Every day, we are exposed unknowingly to hundreds of hazardous chemicals. Our make-up, lotions, shampoos, deodorants – nearly every cosmetic product that’s part of our normal morning routine is hiding numerous health risks, from rashes to fatal illnesses. As consumers, we are made vulnerable to various carcinogens and toxins on a completely avoidable, yet involuntary, basis.
Why involuntary? Because of loose labeling requirements, these ingredients often can’t be discovered even when consumers are actively searching. A non-profit advocacy group by the name of Environmental Working Group (EWG) had to pay $175 per product to an independent laboratory to find out many goods contained harmful chemicals.
Cosmetic companies are quite good at keeping secrets. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
What’s more, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can’t officially protect consumers because cosmetics are not subject to pre-market approval. This means the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act does not authorize the FDA to approve cosmetic ingredients, and manufacturers may use essentially any ingredient they choose. The products hit the shelves, are thrown into our shopping cart, and soak into our bodies – and we’re none the wiser to how they affect our health day after day.
What the FDA could be doing is issuing public warnings and making strides to tighten labeling. Until then, consumers must take it upon themselves to look beyond the label.
What Shade are You Wearing? Banned Chemicals and Carcinogens
The FDA defines a cosmetic as “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body…for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.”
But apparently what we put on our bodies on a daily basis isn’t as important as what we put in our bodies. Cosmetics are not as strictly regulated as drugs or food, and because of these lax protocols a surprising amount of life-threatening ingredients are being slipped in. Lead was banned in household paint in the 1970s but it’s still in nearly every tube of lipstick. The government finally declared formaldehyde to be a known carcinogen, but it’s in rows upon rows of nail polishes and hair gels. Even when they’re present in small percentages, the frequency with which we use these hygienic products prompts health risks that, one by one, are coming to light.
Eenie, meenie, miney, moe – which shampoo is less likely to give you cancer? Photo Credit: Flickr.
Until cosmetics, used by males and females alike, are held to the same safety standards as drugs and food, we need to be aware of what’s in them. Here’s some of the most prevalent, and most distressing.
Red lips are supposed to be sexy, not deadly. Yet in 2011, after much pressure from the public, the FDA finally released an expanded study confirming that lipsticks from the leading cosmetic giants contain lead at far higher rates than previous surveys revealed. The lead-contaminated brands in the FDA study are made by familiar companies including L’Oreal USA, Cover Girl, and Revlon.
After such findings, one would assume the FDA, at the very least, admitted lipstick may be unsafe. Wrong. They staunchly uphold their claim that their “studies have found no lead levels that would pose safety concerns when lipstick is used as intended.”
But wait, is any amount of lead safe? No, according to journal Current Opinion in Pediatrics. The journal warns that adverse outcomes, such as reduced intelligence, occur at blood lead levels below 0.1 ppm. Coincidentally, 0.1 ppm is also the FDA-recommended upper limit for lead in candy (that’s right – it’s in candy, too). With all this evidence, how can the FDA justify dragging their feet when it comes to cosmetics?
You would never let her play with lead-contaminated toys, but if no one’s warning you that lipstick has lead too, how can you protect her? Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
They claim it’s not scientifically valid to equate candy to lipstick because candy is a product intended for eating while lipstick is for topical use. But if you happen to be using Maybelline’s Color Sensational in Pink Petal, the lipstick with the highest lead level of 7.19 ppm, it’s not a stretch to say that your health is put at risk, even if you’re not taking a bite.
Most people who wear lipstick do so habitually – they have a favorite shade, swiping on a fresh coat multiple times throughout the day. Some will be accidently ingested, and some will seep through the skin and accumulate over time. And if a kid gets ahold of mom’s lipstick, it’s not uncommon for them to chomp on it. The presence of lead has forced the CDC to recall toys, jewelry, furniture, crafts, office supplies, foodware, and clothing – but the FDA has never taken steps to recall a cosmetic because of lead, and hasn’t set a maximum limit. People across the country color their lips unknowingly as manufactures continue to sell lead-contaminated products unchecked. And the adverse effects cannot be corrected, says the CDC.
Phthalates, also called plasticizers, are a family of industrial chemicals used to make plastics more flexible.
So what are they doing rampant in our bathrooms, in soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, deodorants, lotions, and nail polishes? They are used to retain color and scent, and also to avoid stiffness in nail polish, hair spray, and other products that would otherwise be too brittle. Because they’re literally all around us, the CDC has noted phthalate exposure is widespread in the U.S. population, with elevated levels found in women of child-bearing age. While the FDA will only say that more research is needed to assess the human health impact of these chemicals, all signs point toward hazardous.
Getting hairspray in your mouth can taste awful, and getting it in your eyes can sting, but as it seeps through your skin it can also be deadly. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
In February 2013, studies linked these “endocrine-disrupting chemicals” to allergies, asthma, cancer, obesity, and neurodevelopmental problems in newborns, according to National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). Before that, they were connected with permanent birth defects in the male reproductive system of animals, causing deformities and infertility, according to a study conducted by a coalition of environmental and public health organizations. While this last defect hasn’t been confirmed in humans, in recent decades there has been a concerning, and possibly associated, spike in the rates of young men with testicular cancer. Yet, the FDA does not find this evidence compelling enough. They assert there is no direct causal link, and refuse to view phthalates in cosmetics as a safety risk despite concerned scientists, medical professionals, and environmental health advocates nationwide.
