Melody is ready for prom. She steps one foot forward through the slit of her burgundy dress to show black strappy heels as she poses for photos on a balcony. Her long brown hair and a sparkly choker shine as she turns her head and smiles for the camera. The 18-year-old has just finished perfecting what she jokingly calls her “fancy dancy” look — complete with a “smoky reddish eye with a wing to match the dress” and a shimmer of highlighter on her cheeks.
But Melody isn’t attending the cherished hallmark of the high school experience on this particular day. It’s possible that Melody, who attends an online high school program and keeps her last name private online, won’t go to a prom at all. She is a social media influencer with 1.4 million followers on YouTube. And this seven-minute makeup tutorial is part of a lucrative video operation to make money through ads, sponsorships, merchandize sales and more.
Melody, who goes by Mel Joy online, is good at her job. Obsessed teens flock to her on YouTube (and Snapchat and Instagram) for advice on friendship, fashion, products and of course, makeup. The “prom” video is no exception. It has been viewed more than 360,000 times since it was posted in February.
The products featured in the videos are widely available on drugstore shelves or at makeup retailers, but teenage fans of beauty influencers like Mel Joy frequently find them through YouTube recommendations.
“I get a lot of products that I see off of YouTube,” said Rachel Morff, an 18-year-old from Minnesota who estimates she spends at least an hour every other day tuning into her favorite channels for technique and product inspiration. “YouTubers really help because they review products, so I can kind of see what it looks like before I purchase something.”
Mic, in partnership with the Investigative Fund, a nonprofit newsroom for investigative journalism, analyzed a dozen makeup tutorials posted by six YouTube beauty influencers to understand the cosmetic regimens being marketed to teens, with a specific eye to how many products were being featured in each video and the ingredients in those products. The influencers in our analysis — Andrea’s Choice, Kathleen Lights, Olivia Jade, Amanda Steele, NikkieTutorials and Mel Joy — did not respond to multiple requests for comment on how they decide which products to promote and whether they consider ingredient and exposure concerns when making their videos.
At least two-thirds of the products from the videos we analyzed contained ingredients that consumer safety experts say have been linked to hormone disruption, cancer, environmental issues or other health risks. At least one product included a preservative that has been banned in the European Union, which has a more stringent approach to cosmetic regulation and testing than the United States.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration’s authority to regulate cosmetics is limited. With the exception of color additives, it has no power to approve or even test products or ingredients before they hit the market, meaning it’s up to the manufacturers to vouch for their safety. As it stands now, the agency restricts or prohibits use of just 11 ingredients. The EU, by contrast, bans or restricts more than 1,000 and requires pre-market safety assessments.
Given the relatively lax regulatory environment in the U.S. and recent research showing how sensitive developing bodies can be to certain chemicals in makeup, researchers and consumer safety advocates are concerned about teenagers using products containing potentially hormone-altering or carcinogenic ingredients. “Teenagers and young women are going through a period of adolescence and their hormones are active and rapidly changing… and so exposure to certain chemicals, endocrine-disrupting chemicals from these products, can wreak havoc,” said Nneka Leiba, director of healthy living science at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that advocates against toxins in chemicals.
Moreover, the sheer number of products recommended in each tutorial — an average of about 14 by our count — could be putting girls at risk for higher exposure, Leiba said. “The more products you put on, the more you’re exposing yourself to chemicals in general,” she said.
Mic also reached out to representatives for more than 40 brands that appeared in the videos that included at least one ingredient on our list. Those that responded said they stand by their products and the ingredients they used.
“All our products are safe and have been developed, manufactured and packaged in compliance with the regulations applicable in each country in which they are sold,” a spokesperson for Coty, which owns Coty Airspun, CoverGirl and Rimmel, said in an emailed statement. A spokesperson for Revlon said in an email the company takes “our commitment to the safety and health of our consumers and employees very seriously” and that all the ingredients from Mic’s analysis found in their products “have been reviewed, determined safe and approved for their intended use by regulatory authorities.” The email statement added:
“Safety clearance for cosmetic ingredients is a very thorough process that takes into consideration many factors like the impurity composition of the ingredients and the product end user. Particular attention is focused on special groups such as teens, pregnant women and elderly populations.”
Catrice Cosmetics, meanwhile, said its products go through a safety assessment before hitting the market, and that its internal ingredient standards “are stricter than European law.” The brand added that while it believes the ingredient in question — a common emulsifier that can contain trace amounts of a carcinogenic contaminant — is safe given the amounts and processes used, it is looking for alternatives due to the “controversial sustainability profile” of the ingredient.
