The Ugly Truth

Most of us wear makeup to enhance our features and feel better about ourselves. But did you know that your makeup could be making you feel bad? Here's what you need to know!

woman blush brush makeup

Beauty irony

Most women use cosmetics (makeup, skin care and bath products) to enhance their attractiveness and project a sophisticated personal style, among other reasons. Increasingly, we read of possible dangers of cosmetics use, due to deliberate or accidental contamination with heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and many chemicals that humans never were exposed to historically.

Some examples include mercury in mascara, arsenic in face creams, and lead in lipsticks (as much as 61% of a sample of 33 lipsticks in one study). Heavy metals can disrupt cellular functions and metabolism causing cognitive dysfunction, sexual problems, obesity, loss of muscle coordination, and muscle weakness. These are serious medical concerns, which are antagonistic to maintaining our health, mood and weight.

Chemistry experiment

Women consume many personal care products, approximately 5-25 per day some sources tell us. Biologist Dr. Renee Sharp, senior analyst of the Environmental Working Group, a partner of Cosmetic Safety Advocates, warns that we are running a giant chemical experiment on ourselves. Many studies show that these chemicals can be carcinogenic and modulate the endocrine environment in the womb, causing reproductive problems, in fetuses (e.g., malformation of sex organs, ambiguous gender, feminizing of male fetuses); and in adult men (causing poor quality/quantity of sperm).

Cosmetics, chemicals and adverse effects

But what about the effects of the many chemicals in your cosmetics on your attractiveness and sexuality today, as an adult woman?

Can cosmetics cause women to gain weight, be depressed, and have reduced sexual desire and arousal? We know these three states often go together.

quotation mark open Women, as consumers of cosmetics, should be in the forefront of asking for more safety testing and better regulation. quotation mark close

As a psychiatrist and sex therapist, I believe that they do. However, much of the evidence is indirect as it derives from animal studies, and studies of non-cosmetic sources of these chemicals. For example, mercury exposure among dental medicine professionals has been shown to compromise nitric oxide pathways in the body, which are essential for sexual arousal in both men and women. Nitric oxide is also crucial to maintaining a healthy blood pressure. Heavy metals modulate our hormonal system in ways that definitely could impair mood and sexual desire, and cause weight gain.

Because the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate cosmetics regarding safety, solid evidence for more public warnings and regulations might take years. Europe and Canada do far more to insure safety of cosmetic products and provide ways to report problems. Women, as consumers of cosmetics, should be in the forefront of asking for more safety testing and better regulation.

What can women do to enhance their beauty in a safe and healthy way?

Rapidly advancing nutritional science and medicine tell us that the old-fashioned wisdom is correct: a healthy diet (such as the Mediterranean diet), enough restful sleep and generous physical exercise promote physical and mental health. In addition, living with these healthy habits makes us happier and more attractive to those around us, including intimate partners.

I believe as a physician and sexuality expert that women are well advised to use fewer cosmetics; be aware of possible health dangers of cosmetics; look for safe products and support actions that will increase the safety of products; and spend more time, energy and money instead on improving lifestyle and inner happiness. The best habits will reap the most rewards for each woman for her beauty, mental health, sexuality, and happiness.

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