7 Gross Ingredients Found in Cosmetics

Cropped Hands Of People Making Lipstick In Factory

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Cosmetics and skin care products are formulated to make you feel beautiful, but often the ingredients they contain are less than attractive on their own. The following list reveals some of the more questionable substances that appear in the beauty aisle, and while readers may have different reasons for not liking these, it's always a good idea to familiarize oneself with what's going in and on our bodies. It's also a valuable reminder that requesting natural or naturally-derived ingredients in place of synthetics may result in them coming from unexpected places.

1. Cochineal Beetles

Beetles on a cactus plant.

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If you're using makeup that has 'carmine' in the ingredient list, that means its color is derived from cochineal beetles. These insects are native to Mexico and are crushed to release their vibrant red dye. PETA says 70,000 insects are crushed to produce 1 pound of dye, which obviously raises ethical issues for vegans. Life & Style reports that Starbucks stopped using the ingredient in its Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino, due to public outrage, but it can still be found in many cosmetics, from Burt's Bees to Physician's Formula to Jane Iredale (certain cosmetics, no skin care products) and more.

2. Snail Ooze

A snail leaves a slimy trail behind as it moves.

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A number of anti-aging skin creams contain the slimy gel left behind by snails on the move. The mucous-like secretion is primarily marketed as an acne treatment, but it's supposed to be good for healing scars and burns and deeply moisturizing skin. A quick search on the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database revealed a number of snail-based face masks.

3. Infant Foreskin

Hands holding a green pipette full of serum.

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Baby foreskins contain a protein called epidermal growth factor (EGF) that high-end spas like to use in anti-aging, skin-firming treatments. EGF can be formulated using other ingredients, such as human tissues like skin and kidneys, and stem cells that have been taken from newborn foreskins and cloned for cosmetic use. Quartzy reports that celebs such as Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett have all gone for the so-called 'penis facial' and even Oprah has endorsed a cream with foreskin-related compounds in it.

4. Mink Oil

A mink looking directly into the camera.

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Mink oil has been used in cosmetics and hair products since the 1950s. It is made by rendering the fat from a mink carcass, then is purified, bleached, and deodorized. Cosmetics & Skin reports that the discovery was made when mink farmers' hands became incredibly soft after killing the animals. Despite later research showing that mink oil is really no more effective than a plant-based oil, it continued to be added to cosmetics, mostly because of its glamorous prestige, and unfortunately still is to this day, although in small quantities.

5. Ambergris

A full body shot of a sperm whale.

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Ambergris is a traditional fixative ingredient used in expensive perfumes. It is ejected by sperm whales as a black slurry that floats on the ocean surface and eventually solidifies into a rock-like substance that washes up on shorelines. One ambergris collector explained:

"Research in modern times would suggest that it primarily forms in the whale's intestines and would be excreted from the animal (rather than being vomited out from the stomach). Despite this research, many people still refer to ambergris as whale vomit."

Ambergris has been enormously valuable for millennia, used medically and cosmetically by everyone from ancient Egypt to the Middle Ages to present day Parisian perfumers. It is no longer allowed in the US, but international trade is still legal.The concern is in the dwindling numbers of sperm whales, which are down to approximately 350,000 from 1.1 million estimated before whaling became widespread.

6. Tallow

A black and white cow stares into the camera.

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Tallow is a hard fatty substance made from a rendered cow carcass. Although it's not considered toxic to human health, it is obviously a problem for vegans, who do not want to use animal products, but Environment Canada calls it a suspected environmental toxin, presumably due to the industrial agriculture methods that produce it. Derivatives include Sodium Tallowate, Tallow Acid, Tallow Amide, Tallow Amine, Talloweth-6, Tallow Glycerides, Tallow Imidazoline.

7. Plastic

A close up of brown and pink eyeshadow palette.

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Oh, plastic. The ingredient we cannot seem to escape, no matter how hard we try. Plastic appears in a few forms, such as Teflon -- yes, the non-stick pan coating. Melissa reports that the EWG has found teflon in "foundation, sunscreen/moisturizer, eyeshadow, bronzer/highlighter, facial powder, sunscreen/makeup, mascara, anti-aging, moisturizer, around-eye cream, blush, shaving cream (men's), facial moisturizer/treatment, brow liner, and other eye makeup."

Plastic also shows up in the form of microbeads, which serve as an exfoliant, despite the fact that there are many natural ingredients that could stand in for this with far less environmental impact, such as sugar and salt. Microbeads have been banned in New Zealand, Canada, Sweden, the U.K., and several U.S. states, but there are still products, particularly makeup and lip gloss, that are not covered in many places. Avoid products containing 'polyethylene' and 'polypropylene.'

View Article Sources
  1. "Makeup Enthusiasts: Stop Smearing Dead Bugs on Your Face." People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

  2. "Protected Species Parts: What about amergris?." NOAA Fisheries.

  3. "Sperm Whale." NOAA Fisheries.