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Cosmetics and your health

Most people use a range of cosmetics every day. We are so familiar with these products it is easy to forget they contain chemicals that can be harmful. Accidental ingestion, particularly by children, is the most serious health risk associated with using cosmetics.

Cosmetics should always be kept out of reach of children

Information below includes: 

What to do when you react to a cosmetic product

Stop using the cosmetic immediately and wash off with copious amounts of water; but, keep it nearby so you can provide the name and ingredients to a medical professional if required.

Severe reactions

If someone has collapsed or is having trouble breathing call 000 as they may be having an anaphylactic reaction.

Accidentally consumed

If the product has been accidentally consumed contact the following:

  • showing symptoms - call 000
  • no symptoms - call the Poisons Information Service for advice.

Skin reactions

Skin reactions usually clear up after a few days, but if your symptoms are severe or prolonged, contact your doctor.

Avoid heat which may make the condition itchier. Cool substances, like ice packs, can be soothing.

Medical treatment may be required and can include:

  • anti-inflammatory creams to control itching, swelling and redness
  • oral prescription medications like corticosteroids, antihistamines or antibiotics (if blistered skin becomes infected)
  • referral to a dermatologist.

Reporting reactions

Call the Adverse Medicines Event Line on 1300 134 237 where consumers can report undesirable health effects from using cosmetics and toiletries.

It is important to report your experience so information about the same product (or similar ones) can be gathered.

Also contact the manufacturer to advise them of your reaction. If they receive a number of calls about a product they are more likely to initiate an investigation.

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Cosmetic labelling requirements

The law requires ingredients to be listed on cosmetic labels. This helps people compare products and identify ingredients they might be allergic or sensitive to; so they can avoid them.

Ingredients are not required to be listed on labels of:

  • free samples
  • shop testers
  • therapeutic goods - for example, if a manufacturer makes a therapeutic claim like 'prevents sunburn', the product is not a cosmetic.

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Understanding cosmetic labels

Terms on labels can be confusing.

Dermatologically proven or skin compatibility

The terms 'dermatologically proven' or 'skin compatibility' is used if a dermatologist has been involved at some stage of product development, or ingredients, potentially less irritating to eyes and skin, are included in the formulation.

Importantly, these terms do not guarantee that the product will not affect your health.

Hypoallergenic or allergy tested

'Hypoallergenic' or 'allergy tested' is used if the product has been formulated to include fewer well-known skin allergens (trigger chemicals) or has undergone testing for allergy. However, there are no defined standards or tests required before these terms can be used on labels.

Potential allergens may still be present. The incidence of allergy is very low considering the size of the entire population; therefore, many hundreds of people would need to be tested to find out if a product is really hypoallergenic.

It cannot be guaranteed that you will never have an allergic reaction to a particular product.

Natural or organic

'Natural' or 'organic' does not necessarily mean safe, pure or clean.

These terms mean the cosmetic contains ingredients extracted from plants (botanicals) or animal products, rather than being synthetic or chemically produced.

Some chemicals occurring naturally in the environment, like arsenic,are very toxic.

On the other hand, not all synthetic chemicals are harmful. In some cases, there is much less known about natural chemicals in plants and their tendency to cause allergy.

'Organic' may indicate that ingredients have been produced without pesticides, but this can be difficult to verify. Without more information, these terms are not good reasons for choosing which cosmetic to use.

Fragrance-free or unscented

'Fragrance-free' may be used if the product has no perceptible odour but 'unscented' products may contain small amounts of fragrance to mask the odour of other ingredients.

In Australia, it is permitted for 'fragrance' to be listed on labels instead of listing the individual components that make up the fragrance - some of which you may be allergic to. For example, essential oils.

Preservative-free

'Preservative-free' may not necessarily be a healthy alternative. Preservatives in cosmetics are important to reduce the growth of micro-organisms like bacteria and mould. Imagine an avocado in a jar - it does not last very long!

Non-comedogenic

'Non-comedogenic' means the product does not contain ingredients known to clog pores and possibly lead to acne.

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Chemicals found in cosmetics

Cosmetics usually contain a combination of some of the following ingredients:

  • water
  • emulsifiers - to mix oil and water
  • preservatives - to prevent growth of bacteria and mould or prevent degradation by light
  • thickeners - to change consistency
  • colours
  • fragrances
  • pH stabilisers - to make the product compatible with the body's acidity
  • various active ingredients to carry out the product's intended purpose.

Even simple cosmetics, like soap, may contain a mixture of fragrances, detergents, colours and essential oils that can affect sensitive skin.