The long-term health impacts of layering on a dozen products
Marketing makeup to teens isn’t new — young women have long been a lucrative target demographic, in part because of the opportunity to build brand loyalty. But today’s beauty influencers are taking makeup to new levels. Platforms such as YouTube and Instagram are a go-to source for makeup information, in a shift largely driven by younger consumers, according to consumer marketing firm NPD Group.
We looked at the YouTube channels of six beauty influencers with more than 1 million subscribers and who have received media coverage for their popularity with teenage viewers and who have posted at least two makeup tutorials or product recommendation videos in the last year: Andrea’s Choice, Kathleen Lights, Olivia Jade, Amanda Steele, NikkieTutorials and Mel Joy. The majority of the channels feature content relevant to teens, such as posts on prom or back-to-school looks. All appear to receive compensation for their work, through some combination of sponsorships of posts (both prom videos in our analysis were sponsored by dress companies, for instance), or contracts to feature specific cosmetic products in their videos or on Snapchat and Instagram, or via affiliate links, which pay the YouTuber a portion of the sales amount when a user clicks through from their page and makes a purchase. In 2017, Forbes reported that those with 1 million followers, much like the influencers in our analysis, can make six figures from a single video partnership deal.
We also reviewed the published ingredient lists for more than 150 products promoted in the videos to see if they included one of two dozen substances flagged as concerning by consumer safety advocates or researchers. (In all, there were 169 products in the videos. We were unable to identify the brand or obtain ingredient lists for 14 items.) The ingredient lists were sourced from product packaging and brand websites; in cases in which an ingredient list could only be found on the website of an independent cosmetic retailer, such as Sephora or Ulta, we sought confirmation from the makeup company.
The list of ingredients was compiled using expert interviews, published research and the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetics database, which publishes health and safety ratings of products and ingredients, and a “chemicals of concern” list produced by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition backed by the nonprofit Breast Cancer Prevention Partners. They include potential hormone disruptors such as parabens, potential carcinogens such as talc and fragrance/parfum, a label designation that can mask other hormone-altering chemicals.
At least 102 of the 153 items from the 12 videos we analyzed included at least one of the ingredients on our list. Some included ingredients banned or restricted in countries with more stringent regulations than the United States. Isobutylparaben, which has been banned by European regulators, appeared on the ingredient list for a Dinur moisturizer featured by Olivia Jade, while a popular blush from Nars, included in a “holiday glam” tutorial posted on Andrea’s Choice channel, lists triclosan, an antibacterial agent restricted in the EU and under review in the United States, on its packaging. At least 45 products included suspected endocrine disruptors, a class of chemicals that advocates and researchers say can be problematic for teens. “There probably is more susceptibility in younger women,” Dr. William H. Goodson III, who specializes in cancer surgery and breast surgery, said. “There are times in your life cycle when cells will change, and they’re supposed to change in prescribed ways.”
Many of these chemicals, including the hormone-altering ones, can be found in an array of personal care products, household items such as cleaning supplies or nonstick pans, and even some foods. But makeup is “likely one of the exposure routes for girls,” according to Heather Patisaul, a professor in the toxicology program at North Carolina State University.
A study published in the journal of Environmental Health Perspectives in March 2016 illuminated how sensitive teen bodies may be to exposure through makeup. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, a local medical clinic, and a community youth group recruited 100 Latina teens from Salinas, California, and asked them to swap out their go-to products for versions labeled free of chemicals that research suggests might interfere with hormones — including phthalates, parabens, triclosan and oxybenzone. After just three days, the levels of chemicals detected in the bodies dropped dramatically. Parabens found in urine samples decreased by more than 40% on average.
Because “exposure is directly related to how often you use it,” Patisaul recommends teens limit use of products containing these ingredients as much as possible. The videos we analyzed feature between 11 and 22 products each, and following the tutorials could increase exposure.
The influence of YouTube on teenage buying habits
Many beauty lovers are drawn to the creativity and skill demonstrated by the beauty influencers on YouTube. Katey Denno, a celebrity makeup artist considered a leader in the green and non-toxic beauty movement, said the artistic expression and skill shown by the beauty influencers are impressive. But Denno has watched with dismay as influencers promote more and more products for looks such as contouring or face-baking, which involve using multiple layers. She worries both about exposure from the makeup and the harsh cleansers needed to strip the face of product.
“The whole idea of recreating a face on top of your face is art, and it’s fantastic and I applaud these kids for doing this, but it’s also just layer upon layer of everyday exposure to all of these things that we don’t need topically on our skin,” Denno said, adding “they’re loading up in our bloodstream.”
