Like formaldehyde, for example. Recently, California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control found that even nail polishes that claimed to be free of the “toxic three”—formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, and toluene—contained the substances. (For the record, most major polish manufacturers have come out and said that surely their polishes were fine and they never lied. Ahem.)
But harmful carcinogens and unidentifiable chemicals aside, there’s still weird stuff lurking in cosmetics. Stuff that’s not necessarily toxic, but definitely strange. Stuff like this:
Carmine is a natural red dye. Natural equals good, right? Well good in the sense that’s been around for a long, long time, but bad in the sense that it’s made from crushed beetle shells. Yes, carmine (sometimes called crimson lake or cochineal) is derived from the crushed exoskeletons of tiny female beetles. Some people are mildly allergic to it, but if you’re trying to avoid it, don’t stop at cosmetics—avoid yogurt, juice, candy, and other dyed-red food products, which often contain it as well.
Hot Pepper Oil
A substance called capsicum (or sometimes capsaicin) is the secret ingredient in lip-plumping glosses that creates that puffy bee-stung look, as well as causes that strange tingling sensation. It tingles because capsicum is derived from hot peppers—the same stuff that gives pepper spray its kick. Since it’s derived from food it’s obviously non-toxic, but it’s definitely an irritant—the irritation is what makes it work. It’s found in many plumping glosses like DuWop Lip Venom and Sally Hansen Extreme Lip Inflation.
On the bottle of Calamine lotion, you might see it listed as “ferrous oxide,” but it’s basically rust. It’s what makes Calamine so deliciously pink, and if you ever see a cosmetics bottle that lists “pigment brown 6” or “pigment red 101” as ingredients, it’s in there, too.
Some things are just better the ol’ fashioned way, and when it comes to perfumes, that means that the preferred ingredient for affixing scent to the skin is ambergris, a musky compound that’s regurgitated by whales. (Sometimes it emerges from the whale at the other end.) The interesting thing about ambergris is that the pricier and fancier the perfume (especially expensive French eau de toilets), the more likely it is to contain this ancient, natural compound, while cheaper versions are more likely to have suspicious synthetic ingredients. Luckily, scientists have recently discovered that balsam fir sap is actually a better perfume fixative than ambergris, so the whales—and their pricy puke—are off the hook.
One of the cosmetics industry’s best-known and best-loved emollients, lanolin is a natural, organic substance that provides barrier protection to chapped skin, soothes dryness, and provides lasting moisture. That’s why it’s in everything, from basic body lotions to nipple creams to baby-butt balms. It’s also the most adorable skincare ingredient as it comes from sheep. Yes, waxy lanolin is secreted by sheep and waterproofs their coats. Once the sheep have been sheared, the lanolin is literally wrung out of the raw wool by mechanical rollers. Think about that the next time you see a tube of Lansinoh.
If you’ve ever used a homemade face mask of egg white and lemon juice, you’ve used albumin in its natural concentration. Albumin is a protein found in egg whites and blood plasma, and when it’s applied to skin, it produces a feeling of tightening and constriction. That makes it a popular addition to wrinkle-fighters, even if the effects are only temporary. Most cosmetic-grade albumin is extracted from chicken eggs but some is derived from bovine or human blood, including the form of albumin found in Botox.