September 15, 2014

Toxic Beauty: the Truth About What’s in your Favorite Beauty Products. ~ Olivia Chapman

girl skeleton halloween makeup

Question: what does mascara have in common with a car?

Answer: they both contain petroleum.

I was in the shower the other day, sudsing my hair, when I casually glanced at the ingredient list on my shampoo.

Rose extract? Great! Cornsilk extract? Lovely! Methylchloroisothiazolinone? Erm, come again?

In the wake of this discovery, I took to the internet to do a bit of research about what I was actually putting on my skin and hair. The truth shocked and horrified me. According to the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetics information site and database “Skin Deep,” cosmetics companies can put pretty much whatever they want in our beauty products.

Check it out:

1) Ingredients used in beauty products do not have to be approved by the FDA before going to market.
2) Toxic/allergenic ingredients do not have to be listed on the label.
3) The FDA lacks authority to recall unsafe products. They even admit on their website that “cosmetics companies may use almost any ingredient they choose.”

Wow. This means that a huge swathe of the consumer market (and a highly profitable one at that) is, to all intents and purposes, unregulated. And, ironically, we buy these products hoping to look or feel better. Unfortunately, we’ve been duped. We’re spending our hard-earned dollars on products that might actually have the opposite effect, potentially increasing our risk for cancer or reproductive harm.

Cosmetics companies say that the toxicity of their products is unproven (sure, on humans, but animal tests suggest otherwise) and that so-called toxic ingredients are present in such trace amounts that they cannot possibly cause us any harm.

Does that make you feel any better? Me neither.

So I did some research in order to discover the top nasties to avoid.

1) Formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde (a preservative) is considered a carcinogen, a developmental toxicant and a neurotoxicant. Inhaling it can cause nausea and vomiting so, yeah, it’s obviously bad stuff. Here’s the scary part. According to the EWG it’s found in one-in-five cosmetics products.

Companies are sneaky and they know that consumers will balk when they see formaldehyde on the ingredients list, so they put “formaldehyde releasers” in their ingredients instead. These are: DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinylurea, diazolidinylurea, quaternium-15, bronopol, 5-bromo-5nitro-13-dioxane, and hydroxymethylglycinate. Some companies have begun phasing these out and replacing them with the safer sodium benzoate.

2) Lead.

Lead is a proven neurotoxin but is present in many popular lipstick brands. If you’re feeling brave, you can find out if it’s in yours by typing the brand into the database at www.ewg.org/skindeep/.

3) Parabens.

Pick up almost any skincare product in your bathroom and you’ll find some form of paraben in it. These are estrogen mimicking preservatives that may disrupt the endocrine system, cause reproductive harm, and developmental disorders. Many companies are phasing these out and it’s getting fairly common to see labels that proudly proclaim the product is paraben free. When I checked the labels of my bath and skincare products though, about 90% of them contained parabens.

4) Retinol/Vitamin A products.

I’ve included this “nasty” because it sounds so innocuous. Vitamin A is natural and retinol is good for anti-aging, right? Well, research suggests that Vitamin A and Vitamin A compounds (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinoic acid and retinol) may actually hasten skin lesions and tumors. Who knew?

5) Petroleum.

Petroleum distillates are often found in mascara. Unfortunately, whilst they may give your lashes a glossy shine, they can also cause contact dermatitis. Worse still, the same petroleum that you swipe on daily is produced in the same refineries as car fuel, heating oil and chemical feedstock, and may be laced with cancer-causing impurities.

This list barely scratches the surface of what lurks in our favorite products and a comprehensive list can be found on the Skindeep website.

Some people may argue that trace toxic chemicals in beauty products is a minor issue in the grand scheme of things, but to me it perfectly illustrates a wider problem: the lack of corporate transparency in our world today, and the undebatable fact that profit-margins matter much more than consumer safety. Companies care about the consumer only up to the point that they believe the consumer can effect change. As long as ingredients are unregulated or hidden from labels, they know consumers will carry on buying. After all, as the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Call me crazy, but isn’t this also a feminist issue? Many of these companies are advertising to a key demographic: women. They probably assume that women care more about their looks than their health but, just in case, they also willfully deceive us about the healthiness of their products so that we don’t realize what’s at stake. We are inundated with images of healthy, glamorous women—the blonde-haired supermodel tossing her gorgeous, shiny hair—so that we forget to question what is actually in the shampoo.

On the label on the back of the shampoo containing methylchloroisothiazolinone we read the following: “Visit the valley of the roses in Morocco…you’ll find a divinely scented sea of color that stretches for miles.”

So, sure, this is a health issue, but it’s also political. Any woman who calls herself a feminist should, I believe, care deeply about this level of deception—a deception aimed squarely at her and one that assumes naivety.

But at the end of the day, what can we do about this? How can we take our power back?

Luckily, there are a number of eco-conscious companies making (mostly) non-toxic products and often vegetarian/vegan and organic as well.

If you want to start exploring some of these companies I recommend subscribing to a subscription box such as Petit Vour, Vegan Cuts or Goodebox. For around $15 a month they send samples from high-end eco-conscious companies, allowing you to try before you buy. In the drugstore, the Burt’s Bees brand is a fairly safe bet, as is, Yes to Carrots.

But I’m still figuring out new brands myself (I promise to report back as soon as I find some great ones).

In the meantime, I have a dilemma. Do I toss my chemical-laden beauty products? This seems incredibly wasteful to me, so I’ve resolved to use up all but the worst offenders (with some gritting of teeth) and then start buying safe replacements.

I’ve already begun (I can highly recommend Tom’s of Maines toothpaste and mouthwash and pure Argan oil) and I’m pleased to report there have been some nice side-benefits. I used to get urges to rush out and buy the next new lipstick. Now I know that it likely contains lead, I’m impervious to the seduction of ads and coupons. Even better, I’ve become more accepting of how I look without make-up. Turns out that embracing all-natural products helps to accept one’s own naturalness too.

There’s been a domino effect as well. I’m now more attuned to other questionable practices of cosmetic companies, such as animal-testing and the use of animal ingredients in products. I’ve also begun to make more conscious choices around food. My new rule: if I can’t read the ingredient, it’s probably not something I want in my body.

Change comes when enough individuals make the right choice. We can be a change-maker today by signing the petition to effect regulation of the cosmetics industry at the Skindeep website.

And do yourself a favor. Next time you go shopping, before you put that bottle of beautifully packaged shampoo in your basket, check out the ingredients list.

You won’t be sorry.



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Apprentice Editor: Yaisa Nio / Editor: Travis May

Photo: Pixoto /Tomaž Kos




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