It’s hard to know how many teens are mimicking the techniques they see on YouTube. But NPD, the consumer marketing group, cites the popularity of contouring, makeup baking and draping as driving product sales.
Indeed, Morff, the 18-year-old from Minnesota, said her favorite influencers inspired her to start wearing a “full face.” “Seeing stuff like that trend on YouTube, it really changed the game,” she said.
Morff, who describes her style as “natural glam,” estimated she uses three or more products for each element of her face (skin, eyes, lips) — meaning her daily product tally is similar to those found in the YouTube routines. Her cosmetics kit is filled with products recommended by her favorite stars, including the vlogger who goes by Kathleen Lights, a young millennial influencer with more than 3.8 million followers, who recommends 16 items in her “affordable” beauty tutorial.
Even when following the product plugs, Morff said she tries to prioritize buying the ones touted as natural or cruelty free. She said that while she has heard of parabens and other endocrine disruptors, it hadn’t occurred to her to be concerned. “I probably should be,” she said.
Texas teen Laura Pearson also relies on YouTube tutorials, including those posted by rising star Olivia Jade, for product recommendations. Pearson gravitates toward reviews of affordable products, a popular theme for the videos.
“I’m only 16, I don’t have a lot of money, so I can’t go out and buy $300 worth of makeup all the time,” the high school student from Fort Worth said. “So doing reviews of a drugstore concealer or a drugstore this or that, it’s really helpful to see what the product does or how it blends out on skin. ”
Leiba at EWG finds the popularity of the drugstore-brand videos especially concerning. “Sometimes the adage, ‘You get what you pay for,’ is true, unfortunately,” she said. “Some of the cheaper products are often full of cheaper ingredients, which may not have gone through the testing needed or are still contaminated with concerning chemicals.” That trend showed up in our analysis; 85% of the products in a “back-to-school” affordable beauty tutorial posted by Amanda Steele contained at least one of the ingredients of concern. Six of the 14 products featured included at least one suspected endocrine disruptor. The products in these videos came from drugstore brands anyone would recognize, including Revlon, Neutrogena and NYX.
Not every fan follows the tutorials exactly. Rachel Swenson, a Minneapolis seventh-grader who has been obsessed with beauty videos since fifth grade, follows beauty influencers online for the personalities and drama. She’ll occasionally try fun looks like glitter lipstick but doesn’t wear a lot of makeup every day. “It’s kind of like a hobby thing or self-expression,” she said.
Rachel’s mom, Alice Swenson, is a doctor at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. She would prefer Rachel not cake on heavy foundation for aesthetic reasons, but said she doesn’t worry about exposure caused by makeup. The pediatrician said she has “a pretty high bar to reach to be concerned about the endocrine effects of things,” and “as a physician myself, it’s something I have never thought about at all.”
Controversial ingredients commonly used in makeup
Every swipe of lip gloss, brushstroke of rosy blush and wave of a mascara wand transmits a mix of chemicals to your skin. Some, like water, are harmless. Others can be irritants that could cause a rash or reaction if you’re allergic. But there are other widely used ingredients that some research suggests could have unintended health effects, especially for teens.
Take parabens, which are preservatives used to prevent bacteria growth in a variety of products, from makeup foundation to food, for example. Scientists have debated research about parabens’ effects on humans, including its exposure from cosmetics. Those concerned about the chemicals, which can mimic estrogen in the body, point to studies that have linked certain kinds of parabens to reproductive problems, including lowered sperm count in rats, and cancer (so-called long-chain parabens, including propylparaben and butylparaben, are believed to have greater estrogenic effects). One oft-cited study, published in 2004, found the presence of parabens in 20 human breast tumors. More recently, in 2015, researchers affiliated with the Silent Spring Institute, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit “dedicated to science that serves the public interest,” exposed breast cancer cells to parabens and found that the chemicals “may be more potent at lower doses than previous studies have suggested.”
“Although parabens are known to mimic the growth effects of estrogens on breast cancer cells, some consider their effect too weak to cause harm,” Dale Leitman, a gynecologist and molecular biologist at University California, Berkeley, who served as lead investigator in the study, said in a press release about the paper, which was published in Environmental Health Perspectives. “But this might not be true when parabens are combined with other agents that regulate cell growth.”
