When young girls start to wear makeup, they’re usually concerned about the hottest, most popular products that will make them feel pretty. Their parents, however, generally care more about keeping their daughters’ skin healthy.
Slathering on foundations and dusting on layers of blush and mascara isn’t always good skin care. Plus, there’s often apprehension over troubling cosmetics ingredients that may include harmful chemicals.
But finding healthy solutions may not be as simple as just looking at the ingredient label for items marketed as "organic cosmetics" or natural skin products.
'Natural' Isn’t Always Better
“The words ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ are thrown around with often no standardization or rigor behind it,” says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “It doesn’t mean it contains fewer harmful or more natural ingredients.”
“Natural” doesn’t mean safe, agrees F. Alan Andersen, PhD, director of Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an independent group funded by the personal products industry that independently evaluates the safety of cosmetic ingredients and publishes the findings. Andersen says his group often has difficulty completing safety evaluations for chemicals derived from plants. Unlike man-made chemicals, where they know what is in the products, plant-derived material is not as clear-cut.
In her practice, dermatologist Patricia Farris, MD, a clinical professor at Tulane University, says she sees many patients who have reactions to natural skin care products and cosmetics they bought at health food stores. She says she remembers a particular case where a woman had an infection from an all-natural skin care product. The product, which was custom-made for her in a small, organic shop, grew yeast and caused the patient to develop a bad infection.
“I don’t think you’re necessarily safer with a natural product,” says Farris. “In theory, it’s wonderful, but in reality it doesn’t pan out. We put preservatives in these products for a reason.”
Ferris has consulted for cosmetic companies Neutrogena, Beiersdorf, and Unilever.
Is Mineral Makeup Better?
Parents looking for “healthier” cosmetics for their kids may choose mineral makeup – foundation, blush, and other products made from finely ground minerals. Dermatologists often say that mineral makeup is healthier because it doesn’t have the preservatives and fragrances found in most other makeup products. People whose skin is irritated by those ingredients may have fewer problems with mineral formulations.
In addition, the non-comedogenic properties of mineral makeup mean it shouldn’t irritate acne or clog pores. And many mineral cosmetics contain ingredients such as titanium oxide and zinc oxide that give mineral makeup the benefits of a sunscreen.
But opinions are mixed. Some mineral makeup products may have ingredients like bismuth oxychloride, which is not a natural mineral but a byproduct of copper and lead processing. It can irritate skin and may cause rashes and aggravate acne. Minerals that are very finely ground may also be an inhalation hazard, says Lunder.
Unlike drugs, cosmetics (except for some color additives in hair dyes) currently do not have to be tested or approved by the FDA before they are sold. However, the proposed FDA Globalization Act of 2009 would require stricter cosmetic regulation and stronger FDA enforcement, including disclosure of most ingredients in cosmetics and a revised process for reviewing ingredient safety.
“A lot of products aren’t fully regulated to standards parents would care about,” says Lunder, who suggests shopping for products with the fewest ingredients and avoiding ingredients you suspect may be harmful. She also suggests that parents urge their kids to use only a handful of cosmetics and choose those items carefully.
Because young girls especially like to experiment with makeup, parents can be proactive by checking out ingredients in cosmetics before they allow their children to use them. The Environmental Working Group’s online Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database offers safety information for nearly 62,000 products containing more than 7,600 ingredients. You can search for items by brand name or product category and make choices based on safety ratings.
Starting With Skin Care Basics
Besides chemicals in cosmetics, perhaps a more significant concern for older children and teenagers is basic skin care with good products.
“The biggest thing for kids of this age is that so many of them are acne prone,” says Farris. “They watch all this stuff on TV and read all these beauty magazine and then use heavier creams and moisturizers that exacerbate their acne problems.”
Farris says that because girls start using makeup and skin products at an early age, she now routinely asks even young girls about moisturizers and makeup when they come to her office. She steers them away from heavy, oily products -- especially creams, lotions, and foundations -- that can aggravate acne and other skin issues.
Often parents are hesitant about letting young girls wear makeup at all, but Farris says she has no issues with cosmetics from a skin care perspective.
“I don’t think there’s anything in makeup that we need to tell kids to avoid with the exception of something that might be really oily,” she says. “Is blush going to hurt you? Is a little eye shadow going to hurt you? Probably not.”
And if a young person has significant acne, covering it with a little oil-free concealer may help, she says. “Acne can be extremely psychologically distressing. Even though 80% of kids get acne, they all think they’re the only one.”
Tips for Healthy Skin
The key to healthy skin, says Farris, is to make sure kids start early with a good skin care regimen so they get in the habit of taking care of their skin. She offers these tips for parents helping their kids with skin care and cosmetics:
- Make sure they wash their faces every day with a mild cleanser.
- Avoid antibacterial soap and harsh scrubbing. Aggressive scrubbing and strong soaps can actually make acne worse.
- Remove all makeup before going to bed. (This is a tip Farris suggests that mothers also follow!)
- To minimize risk of contamination and infection, replace cosmetics after one year.