How many personal care products do you use daily? Few of us keep a tally, reaching regularly for soap, toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoo, conditioner, hairspray, deodorant, hand lotion, facial cleanser, fragrance, sunscreen, lip balm, acne cream, foot powder, or hand sanitizer. Men might add shaving cream, aftershave, or hair gel. Women might add facial moisturizer, makeup, powder, eyeliner, mascara, eye shadow, blush, lipstick, and nail polish. But then you need more chemicals to remove that makeup, eyeliner or nail polish. In addition, there are products to color, lighten and straighten your hair, or remove unwanted hair from your body. On average, Americans use between 9 to 15 products a day, applying over 126 different chemicals to their skin. I suspect many of us use even more than this on a daily basis, in an endless quest for lasting beauty and youth in a bottle.
In conversations, I’ve found that people tend to assume that such personal care products are tested for health and safety. Yet, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has absolutely no authority to review or approve cosmetic and skin care products–or even to require companies to test such products. In general, these products are NOT approved or tested before they go to market — one exception involves certain regulated color additives.
The $50 billion industry polices itself through the voluntary Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) — which is funded by the industry’s trade association. In other words, it regulates itself. In fact, the CIR has evaluated fewer than 20% of cosmetic ingredients in widespread use. In its thirty year history, only eleven ingredients have been found unsafe; in any case, the findings of the CIR are not legally binding on companies; compliance is voluntary. Nearly 90% of the ingredients used in the manufacture of U.S. cosmetics have not been tested for safety.
More than 500 products sold in the U.S. contain ingredients currently banned in Canada, Japan or the European Union, which maintain stricter oversight. Many widely used personal care and beauty products contain phthalates, mercury, toluene, petroleum distillates, parabens and other chemicals that may be associated with increased risk of cancer, birth defects, or disruption of the reproductive system. Even small amounts used consistently over a lifetime can add up to substantial doses of potentially harmful chemicals. Unfortunately, the label “Natural” is no guarantee of ‘greenness’ or purity.
Of particular concern, lead has been consistently found in lipstick. Lead is a neurotoxin, associated with language and learning disabilities. According to a clarification on the FDA’s own website: “No, the FDA has not set limits for lead in cosmetics” — though it does regulate lead in color additives. Another class of potentially harmful chemicals: Phthalates. These industrial solvents are found in hair spray, nail polish, perfumes and deodorants. These chemicals (banned in Europe) are recognized as hormone disruptors, associated with damage to the liver, kidneys and reproductive systems.
These days, hand sanitizer is pushed at kids like candy. One advertisements read: Kills 99.99% of germs! Mothers carry bottles in their purses, smearing it over kids’ hands before a meal. Bottles sit next to my bank teller, store cashiers, even teacher’s desks. But in this case, the cure may be worse than the disease. What you’re getting with your dose of hand sanitizer is Triclosan, an antibacterial compound that is also found in toothpaste, face wash, and deodorant. The EPA registers it as a pesticide. The American Medical Association warns against triclosan, as it may encourage bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Triclosan is associated with liver and thyroid disfunction. In nature, it is toxic to aquatic wildlife. Humans have an immune system that has developed to deal with germs–not triclosan.
In addition, synthetic fragrances, found in shampoos, shaving creams, lotions, even “unscented” products are common allergans, associated with asthma attacks, contact dermatitis, thryoid disruption and immune system damage. In an independent investigation, “Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tested fragrance products on the market. They found fourteen unlisted chemicals, claimed as trade secrets, ten substances associated with allergic reactions, and four hormone-disrupting chemicals.
These products do not just affect humans, for chemicals enter the environment, passed through urine, washed down the drain through hand washing or bathing, or when unused products are thrown into the trash. Traces of these PPCPs (Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products) are widely identified in waterways across the nation, affecting aquatic wildlife, such as amphibians and fish and birds, as these chemicals enter the food chain. More research is needed on the cumulative effects of PPCPs on the environment.
Too few of us take the time to read the labels — even on products we use daily. Propylene glycol, tocopheryl acetate, propylparaben, emulsifying wax, methylparaben, and petrolatum are a few of the chemicals in the hand lotion we smear on our skin. How can you find out what’s in your child’s toothpaste? How about your makeup? EWG, the Environmental Working Group maintains Skin Deep, a searchable database with safety profiles on cosmetics and skin care products, with listings for over 70,00 products. The Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients offers a compilation of chemical listings. Also see The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
A few hundred companies have signed the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics Business Network, pledging to eliminate harmful or toxic chemicals from personal care products. Legislative action is pending; The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 (H.R. 2359) would require full disclosure of ingredients and give the FDA authority to ensure that personal care products are free of harmful ingredients. There is increasing pressure for the FDA to regulate the use of nanotechnology in food and cosmetics. Nanomaterials in these products are currently unlabeled and untested, but there are indications that they enter the bloodstream when we ingest them — or through contact with skin.
The cosmetics industry generates immense profits off these products. Sales by L’Oreal, the world’s largest cosmetics company, topped $26 billion last year. They profit from our ignorance — while promoting unattainable (for most of us) levels of physical perfection and beauty.
We have a choice between dozens of types of shampoo and skin creams which offer to make our hair silky and our skin smooth, but we’re given little data on the decision that maters — basic safety.
Support companies that fully disclose chemicals in their products. We deserve to know.