There are an increasing number of concerns around how parabens and other chemicals can affect health. Many experts consider methyl paraben one of the safer variations of the preservative. But a study published in May in the journal Toxicological Sciences looking at the combined effects of three common chemicals, including methyl paraben, on benign breast cells found that even at low concentrations, the mixture had a bigger effect on breast cells than the individual chemicals. The finding exposes a major concern, according to the study’s lead author: There isn’t enough publicly available testing of how exposure to multiple chemicals found in many products can impact health.
“Until you start looking at the effects of things in groups, you have no clue what’s going on,” said Goodson, who was a senior author of the study. “All the stuff we’re told about safety is based on a methodology that totally ignores the reality of how we live.”
Meanwhile, the EU has banned five types of parabens because of insufficient data on their safety, and in 2014, lowered the maximum concentration levels allowed for butylparaben and propylparaben. (The EU’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety has also deemed ethylparaben and methylparaben safe and “some of the most efficient preservatives.”)
Several green beauty experts and scientists, including a European regulator, said they believe the fears surrounding parabens are overblown and that the benefit of preventing bacteria growth outweighs any risk. “The safety of these [parabens], in my mind, has been proven for a number of years and it’s really not a thing that people should be concerned about,” said Perry Romanowski, a chemist and former cosmetic formulator who co-authors The Beauty Brains blog. There’s “no evidence to suggest that there’s any problem using cosmetics, even with younger people,” he added.
The Washington, D.C.-based Cosmetics Ingredient Review, a nonprofit panel of scientists who “review and assess the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics,” says parabens are safe for use in products.
“The available scientific data do not indicate that ingredients such as parabens are endocrine disrupting chemicals,” Bart Heldreth, CIR’s executive director, said in an email, pointing to guidance CIR has published online. The group, which is funded by a cosmetics industry trade association but says it acts independently, publishes its findings online and in peer-reviewed journals. The FDA, meanwhile, reports that while its scientists continue to evaluate the safety of the ingredient, “at this time, we do not have information showing that parabens as they are used in cosmetics have an effect on human health.”
But experts concerned about chemical exposure say that even if the level of parabens included in each individual item are generally viewed as safe, they worry about the cumulative effect of the near-constant exposure to potential endocrine disruptors through cosmetics and other sources. And while the long-term effects of exposure on teens is debated, we do know that the chemicals are making their way into their bloodstreams. A 2008 study by EWG, which found 16 potentially hormone-altering chemicals commonly used in cosmetics in the urine and blood samples collected from teens nationwide, detected parabens in all 20 participants.
It is increasingly possible to find makeup labeled “paraben free,” yet the YouTube videos featured at least 21 products — about 13% of those analyzed — containing the preservatives, with many of those including multiple kinds of parabens; 29% of products contained at least one suspected endocrine disruptor.
The labels fragrance or parfum — found in 16% of products in our YouTube analysis — can also conceal potentially harmful ingredients for teens, experts say. Currently, U.S. law does not require that companies list most of the chemicals they use to create these scents. But testing suggests fragrance mixtures can include phthalates, another hormone-altering class of chemicals, according to EWG. Hormonal effects on humans include lowering the sperm count in men, while animal studies have linked phthalates to the spread of breast and liver cancer. The European Union has banned the use of some phthalates, citing concerns over cancer and the impact that exposure can have on reproductive systems, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
“If you do one thing at the store, just get fragrance free and you’ve cut your exposure down quite a lot,” Patisaul, the toxicology professor, said.
Other ingredients labeled “chemicals of concern” by the EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics showed up, too. Butylated compounds BHT and BHA, which are also preservatives, are highlighted by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics due to research showing they may be potential carcinogens and endocrine-disruptors (some safety assessments have deemed BHT, the more common of the two, safe in concentrations used). At least one of those two compounds were found in a combined 18 products. Eight contained retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A commonly found in sunscreen that some research suggests can actually speed up the growth of cancer in the skin. Even more products were made using ingredients that can become contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals. Take talc, which showed up in 30 products in the videos. Cases of asbestos-tainted talc have been the subject of cancer claims and seven-figure legal settlements in the United States. CIR, which has deemed the ingredient safe for use, says that only talc containing “no detectable fibrous asbestos” is used in cosmetics. And yet, there have been cases alleged of asbestos-tainted talc in cosmetic products as recently as this year. Without transparent pre-market testing, consumer safety experts say, it’s difficult for consumers to know whether the talc in their products is indeed safe.
