Wanting to be beautiful is a strong desire; so strong that cosmetics manufacturers are hoping that consumers won’t look very deeply at the effects of their beauty products.
With mercury, phthalates, formaldehyde, coal tar, parabens, sodium laureth sulfate and triclosan common ingredients, many “beauty” products are better suited in the science lab than on your skin. To the naked eye, your skin may appear to be an impermeable layer, but science shows that as much as 60% of the chemicals that come into contact with your skin are absorbed.
Ironically, there is little formal oversight of the cosmetics industry. The FDA is responsible for regulating cosmetics companies, yet it lacks the authority to require companies to prove their products are safe before putting them on the market. The companies are responsible themselves for testing their products for safety. But the tests they perform are focused solely on short term effects, like skin irritation or dermatitis. Tests on the long term safety of chemicals found in skin products simply aren’t conducted.
Here’s a sampling of commonly found chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products, along with the risks of using them:
One class of chemicals that has raised the alarm of researchers is those known as “endocrine disruptors.” These chemicals mimic natural hormones, such as estrogen, and are known to raise the risk for certain types of cancers. In February of 2013, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and WHO released a comprehensive report on endocrine disrupting chemicals. They found that hormone disrupting chemicals were associated with a number of health problems, including breast cancer, non-descended testes in young males, breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men, development disorders in children, and thyroid cancer. Yet despite the dangers, many cosmetics contain these chemicals. Common hormone disruptors include BPA, perchlorate, arsenic, dioxin, flame retardants, perfluorinated chemical (PFCs), atrazine, organophosphate pesticides, phthalates, and mercury.
Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, yet this potent chemical preservative is found in as many as 20% of personal care products. Even worse, you won’t even know it’s there because cosmetics companies use a combination of chemicals that will gradually release formaldehyde into your beauty products (so they’re not required to list “formaldehyde” on the ingredients.) Formaldehyde is most dangerous when it’s inhaled, and studies have shown that cosmetics products can release formaldehyde fumes when they are applied.
Coal Tar Dyes
Coal tar dyes are frequently found in hair dye products, especially darker colors. There is a significant association between coal tar hair dye use and certain types of cancers. Coal tar dyes may also be contaminated with heavy metals, such as aluminum, which raise the risk of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s.
One of the most common and most concerning hormone disrupting chemicals, phthalates, are prevalent in hair spray, nail polish, deodorant, perfume, lotions, and creams. Phthalates have conclusively been found to be readily absorbed through the skin and are known to damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system. Scientists suspect phthalates may also raise the risk of asthma and childhood obesity. Unfortunately, phthalates are most commonly found in the blood of women of child bearing age, potentially exposing their babies to these harmful chemicals. Phthalates are also commonly found in products used for both babies and children.
Phthalates have been banned in cosmetics in Europe for over a decade, but so far the United States government has not taken any action to limit their use in the beauty industry. Phthalates are often hidden in the ingredients as simply “fragrance.”
Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate (SLS)
Sunscreen, shampoo, dish soap, laundry detergent, lipstick, eye makeup and hair products are all common culprits when it comes to sodium laureth/lauryl sulfate. These chemicals are linked with a litany of health problems, including cancer, reproductive issues, and irritation of the skin and eyes.
The Cumulative Effects of Chemicals in the Body
Those who advocate the use of chemicals in cosmetics may make the point that tiny amounts are not harmful. Yet what scientists have found is that the cumulative effect of all the chemicals we ingest and absorb is what is of concern. Putting on eyeliner one time is not likely to cause cancer, but washing our hands, hair, and laundry in SLS-containing soap on a daily basis, combined with using cosmetics and sunscreens loaded with phthalates, on top of dying our hair with coal tar dyes, all adds up. Combine that with all the chemicals we breathe and eat in our food, and it’s not surprising that so many health problems are on the rise in our modern society.
What to Do?
The safest path to take is to avoid products with these chemicals as far as possible. There are many organic brands which have formulated cosmetics, detergents, and personal care products without all the harmful chemicals. Surprisingly, some mainstream “natural” brands still use harmful chemicals like SLS, so take care to read labels and buy certified organic products whenever possible. The non-profit organization, Environmental Working Group, has compiled an informative database on commonly used cosmetics and the safety of their ingredients: http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/.