these products.”
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