Horror Writers Association

Halloween Haunts: You Look Like Death by Kayla Woods


What is the most dangerous part of Halloween?

The lore of Halloween attempts to instill in us the fear of razor blades in apples and needles in chocolate bars. We have learned that most children do not have to worry about falling prey to these dangers. Realistically, parents should worry about their children crossing the street without looking while wearing a dark costume. Pet parents need to ensure that bowls of chocolate candies are not left unattended around opportunistic pups. Anyone wearing a costume around a lit Jack-O-lantern should take care to not catch fire.

When I Googled the phrase “toxic Halloween” this year however, I found something I wasn’t expecting.

In 2016, the Breast Cancer Fund (now called the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners) released a report entitled “Pretty Scary 2: Unmasking toxic chemicals in kids’ makeup.” This was a follow-up to a 2009 report about ingredients of concern, including heavy metal and volatile organic compound contaminants, in Halloween face paint and other cosmetics marketed towards children.

In short, the researchers behind Pretty Scary 2 read the labels of 187 products from an online Halloween store and tested 51 of the products in a third-party laboratory. Other cosmetics marketed towards children were gathered from brick and mortar stores in 14 states and also tested by a third-party laboratory.

Many cosmetics ingredients lists clearly contain phthalates or parabens. Phthalates are primarily used as plasticizers but are commonly used in cosmetic and personal care products. Some phthalates have shown endocrine disruptor activity, meaning they are detrimental to the reproductive system. Elevated exposure to phthalates has been associated with early onset of puberty, endometriosis, female genital tumors, and ovulation disorders over the last 20 years. The European Union has banned these phthalates from cosmetics, personal care products, and toys which children may put in their mouths.

Parabens are used in pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and cosmetics as antimicrobial preservatives. They are estrogen agonists, meaning the body interprets paraben molecules as its natural estrogen hormone. Just as elevated levels of natural estrogen have been linked to increase risk of breast cancer, exposure to parabens is also associated with breast cancer. The European Union does not have a ban on parabens, but restricts their maximum level to less than 1% in a cosmetic.

Cosmetics and their ingredients, other than color additives, do not need FDA approval before they go on the market. The FDA does require products to be safe for consumers to use as directed, and cosmetics cannot be adulterated or misbranded. Unfortunately, this leaves a lot of room for interpretation and for cosmetics to simply be ignored until attention is called to them. Parabens, for instance do not have enough information for the FDA to show that “as they are used in cosmetics have an effect on human health.” If you don’t read the label to avoid exposure to parabens (including methlparaben, ethylparaben, and propylparaben) and phthalates, then, essentially, that’s on you until further research is conducted.

Ingredients such as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), DMDM hydantoin, and petrolatum clearly identified by ingredients lists were examined as ingredients of concern. My point is not to induce a fear of acronyms or polysyllabic chemical names, but to draw attention to the onus placed on the consumer by the FDA. BHT has been tested somewhat inconclusively in animal studies, and so is not considered an adulterant by the FDA, but the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel established a concentration limit of BHT to 0.5% max because of the uncertain toxicological profile and the tendency for BHT to irritate skin and mucosa.

Exposure to children specifically is a major concern of toxicological interest. One of the products studied by the report was the Hershey’s Cosmetic Balm lip set. Although I cannot find any information about the ingredients in 2016, the current ingredients list still includes BHT. These lip balms (the Bubble Gum and Reese’s flavors in particular) were also found to contain the volatile organic compounds (VOC) ethylbenzene and toluene. These are undeclared ingredients, probably hidden under the “fragrance” ingredient, and are suspected carcinogens. Both of these ingredients are recognized on California’s Proposition 65 list as possible carcinogens – although I know that most people think of the warning “Known to cause cancer in the state of California” as a joke. Toluene is restricted in children’s products by the European Union, and ethylbenzene is a respiratory irritant when volatilized.

The levels of the VOCs in the Hershey’s lip balms (less than 2 ppm of ethylbenzene or toluene in both flavors) may not be enough to cause concern for most individuals or parents, considering that air concentrations of these compounds in the air needs to be around 100-1000 ppm to cause irritation or induce toxic reactions. However, the level of toluene in the Disney Princess Lip Gloss (flavor not specified) purchased at a California Target store may lift an eyebrow: a whopping 143 ppm.

These ingredients are also concerning with respect to children because although the FDA specifies that cosmetics must be used as directed to remain safe, anyone who has dropped a colored cosmetic near a curious toddler knows they have no idea what the directions are but that does not slow them down. Children are more likely to apply more layers than needed and they don’t draw inside the lines of typical cosmetic application, nor do they avoid internal ingestion or exposure to their eyes and mucosa.

