Why Silica Should Make You a Tad Bit Nervous

To a chemist, crystalline silica is magical: It sheers out to a breathable, transparent layer, helps create a silky texture, and has amazing oil absorbency. No wonder it’s in almost all powder-based formulas. White and fluffy that it is, it’s solid gold.

But this fairy dust is fairly bad for you and your beautiful lungs.

Like, really, really bad.¹

As a formulator, I double-masked before getting within a foot of the stuff, and always scooped it out under a ventilation hood. Even then, I was hella nervous.

Tiny and lightweight as the particles are, they float up into the air and fly about like they don’t have a care in the world. All they want is to find a nice, cozy spot to snuggle up in, and your lungs are their ideal habitat.

Once inhaled, silica sticks around, generating scar tissue that, with time and repeated exposure, may lead to irreversible pulmonary diseases and lung cancer².

I fear I may have frightened you by going straight to cancer. You’re not going to die from eye shadow or setting powders. But you should use caution when applying fine powders whose first ten listed ingredients include silica, silicate, micronized talc, or hydrous magnesium silicate.

Though concerned with the construction and maritime industries, where exposure to respirable crystalline silica is at its most extreme, OSHA does recommend replacing “crystalline silica materials with safer substitutes, whenever possible.³” The agency is also adamant about using proper protection when exposed to the stuff.

Which is why when I first unscrewed the cap to MAKE UP FOR EVER’s Ultra HD Microfinishing Loose Powder I was a wee bit worried.

I had read the ingredient list before opening, but was like no way it’s just solid, loose silica. That can’t be legal. But then it was solid, loose silica. WTF.

Granted, the construction workers most at risk for silicosis are exposed to a significantly higher concentration than you would be when powdering your cheeks⁴. But cosmetic application is a non-zero exposure. You should be perfectly safe if you use products as intended and with common sense. Just know that “perfectly safe” isn’t perfect, considering the inherent inhalation risks with something as easily airborne as loose silica.

If you haven’t already turned up your nose at silica-based powder products, and insist on continuing to use them, do me a solid: When applying, physically turn up your nose and zip your lips to decrease the chance of direct inhalation. Load as little onto your brush as possible, or lightly tap with a sponge to avoid fly-away into your immediate breathing space.

MAKE UP FOR EVER does warn on its packaging to use as little product as possible at a time. But the warning is cleverly skewed as a suggested application technique, and not as a technique necessary to reducing inhalation risk. Legally, the packaging fully warns you against inhalation. But does so in a grossly obtuse way. Here, MAKE UP FOR EVER relies mainly on your common sense to best protect your lungs, and on your unawareness of potential silica harm to legally cover their asses. The phrasing has your anesthetic interests in mind, but completely ignores your best health interests. I think you deserve way more as a consumer. (And that’s not even counting the price: $36 for 8.5 grams of one of other cheapest cosmetic materials. Ugh.) As an alternative, consider using products like Laura Mercier’s Translucent Loose Setting Powder (cornstarch and larger-diameter talc) Or Urban Decay’s setting mists. Neither of these are perfect (more on this later), but they certainly pose less of an inhalation risk.

I’m a full advocate to doing whatever it is that makes you feel your most beautiful. But when it comes to using setting powders, I recommend staying away from loose silicas.

Are there any products that give you second thoughts? Let me know in the comments below!

References

  1. Mazurek JM, Wood JM, Schleiff PL, Weissman DN. Surveillance for Silicosis Deaths Among Persons Aged 15–44 Years — United States, 1999–2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2017;66:747–752. <http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6628a2>
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Surveillance for Silicosis Deaths Among Persons Aged 14-44 Years—United States 1999-2015. <https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6628a2.htm?s_cid=mm6628a2_e>
  3. OSHA Fact Sheet: Crystalline Silica Exposure Health Hazard Information. <https://www.silica-safe.org/know-the-hazard/body/2-OSHA-Crystalline-Silica-Fact-Sheet.pdf>
  4. United States Department of Labor. Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Silica. <https://www.osha.gov/dsg/topics/silicacrystalline/>

Further Reading