Cosmetic Cautions

A variety of toxic substances can make looking good hazardous to your health.

By Theresa Sullivan Barger

January 2013


Lila Martin eats organically and cleans her home with natural products, so switching to personal-care products free of toxins was the next logical step. “I spend a lot of time outside, I try to live a healthy lifestyle and I go to a naturopath,” says Martin, 33. “I thought it was contradictory to still be using all those chemicals on my body and hair.”

For the past several months, the Portland, Oregon, public relations manager has been gradually converting from products with synthetic chemicals to more natural alternatives, with mixed results. At first, she found it challenging to find shampoo, conditioner and deodorant that were effective, but she kept trying. She finally settled on a shampoo that, while not all natural, is free of substances that have been linked to cancer.

“If you…shop for lip-color, the selection is not as wide,” says Martin. “I’ve had trouble finding the right color.” But with the Food and Drug Admini­stration finding lead in hundreds of lipsticks, including high-end brands, Martin doesn’t want to take chances.

“There is no safe level of lead,” says Mark Mitchell, MD, MPH, co-chair of the Environmental Health Task Force for the National Medical Association.

In addition to lead in lipstick, mercury in skin cream and formaldehyde in nail polish, studies show that many personal care products contain known toxic chemicals linked to breast cancer, early puberty, infertility, birth defects and learning disabilities.

Those most at risk are developing fetuses, babies and young children, but adolescents and women of child-bearing age are also vulnerable, studies show. For example, 97% of 2,500 Americans who underwent urine testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed traces in their bodies of multiple chemicals used in cosmetics to hold color and scent.

Pretty Disturbing

The “Not Too Pretty” report, released by three organizations—Coming Clean, Environmental Working Group and Health Care Without Harm—found chemicals linked to birth defects in more than 70% of body-care products.

“The US has banned these chemicals from toys, but they are still legal to use in personal care products,” says Stacy Malkan, author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (New Society) and co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

Some 10,500 chemicals used in cosmetics in the US haven’t been assessed for safety, says Lisa Archer, director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics at the Breast Cancer Fund. Adds Mitchell, “In the US, there are 11 chemicals that are banned from cosmetics. In Europe, there are 1,200 that are banned.”

A Simple Approach

With so many toxins in everything from baby shampoo and body wash to deodorant and hair color, Malkan and Archer recommend that consumers reduce their exposure to toxins by simplifying their routines and trying to avoid fragrance, which contains chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption and allergies.

The damage comes from cumulative exposure to products that build up in people’s bodies, says Elizabeth Saunders, legislative director with Clean Water Action, a Campaign for Safe Cosmetics coalition partner.

“Reduce the products you use overall, especially with kids and babies, and when pregnant,” Malkan says.

Children are not equipped with the same biological safeguards as adults, says Mitchell, the public health doctor. “They’re more susceptible to chemical hazards because their skin surface
is larger proportionally than an adult; their organs are not as well developed; their skin is likely to be thinner; and their immune system is not as mature.”

Hair color, hair relaxers, nail products and skin lighteners are the most toxic, so experts advise consumers to avoid them or find a less toxic version. Just as the growing interest in green cleaning products and organic foods resulted in more such products, some cosmetics makers are responding to consumer demand. For example, some companies are starting to make water-based nail polish.

But be wary of ‘greenwashing’ and ‘pinkwashing,’ Archer says. In the case of cosmetics, ‘organic’ means no pesticides were used; ‘natural’ could mean one ingredient is botanically based, but the product could still contain toxins. Companies that advertise on the label that they give money to breast cancer research also make products that contain carcinogens, Archer says.

Look for toxin-free skin cream, since that’s something used daily over your entire body, health advocates say. Try opting for barriers to the sun like hats, clothing or sunscreens with zinc oxide rather than oxybenzone.

Everyone wants to add a little flair to their lives. Checking labels carefully can make looking your best a less toxic experience.

What to Avoid

The following are among what the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics calls “chemicals of concern” and the information below comes from its site, www.SafeCosmetics.org. For each of the chemicals included, evidence suggests connections to long-term health concerns such as cancer and reproductive problems, according to the website, which lists the health and environmental hazards in detail, with footnotes to the studies on which these statements were based.

The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database (www.ewg.org/skindeep) allows consumers to type in an ingredient and learn whether there have been scientific studies on it and what the studies found. The 75,000 products tested so far are rated on a 1-10 scale for their level of toxicity.

Triclosan, a common antimicrobial agent found in antibacterial soaps and detergents, agent that accumulates in the body, has been linked to hormone disruption and the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibiotics. It is found in antibacterial soaps, deodorants and cosmetics.

Synthetic musks are a class of chemicals added as scents to cosmetics. Studies suggest some of these compounds are hormone disruptors.

Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is used in nail polishes, hair gels and elsewhere, and has been found in hair straighteners.

1,4-dioxan, linked to cancer in animals, is rarely listed as an ingredient, but it is created when other ingredients are combined. Most commonly, 1,4-dioxane is found in products that create suds, like shampoo, liquid soap, baby soaps and bubble bath.

Hydroquinone, usually associated with use in skin lighteners, may also be a contaminant in other cosmetics ingredients. It has been found to be carcinogenic as well as toxic to the immune and reproductive systems.

Nitrosamines are listed as possible human carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency. They are a potential impurity in many personal care products, including mascara, concealer, conditioner, baby shampoo, pain relief salve and sunless tanning lotion.

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