Chemicals in Kids' Halloween Makeup & Other Products-Pretty Scary!

By Kathleen Schuler, MPH, Co-Director Healthy Legacy, Director Healthy Kids and Families Program Conservation Minnesota

A new report by the Breast Cancer Fund’s Campaign for Safe Cosmetics  found lead and cadmium in children’s face paint, as well as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other problem chemicals in kids’ shampoos, lip balms, makeup and nail products. Hormone disrupting parabens and preservatives that release carcinogenic formaldehyde were found on labels. Laboratory testing detected the brain toxin lead and the hormone disrupter cadmium in Halloween face paints. Additional lab testing of a variety of kids’ cosmetics, including products purchased here in Minnesota, revealed the presence of the developmental toxicant toluene and possible carcinogens ethylbenzene and vinyl acetate in fragranced products. 

The FDA wouldn't allow these chemicals into products if they weren’t safe - right? Wrong. Cosmetics are among the least regulated products. The 75-year-old federal cosmetics law does not require pre-market safety testing or review of chemicals in products by the FDA. Ingredients in cosmetic products sold on the internet do not have to be labeled and secret ingredients in fragrance are not required to be labeled on any cosmetic products. The FDA has no authority to require recalls of products found to harm consumers and cannot require manufacturers to register ingredients or report cosmetic-related injuries. 

Lack of proper federal oversight of potentially harmful ingredients is a big concern. Cosmetic products are increasingly marketed to children with Disney and other kid-focused character branding. Children are uniquely vulnerable to adverse effects from chemical exposures because they are still growing and developing. Exposure to chemicals that disrupt hormones, impair brain development or increase cancer risk during key developmental windows from infancy through adolescence, can put kids at risk for adverse health effects later in life.

What did they find?
The report summarizes results from reading the labels of 187 children’s cosmetic products, finding chemicals of concern, fragrance and propylparaben in almost half of the products examined. Testing of 48 Halloween face paint products revealed trace amounts of heavy metals in 21 products, with some products containing as many as four metals. The report also describes results from testing of 48 products from 14 states for VOCs. Twenty percent of these products contained at least one VOC, four of which are linked to adverse health effects, toluene, styrene, ethylbenzene and vinyl acetate. 

I purchased five products at a Minnesota Toys R Us for VOC testing. With names like “Hello Kitty Bath Tote,” “Fashion Angels Rainbow Unicorn Beauty Set” and “Minions Nail Kit,” there’s no doubt these products are marketed to kids. Of the products purchased in Minnesota, the “Minions Nail Set” tested positive for the VOC acetone, commonly used as a solvent in nail polish, which can be toxic to children at levels higher than found in this product. 

The label-reading part of the project identified three different formaldehyde-releasing chemicals in six different kids’ cosmetic products. This finding is of note, because Minnesota law prohibits formaldehyde-releasing chemicals in products designed for children under age 8 at greater than 500 parts-per-million. Because the concentration of chemicals in these six products is unknown, we cannot determine if they comply with Minnesota law. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen, so we are especially concerned about children’s exposure. 

Need for Stronger Regulation
Cosmetics regulation needs to be reformed to protect public health, including: a ban on ingredients linked to cancer, birth defects, developmental harm and other health concerns; required pre-market safety testing of cosmetic ingredients by manufacturers; required full ingredient disclosure including fragrance ingredients; and preservation of existing state laws such as Minnesota’s bans on formaldehyde-releasers and triclosan. Retailers can take action by prohibiting ingredients linked to harmful health effects in product lines and expanding safer cosmetic product lines.  Finally, the report notes that manufacturers can meet consumer demand for safe cosmetics by avoiding the use of harmful chemicals in favor of safer alternatives, disclosing all product ingredients, adopting a restricted substances list that governs current and future use of chemicals and monitoring research on chemicals of emerging concern.  

Take Action: Tell Congress to pass strong cosmetic regulation. 

Consumer Tips for a Safer Halloween and Beyond
•    Avoid face paint - find a Halloween costume that doesn’t require it. 
•    Avoid darkly pigmented makeups. 
•    Find a do-it-yourself face paint recipe. 
•    Buy safer products – read labels and avoid products with added fragrance, parabens, styrene or formaldehyde-releasing preservatives like DMDM hydantoin, imidiazoldinal urea or diazolydinal urea. 
•    Delay the use of kids’ cosmetic products - wait until kids are older. 
•    See more tips in the report