Moreover, labeling laws make it difficult, if not impossible, for families to make informed decisions about what products they use and how to limit their phthalate exposure. Supposedly, under the FDA’s Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA), manufacturers are required to declare every ingredient within a product. However, there are loopholes when it comes to phthalates in fragrances and professional-grade products. Because fragrances are considered “trade secrets,” individual ingredients do not have to be listed by law, and products used exclusively by salon professionals also don’t abide by an ingredient declaration.
These chemicals have been used for years and are now found in the body of nearly every U.S. citizen, and yet all these frantic calls for “more research” seem to imply they were never adequately tested for safety and health effects in the first place. Congress has permanently banned three types of phthalates in any amount greater than 0.1 percent in children’s toys and certain child care products – shouldn’t cosmetics be under the same restrictions?
An honest ad would say “Spritz your way to asthma and cancer.” Photo Credit: Flickr.
Parabens are the most widely used preservatives in cosmetic products. They can be found in make-up, moisturizers, shaving cream and so on to extend shelf life and prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi.
However, they may also contribute to breast cancer and reproductive toxicity, among other things.
A 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology detected parabens in breast tumors. The chemical mimics estrogen, and by disrupting hormone levels is thought to promote breast cancer in some women.
Like phthalates, parabens don’t stay in the body long but serious health problems can arise when humans are exposed to them on a daily basis, as we all are, says the NCBI. While there are FDA-recommended concentration limits for each paraben, these limits don’t necessarily factor in the use of multiple parabens in a single product.
Is your shaving cream hindering your ability to have children? While the parabens from shaving cream can seep through your skin, it’s not uncommon to cut yourself during shaving and have the product enter directly. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
While the FDA says “the study did not show that parabens cause [breast] cancer,” the EWG stands firm that indications the chemicals disrupt our reproductive, immune, and neurological systems, on top of being linked to cancer, should be enough. Meanwhile, the FDA publicly asserts there is “no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.” Sound familiar yet?
Although there may not be a consensus on safety from opposing sides, the phrasing “no reason” is underplaying the studies and results that have already been released.
Anyone who had to take biology in high school probably remembers the smell of formaldehyde wafting from whatever was being dissected that day. Formaldehyde is a known preserver, but many people don’t realize it’s used in cosmetics for that very same function. If formaldehyde was on the label, we might be more hesitant to slather it all over our face.
But the label doesn’t have to list it if it’s in the form of a formaldehyde releasing preservative (FRP), which releases small amounts of the chemical over time. Besides calling to mind images of fetal pigs, formaldehyde is unpleasant for another reason – it may cause dangerous skin reactions and cancer, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. So that soap you’re using on your baby’s sensitive skin may be hiding formaldehyde, and even low levels can cause serious health issues.
Even people that have been using formaldehyde-bearing products for years with no adverse reactions aren’t in the clear. Sensitivity to the chemical can develop over time, meaning the same product you’ve been using since you were a teen could suddenly trigger a dangerous skin reaction. More troubling is that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, deemed so by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for its causal relationship to nasopharyngeal (throat) cancer, sinonasal (nasal passages) cancer, and leukemia.
Pretty colors can mask carcinogens. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
Despite its carcinogenic status, there are no U.S. federal laws banning or regulating the use of formaldehyde in consumer products.
Even if all these individual chemicals alone didn’t endanger your health, when chemicals from multiple sources combine they can form a poisonous soup, and their interactions can have unpredictable health effects. Isn’t the sensible step to prohibit or strictly regulate ingredients before they become a national health concern, and then reduce restrictions once we determine them safe? We shouldn’t have to wait for numerous tragedies to hit the headlines before unsafe chemicals are taken off the market.
Channel Your Inner DIY
While the chemicals mentioned here by no means paint a comprehensive picture of all the dangers these products pose, they are meant to demonstrate a crucial fact about our current system – the beauty industry is largely unregulated. Until the government takes firm action, or all manufacturers start policing themselves, consumers have to start taking the initiative.
We all have busy lives, but our health is worth taking the time to choose safer alternatives when we can.
How many of us actually read the entire label on face wash or after shave before we buy it? Although current labeling requirements may make it seem like products don’t have labels at all, reading them is still a good start. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
In one word: simplify. Choose products with fewer, more natural ingredients. What’s more, use fewer products overall. Ask yourself if you really need that heavily-fragranced bubble bath. A great example of a completely unnecessary product lies in Dolce & Gabbana’s perfume for babies. Yes, it’s real.
I assume your baby is not trying to attract other babies, nor do they need a signature scent. Let’s be honest, they let their diapers do all the talking. I sincerely hope no parent is superficial enough to cover up the scent of eau de poop with synthetic lilac, when baby shampoo alone hides dangers aplenty. Babies are particularly vulnerable to toxic chemicals in fragrances, and exposure at such a young age can contribute to developmental deficits and increase their risk of cancers.
Obviously, as this example demonstrates, beauty product companies are not looking out for our best interests. They’re trying to create the next big seller, and hope the public doesn’t think too much about it. Start thinking – and maybe cooking.
You can always make your own products and give yourself real peace of mind. The ingredients are found in most kitchens and they take surprisingly little time to whip up. From beet red lip gloss to a chocolate bubble bath, there’s an array of DIY recipes all over the internet that have absolutely no toxic chemicals. As always, though, remember not everything on the internet can be taken at face value, so use trusted sites and keep your allergies in mind. I recommend the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – they’re a great resource for DIY ideas, and they even have a database called Skin Deep where you can search your favorite products for toxicity level.
Here’s some more options for:
Home recipes for beauty and health go way beyond using teabags to reduce puffy eyes. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
With our current system, it ultimately falls on individuals to do research and be selective. While we may look cleaner on the outside, our insides are getting quite dirty.
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