For Halloween, many kids will use face paint as the perfect finishing touch for their costumes. It’s a popular alternative to costume masks, which can obscure children’s vision on dark streets. But exposure to some ingredients in novelty makeup can result in scary reactions, like skin rashes, itching, swollen eyelids and other irritations, where the paints are applied.
Beware of misleading marketing claims on product packaging. Some paints claim to be “nontoxic,” “gentle” or “hypoallergenic,” despite being made with known skin allergens. These terms mean whatever a company wants them to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled hypoallergenic aren’t required to submit substantiation of their claims to the Food and Drug Administration.
And FDA tests for heavy metals in face paint show they may contain toxic chemicals. In all 10 samples the agency found lead, a severe neurotoxin with no safe level of exposure. Lead exposure at extremely low doses can impair brain development and irreversibly lower a child’s IQ, cause learning and behavior problems, damage hearing and slow growth.
Each of the 10 face paint samples also contained nickel, cobalt and chromium, all heavy metals that can cause skin allergies. Nine of the 10 contained arsenic.
In addition to what the FDA tests revealed, we know there are other toxic chemicals that can be found in some makeup.
So try out seemingly fun face paint before committing to a particular Halloween look: Smear a little on your child’s forearm to test for allergic reactions. If you see redness, swelling or irritation, keep the paint off their face.
In 2020, EWG tested samples of talc-based makeup for the notorious carcinogen asbestos. We found it in three of 21 samples, including one toy makeup kit marketed to children that contained more than 4 million asbestos fiber structures.
Asbestos is one of the most dangerous substances on Earth, linked to several types of cancer, including mesothelioma and the scarring lung disease asbestosis. Talc-based cosmetics, especially those in powdered form, can be inhaled when applied to the face, but users often aren’t aware of this risk. Depending on the particle size, the powder can lodge in children’s nasal passages and even lungs, where it may cause damage.
Almost monthly, the FDA issues a new voluntary recall of aerosolized personal care products contaminated by cancer-causing benzene, for which there’s no safe level of human exposure.
Many colored hairsprays contain toxic chemicals and fragrance. Kids can easily breathe in sprays used for their costumes. So instead of a spray, find a great hat or wig at a secondhand store or create a fun hairdo with ribbons and barrettes. To reduce inhalation risk and benzene exposure, consumers should avoid aerosol-based hair products and other spray cosmetics.
Benzene exposure is linked to a lower number of red blood cell levels and a higher risk of leukemia. A toxicity assessment by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown benzene can harm the central nervous system and may affect reproductive organs.
Benzene isn’t intentionally added to products as an ingredient, so you won’t be able to avoid it by looking for it when shopping, because it’s not listed on ingredient labels .
When shopping for items for your kid’s costume, read product labels and avoid those that list the mystery blend of chemicals simply called “fragrance.” Fragrance mixtures may contain various scent chemicals linked to skin allergies, dermatitis and endocrine disruption.
Toxic “forever chemicals” called PFAS are used in and contaminate cosmetics and other personal care products. In 2021, researchers found more than half of 231 cosmetics products tested contained PFAS, but most did not list any PFAS compounds on their ingredient labels.
PFAS are a large family of chemicals linked to harm to the immune system, such as reduced vaccine efficacy; harm to development and the reproductive system, such as reduced birth weight and impacts on fertility; increased risk of certain cancers; and effects on metabolism, such as changes in cholesterol and weight gain.
Skip the face paint and make your own
Be wary of novelty face paint kits, which are often made from cheaply sourced and potentially hazardous ingredients. Instead, why not make face paint in your own kitchen?
In most cases, it’s easy enough that kids can help. The internet is rife with recipes that use everyday ingredients – flour, cornstarch, white cold cream or face lotion, vegetable or baby oil, washable paint or food coloring, petroleum jelly, Kool-Aid, unflavored gelatin, and even toothpaste and water.
Here are some ways to make Halloween a little less frightful:
- Avoid powders, especially any that contain talc. Instead, look for cream-based makeup.
- Skip the aerosol-based novelty cosmetics and personal care products.
- Look for the term “fragrance” on product labels and ditch those items.
- Choose lipsticks carefully. Deep red colors can contain lead.
- Some face paint may warn consumers it is not for use near the eyes. Be careful to follow instructions and keep makeup from getting into children’s eyes.
- Remember to wash the makeup off before going to bed. Wearing face paint too long might irritate skin, and bits can flake off or smear and get into eyes.
And find healthier options for your child using EWG’s Skin Deep® database, which scores more than 87,000 personal care products based on whether they contain ingredients of concern.