On Make-Up and Mother’s Day

I remember, as a little girl, peering into the bathroom to watch my mom lean toward the mirror and meticulously apply her mascara and eyeliner. She left in a swirl of perfume in her tracks, the floral scent lingering in the hallway. My own introduction to cosmetics was through stage makeup and hairspray in junior high school theatre. And I have fond memories of sharing my grandma’s lipstick on our outings together. Our lips lined in a matching plum color, we would soar around town.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned those products could have a much more lasting impact beyond rosy cheeks and defined eyelashes—that this make-up lasts longer than our girls’ night out.

In reality, skin is porous and capable of absorbing these products. It is estimated that the average adult uses 9 personal care products each day, with 126 unique chemical ingredients. And because cosmetics aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, that adds up to 12.2 million adults–one of every 13 women and one of every 23 men–being exposed daily to ingredients that are known or probable human carcinogens.

In 2006, Environmental Working Group partnered with Rachel’s Network on biomonitoring studies of a national network of women and found traces of up to 48 chemical contaminants were present in the blood of the women tested. The chemicals identified in their bloodstreams were mostly from unregulated household goods, plastics, beauty products, food and water. More than a decade later, these challenges still persist with unregulated products and are disproportionately impacting low income communities and people of color.

A similar study of newborns detected bisphenol A (BPA) in the umbilical cord blood of U.S. newborns. The tests identified the plastic chemical in 9 of 10 cord blood samples from babies of African American, Asian, and Hispanic descent. There are more than 80,000 of these unregulated chemicals on the planet right now. How many of them are our bodies absorbing?

This Mother’s Day, as I take my mom out for a special celebration of all that she taught me about what it means to be a woman, I’ll also think of the messages companies are trying to tell us too. If a company tells me “you’re worth it,” I believe that I am worthy of toxic-free products, too. I hope that mothers around the world are able to teach their daughters how to be champions of their own health–make-up or not–and for companies that are marketing to women to pledge to be toxic-free and disclose fragrance ingredients.


A. Tianna Scozzaro is the Director of the Sierra Club’s Gender, Equity & Environment Program, where she works to ensure climate and environment policies support women and LGBTQ communities. Previously, she worked on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, conducted research about women's environmental stewardship in Congress and served as a public policy fellow for the U.S. House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.  She holds an MPA in Environmental Science and Policy from Columbia and an undergraduate degree from UC Davis.