What price pretty?

Most cosmetics contain toxins – carcinogens, allergens, hormone disruptors – in tiny doses. But we love our war-paint and perfume so much we give ourselves millions of those tiny doses over a lifetime. What is this personal chemical load doing to our health?

For a concise, entertaining overview of this issue, watch 'The story of cosmetics', a clever animated short produced by The Safe Cosmetics Campaign and The Story of Stuff:

If you're female, you will deliberately apply in the region of 168 chemicals, many of them known toxins, to your body today. If you're a guy, you'll be applying about 85.

It sounds unbelieveable, yet 12 personal care and beauty products, which is the average number used per woman (a man uses about 6) each day, contain 168 synthetic chemicals.

Do a quick count of how many products accompany simply getting up, having a shower, brushing your teeth and putting on makeup: toothpaste (1 product) shampoo (2), conditioner (3) shower gel (4), toner (5), cleanser (6), moisturiser (7), foundation (8), lipstick (9), eyeliner (10), mascara (11), eye shadow (12), blush (13), deodorant (14), nail varnish (15).

And that was just this morning.

We spend our days absorbing, inhaling and even ingesting many of the chemicals from this barrage of products, together with a cocktail of other toxins from our polluted environment.

Stacy Malkan, speaking this week at the Cape Town launch of her book Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, confesses that as a teenager she was “obsessed with cosmetics” that promised transformation into a perfect version of herself.

But these days, says Malkan, she is focused “not so much on what beauty products can do to change me, but rather what I can do to change them.”

Malkan is co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of non-profit health and environment groups in the United States. They are working to raise awareness of the toxic “chemical load” hidden in familiar, glamorously-packaged, sweet-smelling beauty products, and to clean up policy to regulate them better.

Why single out cosmetics?
Modern humans live in an unwholesome “soup” of indoor and outdoor pollutants, and there are many possible chemical culprits that could be contributing to our rising rates of cancers, allergies, respiratory illnesses and reproductive and developmental disorders.

But although they may look prettier than oil slicks or factory smoke, cosmetics are far from innocuous and a real worry to environmental health activists like Malkan.

It is estimated that a staggering 10 500 chemical ingredients are used in personal care products; some of these are known toxins, and many more have not been well researched as to their potentially harmful effects.

And there's no question that chemicals from the outer environment do end up in the inner environment: our bodies.

Phthalates and other uncomfortable names
Malkan cites concern about phthalates – a group of industrial chemicals linked to defects in the male reproductive system – as having set the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in motion.

Studies by the Centers for Disease Control showed that all modern humans have phthalates in their bodies, but females of childbearing age have particuarly high levels. Researchers wondered, therefore, about exposures specific to women between the ages of 20 and 40: cosmetics seemed one likely contender.

Besides, many cosmetics contain pthalates. To take one example, the 80s hit fragrance Poison was found, appropriately enough, to contain no less than 4 different pthalates. (It has since beeen reformulated, at least in part due to pressure from campaigners, and is now phthalate-free.)

But phthalates are just the tip of the iceberg. Here's a small sample from the mounting evidence of dodgy chemicals in cosmetics, and inside us:

  • Synthetic musks used in commercial fragrances found in the umbilical cord blood of newborns.
  • Formaldehyde and 1,4 dioxane, both carcinogens, found in baby products, including such trusted names as Johnson's Baby Shampoo.
  • Endocrine disruptors found to be widespread in fragrances, and in the urine of teenage girls. J Lo Glow, and Halle by Halle Berry, to single out two examples, were found to each contain six oestrogen-mimicking and a thyroid-disrupting chemical.

Do low toxin levels do any harm?
The retort from cosmetic manufacturers is that although these chemicals are indeed found in their products, they are at levels low enough to be safe. The trouble is, most of us aren't applying just one dab of one chemical on one occasion – we're using several products containing many chemicals over many years.

The effects of multiple chemicals, and the toxicity of mixtures of these, have not been well studied, nor have their effects on especially vulnerable populations such as babies and teenagers going through puberty.

Do we have to stop using cosmetics?
Perish the thought, many of us would say. But, fortunately, no: we don't have to stop painting and primping entirely – we just need to do it differently, as follows:

  • The Environmental Working Group's “Skin Deep” is a database of cosmetics and personal care products, ranked according to how likely they are to be hazardous. Plug your favourite cosmetic into “Search” on the the database, and it will give you a hazard rating. It's not a perfect or complete system, because the information on ingredients in products is incomplete, but it's helpful for gauging relative risk of products, and choosing ones on the safer end of the scale.
  • Dissuade your children from using chemical products at a young age – the later they start, the better. Exposures accumulate over time.
  • Avoid artificial fragrances, of any kind, not just perfumes. Fragrance manufacturers do not state many of their ingredients because fragrance “recipes” are usually a closely guarded trade secret.
  • Reduce the chemical load on your life. Use fewer products, less often, and for shorter lengths of time (never take that chemical load to bed, for instance). And remember it's not just cosmetics – we steep ourselves in air fresheners, laundry detergents, household cleaning products.

And finally, have a good sit down and think about why you really use so many beauty and grooming products, and whether any of those reasons (societal approval? self-worth based on physical appearance?) justify risking your health. Tell yourself: it's not worth it.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, September 2010

Malkan, Stacey. (2009) Not just a pretty face: the ugly side of the beauty industry. New Society Publishers

Read more:
Our cancer-causing world: Over 90% of cancers are caused by our toxic environment and lifestyle.
Toxins hit kids harder
Pollutant risks in pregnancy

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