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Reducing the risks

Simple things to help reduce the risk of health effects from cosmetic:

  • clean your hands and face before applying make-up
  • don’t use eye make-up if you have an eye infection. If you do get an infection, replace your make-up with new products after the infection has cleared up
  • discard cosmetics if the colour, odour or consistency changes because this may mean the preservatives are no longer effective
  • don’t use cosmetics on broken or infected skin
  • clean cosmetic applicators regularly with warm soapy water
  • keep cosmetics away from heat and sunlight
  • don’t share your cosmetics, because everyone has different skin microorganisms and cross-contamination can occur
  • don’t use multi-use applicators or testers in shops—ask for fresh applicators or for tester openings to be cleaned with alcohol.
  • avoid your allergens by checking the ingredient list and don’t use products containing ingredients you have reacted to in the past, you may need to contact the manufacturer to confirm if your allergen is not present in a product
  • don’t add water or saliva to cosmetics to improve consistency
  • choose simpler products with fewer ingredients - the more ingredients, the more potential allergens
  • if you are sensitive to fragrances, apply perfume to your clothes rather than directly to your skin.
  • keep your skin in good condition - it is your natural barrier to irritants and allergens
  • avoid astringent soap and alcohol-based removers, toners and cleansers that dry skin making it prone to cracking
  • always follow cosmetic directions carefully
  • some products must not be used on children, pregnant women or people with compromised immune systems - a negative patch test does not over-rule label warnings
  • check your sensitivity to new products by doing a simple home patch test

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Patch testing

Patch testing is a good way to see if you will react to ingredients contained in a cosmetic product. This test is simple and can be done at home.

If you are allergic to any of the cosmetic ingredients, it is easier to treat a smaller area.

If the test area is red, scaly, itchy, hot or blistered, do not use the product.

Patch testing does not over-rule product label warnings

How to do the test

  1. clean an area of skin on the inside of your forearm with soap and water
  2. dab a small amount of cosmetic on the clean area and let it dry
  3. leave the test area unwashed for at least 24 hours (ideally 48 hours), then wash gently with soap and water

Testing for fragrances

Patch testing for fragrances is best detected by following the same steps as above, however the fragrance needs to be applied twice a day to the test area and for up to four weeks.

Testing of paraphenylenediamine (PPD) containing products

It is recommended to test 48 hours before each use of PPD containing hair dyes as allergies can develop with subsequent applications, even if you didn’t react in previous tests.

Follow the directions carefully. Generally these dyes should be diluted to 10% of their original concentration before application to your skin

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Irritant contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common type of contact dermatitis and may be around for short or long periods of time.

Common irritants

Common irritants include:

  • shampoos
  • soaps
  • eye shadows
  • mascaras
  • make-up removers
  • antiperspirants
  • moisturisers.

Signs and symptoms

Irritant contact dermatitis usually starts as patches of scaly, reddened, itchy or stinging skin; particularly where the skin is dry. It typically starts between the fingers. Blisters can develop that may ooze, especially if scratched. These effects usually occur only at the site of contact with the irritating substance.

Strong irritants, like hair removal creams or some creams containing glycolic acids, can cause a reaction almost immediately or within hours of application. Weaker irritants, like soap, may take days or weeks of repeated exposure before symptoms develop.

Acute irritant contact dermatitis

Acute irritant contact dermatitis is caused by a harsh substance directly contacting and damaging the skin. The more common form is called chronic or cumulative.

Chronic irritant dermatitis

Chronic (also known as cumulative) irritant dermatitis can often affect hairdressers and nurses, who have intermittently wet hands throughout the day, and use soap or skin cleansers frequently. This can lead to dry and cracked skin that is more susceptible to injury.

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Allergic contact dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis is caused by your body's immune system over-reacting to a chemical (allergen) that is usually harmless to most people.

Allergic responses only occur after your immune system has been sensitised to an allergen, that is, your body recognises the allergen from a previous exposure.

The more contact you have with the allergen the greater chance you have of becoming sensitised.

Sometimes an allergy can develop after years of using the same product because sensitisation may take time to develop, or a manufacturer may change ingredients in the product.

Factors

Factors that have a role in determining whether allergic contact dermatitis develops are:

  • the concentration of the chemical
  • whether your skin is already damaged or inflamed
  • the nature of the allergen.

Some chemicals are strong allergens (like hair dye), while others have almost no potential to cause allergic reactions (like petroleum jelly). Genetics may also have a role, but it is generally thought to be minor.

Common allergens

Common allergens include:

  • fragrances
  • preservatives
  • paraphenylenediamine (PPD) - a permanent hair dye also used in henna tattoos

Signs and symptoms

Allergic contact dermatitis typically appears as a severely itchy, tingling, red and hot skin rash. Blisters may develop.

A less common form of allergic rash is hive-like raised bumps (urticaria), which can occur in groups or join together to form large irregular swellings. An allergic skin rash, unlike irritant dermatitis, can spread beyond the site where the cosmetic was applied. Symptoms are usually delayed, occurring 12 to 96 hours after exposure and possibly getting worse after each application of the allergen.

Reactions when paraphenylenediamine (PPD) is applied in a concentrated form it can produce a severe delayed allergic reaction appearing initially at the site of the tattoo. After this reaction, people will be severely allergic to all permanent hair dyes and eyelash and eyebrow tints. PPD

How to determine what you are allergic to

Working out which substance triggers allergic dermatitis is difficult and often requires specialist help from a dermatologist, not an allergists.

It is difficult because there are a large number of potential allergens and it is not always the active ingredient that causes the problem. In addition, symptoms may show up some distance from where the cosmetic was applied. for example when nail polish applied to your toes causes eyelid reactions.

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