The Price of Beauty: What’s Lurking in Your Cosmetics?

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I think it was my sophomore year in college when I realized I preferred the fifteen extra minutes of beauty sleep to the fifteen minutes I spent trying to wrangle my face into some semblance of glamour for my 8 a.m. lectures in postmodern literary theory.


It’s a habit that stuck. To this day, many moons on, I still opt for the extra sleep, reserving my cosmetic efforts for special occasions on which a dress and a pair of heels are also in the mix. All this time, I thought I was simply sparing myself the hassle of being overly vain, but, as it turns out, I may have been sparing myself from cancer and infertility as well.


Fun with Phthalates
The average American woman uses up to twelve products a day. Think about it: soap, shampoo, conditioner, and other hair products of all kinds, cleanser, moisturizers for every part of the body, deodorant, a veritable artist’s palette of makeup, fragrance (both the kind that resides in your products and the kind you spritz on as a finishing touch). On average, those twelve products contain up to 180 chemicals.


These chemicals appear in different combinations in different cosmetic products; some of them, in small doses, do not have any proven ill effect on your overall health. However, there are plenty that reportedly do. The chemical criminals lurking in your everyday beauty products include mercury, lead acetate, formaldehyde (yes, the stuff coroners use to embalm corpses), toluene, petroleum distillates (petroleum, as in the oil byproduct), coal tar, and phthalates.


I know a carcinogen when I see one, but what’s a phthalate? Anything with that many consonants in a row can’t be good for you. According to AmericanChemistry.com, phthalates are “a family of compounds whose primary use is as a vinyl softener. They are colorless, oily liquids with little or no odor and low volatility.” Phthalates are what keep your perfume fragrant for the whole day or keep that salon-fresh scent wafting from your hair hours after you shampoo, among other things.


Also on AmericanChemistry.com, the Phthalate Esters Panel of the American Chemistry Council states, “[Michigan State University’s Institute for Environmental Toxicology] concluded that human exposures to the phthalates of most concern are generally thousands of times lower than the lowest adverse effect levels for these phthalates, even in the most sensitive animal species.”


No harm, no foul—so says the panel. But a study the Environmental Working Group conducted in 2002 came to a vastly different conclusion: “In animal tests some phthalates damage the developing testes of offspring and cause malformations of the penis and other parts of the reproductive tract.” This means that the male offspring of females who had prolonged exposure to phthalates had some problems with their plumbing. Nobody wants that. Now, consider that 70 percent of all personal-care products on the market contain phthalates.


Us Versus Them
Phthalates might be the Al Capone of hazardous elements lurking in your products, but there are more: teratogens, which cause birth defects; reproductive toxins that cause infertility; and developmental toxins that are hazardous to developing fetuses. The next logical question is this: how exactly do phthalates, carcinogens, and other such toxic treats wind up in our shampoo, our toilet paper, our foundation, our moisturizer—basically all things that maintain our Western standards of hygiene and beauty?


This presents another conundrum. If you ask CosmeticsInfo.org what harmful ingredients appear in the most basic beauty products, the site will assure you that the cosmetics industry follows the rigorous regulation guidelines set forth by the Food and Drug Administration, and that no product is put on the market without first passing muster for consumer safety. These rigorous guidelines aside, however, the FDA has no authority to regulate follow-up research on the health effects of various chemicals in cosmetics, and cannot issue a recall of any harmful cosmetic products. Basically, the organization can’t take any action until a product is proven unsafe in a court of law.


Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, by Stacy Malkan, addresses this lack of regulation and some other alarming tidbits:


  • The United States has banned ten chemical additives from cosmetics. By way of contrast, the European Union has banned 1,100. Makes you wonder about the other 1,090.
  • Almost 90 percent of the chemicals used in cosmetics sold in the United States have not been assessed for safety.
  • The regulating body of the cosmetics and personal-products industry is the Cosmetic Ingredients Review Board; this board is industry sponsored and, furthermore, has no authority to enforce bans on certain ingredients that are found to be toxic.


What’s a Conscientious Consumer to Do?
Given these facts, one might decide to default to products labeled with some hippie-happy adjective like “organic” or “natural” or “herbal.” Sadly, due to the aforementioned lack of regulation, many products that call themselves natural are just as toxic as the ones that don’t. Label reading has never been more important.


While you peruse ingredients lists on labels, there are some red flags to watch out for. These include laureth sulfate, a chemical used as an engine degreaser (often prettily branded as being derived from coconuts); propylene glycol, the main ingredient in antifreeze; almost any ingredient ending in –araben, including but not limited to ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben; talc, which is basically asbestos; sodium tallowate and other animal products that aren’t milk-based; and any petroleum byproducts, such as petroleum jelly, mineral oil, and paraffin.


You might be contemplating that list and imagining your medicine cabinet, cosmetics bag, and bathroom counter bare of any beauty products. But fear not, because more-healthful alternatives do exist. To avoid phthalates, opt for essential oils and other natural fragrances. Instead of sulfates, look for glucosides, which are naturally derived from sugar and are perfectly effective cleansers. Swap out talcum powder for finely milled cornstarch to achieve similarly sweat-free effects. Exchange the petroleum jelly for some beeswax, and the animal products for vegetable-based oils and soaps, and you’re off to an excellent start. It is possible to live a chemical-light lifestyle if you just take a little care in choosing your products.


If you decide this issue is something worth paying attention to, educate yourself. These excellent online resources all address the issue of toxic cosmetics:


  • SafeCosmetics.org elicits pledges from cosmetic companies to bring their formulation standards up to that of the European Union, essentially promising to not use those other 1,090 chemicals.
  • Natural-Skincare-Authority.com offers incredibly helpful (and slightly scary) reviews of various products and rates, based on their toxicity.
  • CosmeticsDatabase.com, otherwise known as Skin Deep, is essentially a search engine where you can input the name of a product and the site will tell you its hazard level on a scale of 1–10.


Suffice to say, contemplating which products are best suited to your own health-and-wellness values can be overwhelming, especially in the face of this endless parade of contradictory arguments. We live in a chemical age, which means there’s always something lurking that’s reported to be cancer-causing, crazy-making, or just plain bad for you. The best you can do is arm yourself with all the knowledge you can, be conscientious about the purchases you make and the companies you patronize, and make a concerted effort to not get too paranoid, which is challenge enough, all things considered.

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