It is, of course, important to keep in mind who is conducting this research and why. Ideally, this research would be conducted by independent researchers who are not funded by breast cancer research specifically, because we do need to take financial and institutional bias into consideration, however the Breast Cancer Fund did find some other unsettling ingredients.

Of the 48 Halloween face paint colors tested for heavy metals, 21 had trace amounts of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, or mercury. The highest concentrations were found in the more darkly pigmented paints, such as the black paint in the Batman palette purchased online which had 12-14 ppm of cadmium and also elevated levels of arsenic, chromium, and lead. The Spirit Halloween store clown palette, which is still available for purchase online, had 4-5.99 ppm of chromium in the blue and red colors.

Sadly, the presence of heavy metals in cosmetics is not an uncommon problem. Despite the high percent of Halloween face paints that contained heavy metals in 2016, the numbers were even worse in 2009 when the results from the first Pretty Scary report were released. In 2009, the researchers examined 10 Halloween kits with multiple colors were tested for heavy metals and all of them contained lead ranging from 0.054 to 0.65 ppm. So, although fewer paints contained lead in 2016, the paints that did contain lead had higher concentrations of the metal.

In 2007, The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics conducted tests for lead in 33 brand-name red lipsticks through a third-party laboratory and found that 61% of them contained undeclared lead levels between 0.03-0.65 ppm.

The FDA conducted their own survey in late 2007 following the report released by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. They tested the levels of lead in 20 of the same brand-name lipsticks as the original report and found that the levels ranged between 0.09-3.06 ppm lead. In 2010, the FDA began another survey to expand upon the original and tested 400 lipsticks and 285 other cosmetic products. They found that > 99% of the cosmetics surveyed had less than 10 ppm lead and determined that exposure to 10 ppm lead is very small and would not pose a health risk. If a stick of lipstick is 0.14 oz, then that means that the FDA permits lead levels up to 0.03 mg per stick, or 30 μg.

Most lipsticks only last between 12-18 months. If worn every day in thin enough layers that the stick lasts exactly a year, then that’s 2.5 μg per day – half of the amount allowed in bottled water per FDA food regulations.

However, there is no current safe concentration of lead below which no effect occurs. Of course, lead is a natural mineral found in the earth’s crust and so will be found in trace levels in a number of products and also in the air around us. How comfortable everyone is with exposure is up to them.

For comparison, the EPA has set a maximum for arsenic in water at 0.01 ppm. That Batman palette had 0.5-2.99 ppm of arsenic. The World Health Organization estimates that daily chromium intake is 100 μg and the EPA recommends a daily dose of cadmium to not exceed 0.5 ppb. The Batman palette, once again, had 12-14 ppm of cadmium and 4-5.99 ppm of chromium.

If you’re wondering why the FDA seems interested in establishing limits for some contaminants and leaves the EPA to establish others, it’s because the FDA does not regulate cosmetic ingredients unless they are color additives. The FDA became involved in the lead studies not because the lipstick enthusiasts at the agency took notice, but because the lead was part of color additive studies. And yet, even when it comes to the regulation of color additives, we as consumers are pretty much on our own.

The FDA website suggests checking their Summary of Color Additives by looking up the name of the color on the product in question. If a color on the ingredient list is not listed on the FDA’s list, then the company isn’t obeying the law. You can then follow their guide for reporting problems to the FDA. They go on to say that even if it is on the list, you need to check the FDA’s list to ensure it’s safe for use near the eye. For example, Red Lake 7 is an FDA approved color but is not approved for use near the eye.

So, what are our options for buying safe makeup for us and our children? Well, we can follow the instructions on the mommy blogs who have been the loudest voices since news on the reports went silent in major media publications and we can make our own cosmetics with at home recipes. I only say this with a hint of sarcasm because, certainly, mommy blogs do have their children in mind, but they are also not researchers. These are the same blogs that advocate for cinnamon in your homemade cosmetics and many of them are anti-vaxxers. Their opinions should be read with caution.

Alternatively, we can buy cosmetics from trusted brands that specifically don’t use harmful ingredients. Many of the brands I trust avoid parabens, but do not specific an attempt to be lead free and still employ colors not approved for use near the eye. Personally, I will continue to use the brands I like and trust because the exposure risk is relatively low for me as an adult, but I will be checking the ingredients lists more vigilantly before making a purchase, especially if I intend to use them around my eyes. Without a chemical analysis, it’s impossible to know what these cosmetics actually contain. Therefore, I will also advocate for more research and petitioning to change governmental oversight and regulation of ingredients that may hurt people and children and I encourage others to do the same.

Until then, maybe just wear a mask.


Kayla Woods is a toxicologist turned podcaster and science writer living in Colorado Springs. Find more of her work on Word Press, TikTok, and on the Lethal Dose Podcast.

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