When asked for comment on our findings and concerns expressed by other experts, a spokeswoman for the FDA said the agency “does not have pre-market authority over cosmetics, meaning that manufacturers are not required to provide safety data to FDA for cosmetics or to obtain FDA approval for cosmetics” and that “it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure the safety of the products they intend to market.” (Products that contain sun protection are regulated as both a cosmetic and a drug, meaning they must get pre-market approval or meet other standards meant to ensure they are generally recognized as safe and effective, and not misbranded.)
That approach sets the United States apart from other governments, including the European Union. The EU’s cosmetics regulations, which govern cosmetic safety in the member states, cover everything from ingredients and labeling to misleading product claims and testing. Among other requirements, it dictates that all products are added to an online notification portal before they hit the market. Manufacturers or importers must also assign an individual living in a member state to be responsible for meeting safety and compliance requirements, including reporting to regulators any adverse effects from use of their products. “The manufacturer is responsible for the safety of their products, and must ensure that they undergo an expert scientific safety assessment before they are sold,” an EU website on cosmetics says.
“It is not enough to say a cosmetic product is safe — one has to show it through the safety of all the ingredients, meaning their chemical structure, exposure to these and their toxicological profile,” said Vera Rogiers, a professor and co-chair of the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, which provides opinions on the health and safety risks of non-food consumer products, including makeup.
The laws that govern the FDA’s power to regulate the $60 billion U.S. cosmetics industry, meanwhile, haven’t been updated in 80 years. Beyond the lack of pre-market testing requirements, current law doesn’t give the FDA authority to mandate that companies report adverse effects from their products, meaning it’s up to brands to disclose issues with their own products.
The laws that govern the FDA’s power to regulate the $60 billion U.S. cosmetics industry, meanwhile, haven’t been updated in 80 years.
While FDA scientists do conduct cosmetics safety research, including analyzing products when safety concerns arise, the Cosmetics Ingredient Review is considered a primary arbiter of ingredient safety in this country. Its members review available scientific data related to ingredient safety and present its findings at public meetings. But, as a 2013 investigation by the Investigative Fund and Washington Monthly showed, because it is not a government agency, there are no mechanisms for the public to assess potential conflicts of interest for CIR’s members or obtain information about its process or budget through Freedom of Information Act requests.
When asked for comment on the board’s independence and open records policies, Heldreth said members are “independent clinicians, academics and researchers whose careers are separate from the cosmetic industry” who are “subject to the same conflict of interest analysis as members of an FDA advisory committee.”
There has been a recent push to gather more information and overhaul and strengthen cosmetic safety laws. The FDA announced on July 2 a voluntary survey “to identify the current quality management and safety practices in the cosmetic industry.” Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have introduced legislation that would, among other changes, give the FDA more authority to initiate recalls and require it proactively test more chemicals for safety (similar legislation introduced in past sessions of Congress has not made it to a vote). Propylparaben, found in 11 products in our analysis, would be one of the first chemicals to be reviewed. The push to change the laws has recently gained some high-profile support from makeup industry leaders: In April, Kourtney Kardashian — who, along with her reality TV-starring sisters, has become a cosmetics mogul — went to Capitol Hill to advocate for stricter regulation.
Despite a lack of action from regulators, some major players in the cosmetics industry are taking the initiative to drop controversial ingredients, partly due to increased consumer awareness and pressure. In August 2017, Procter & Gamble announced plans to disclose additional fragrance ingredients. Retailers are joining the movement, too. Target has increased the number of green or natural products it sells, and in May, Sephora announced a clean beauty section, selling makeup free of potentially harmful ingredients from more than 50 brands.
But that doesn’t address how — or where — teens are getting their cosmetic product recommendations in the first place. Leiba of EWG said educating influencers about the chemical loads in cosmetics could “go a long way” in getting them to promote healthier products. And given their massive platforms, the wealth of information about exposure to potentially toxic chemicals in cosmetics, and the growing number of green or natural alternatives, some think these YouTube influencers have a greater responsibility to consider and talk about ingredient safety.
Erin Schrode, a 27-year-old activist and former congressional candidate who has been working to promote toxin-free makeup alternatives since the mid-2000s, said she’s disappointed to see influencers talk about body image and health without making potentially harmful ingredients part of the conversation.
“This is an opportunity for influencers, celebrities, starlets, to teach young women in particular healthier habits,” Schrode said. “You don’t have to sacrifice beauty for health in this day and age. And with their market share and their unbelievable disproportionate power and fan base that’s following them in this digital age, they have a capacity to change companies.”
Correction: July 27, 2018
This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Investigative Fund interns Elena Mejia Lutz and Natalie Shields contributed research to this report.
Torey Van Oot is a freelance reporter based in Minneapolis.
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