Mercury in Mascara May Make You Want to Put Down That Wand


Photo .Baz via flickr.

You may not want to do what I did. In a spare moment of organizational fervor, I decided to clean out my makeup bag. The result wasn't pretty -- a pile of tubes, sticks, and cases that didn't exactly look their best after months of jostling in the messy makeup bag. But what was much, much uglier was the shock I got when I started to check my motley pile of eyeliners, shadows, blush and mascara against the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety database.

Methylparaben, BHT and triethanolamine, oh my


I had been planning to review my personal care products after a search for a 'safe' hair dye for a pregnant friend led me eventually to the EWG site. The Skin Deep database was a such a wealth of information, I knew that I had to come back.

And when I did (without ever finding a hair dye I actually wanted to recommend) what immediately caught my eye was a small purple box at the bottom of the home page. Mercury in Mascara? ran the headline. The last thing I wanted to poke in my eye was even a nano-particle of mercury. I followed the link.

And learned that just one brand of mascara, Paula Dorf's Cake Mascara for Eyes (in Raven and Foxy) had been found by EWG to have thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in vaccines and sometimes found in cosmetics. Yikes! As EWG puts it:

According to FDA, 'Mercury compounds are readily absorbed through the skin on topical application and tend to accumulate in the body. They may cause allergic reactions, skin irritation, or neurotoxic manifestations.' Mercury is considered particularly toxic to the developing brain during pregnancy, infancy and childhood. FDA has banned the use of mercury compounds in all cosmetics except those used around the eyes, where levels are limited to 65 parts per million (ppm). In 2007 the use of mercury in all cosmetics was banned in Minnesota.

Luckily, I could never remember using or buying Paula Dorf cosmetics, but the idea that a consumer could unwittingly purchase this product without knowing that thimerosal is mercury-based was horrifying. Thimerosal is suspected to have an as-yet unproven link to autism. I don't want it in my flu shot or any of my personal care products.

I searched for my mascara. In EWG's complex hazard rating system, my mascara scored a 5 for its hazardous potential (only one point better than the Paula Dorf, by the way). For the moment, I couldn't bear to toss it into the trash, though my Neutrogena Healthy Defense Daily Moisturizer (also hazard score '5') and a cake of Maybelline eye shadow (rating a hazard score of '8') got chucked in the trash immediately.

One reason products may rate a high hazard score in the EWG database is that they contain a chemical that is thought to be cancer-causing or endocrine disrupting. While it may be that tiny concentrations of these chemicals will do you no serious harm, the biggest problem is that we as consumers just don't know how to assess the risk of all these chemicals, as they are being used lawfully, and only a small percentage of them have been tested. Because the testing data is all over the place, EWG also provides a 'data gap' rating on products or ingredients.

Sean Gray, EWG senior analyst, describes the system like this:

"The "data gap" rating is a measure of how much is unknown about an ingredient. Not all ingredients have the same amount of safety data. For example, some ingredients may appear to have low hazards, but this may be due to the fact that they have not have been studied or assessed completely. Other ingredients may appear to have low hazards and have been thoroughly studied or assessed. This score helps differentiate between ingredients and products that have been studied to different degrees.

Consumers should be leery of products in our database with a very high data gap because they are acting as the guinea pig. But consumers should be even more leery of the products with very high hazard scores because these products carry known concerns. The best situation is a product with low scores for both pieces."

Of course, EWG assessment is not the final word on cosmetic safety. But I had previously read enough about methyparaben to know that I didn't want to smear it all over my face every morning, and the fact that less than 20% of the 10,500 ingredients in personal care products have been reviewed and tested for safety by the cosmetic industry's own panel was a wake up call.

"We hope that when people become outraged about the chemicals in their personal care products that they will take action," says Sean Gray. "Nearly 90% of the ingredients used in cosmetics have not been studied for safety in cosmetics. Switching to products with lower hazard scores doesn't solve this problem. In fact, the unknown factor often increases as you find products with lower hazard scores. The only lasting solution is a policy change. Consumers should write to Congress and demand better regulation. They should write to the maker of their products and demand better products. And they should tell their friends and family that the cosmetics company can put anything they want into the products."

Though the bulk of my makeup bag has slimmed down considerably after my encounter with the Skin Deep database, I still haven't been able to toss the mascara, though I know I'll never buy that brand or anything made by that company again. The 'safest' mascara in EWG's database by Coastal Creations, while it looks good and gets a '0' score (the only mascara in the database to do so), is a whopping $25. Way beyond my budget for mascara. For the time being, I may just have to go naked, at least on my eyelashes.

What about you? What's in your mascara, and how much are you willing to pay for a 'safer' alternative?

Update: When researching Paula Dorf's mascara with thimerosal, I realized that big-name and fancy mascaras were running from $18 - $22 dollars and up, so I bit the bullet and ordered the '0' hazard mascara found at Coastal Creations, and went ahead and chucked my to-remain-unnamed silver tube.
Read more about safe cosmetics at TreeHugger and Planet Green
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