MAINSTREAM COSMETIC PRODUCTS
Here’s a riddle of sorts: In what way is almost every man, woman and child in the United States directly exposed to a wide variety of hazardous synthetic chemicals on a daily basis? Give yourself a point if you answered “conventional cleaning products.” Give yourself extra credit if you also said “…and conventional cosmetic and personal care products,” two other key sources of toxins in our lives that aren’t as obvious, yet are nearly as dangerous.
According to a new book, Drop-Dead Gorgeous, by Kim Erickson, virtually all mainstream cosmetic and personal care products contain hazardous chemical compounds, and many contain far more than one. In fact (and I confess that I’m not really very surprised by the news), of the roughly 5,500 substances approved for use in these kinds of products, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has found that 884 are toxic in one way or another. Some are carcinogens. Some are hormone disruptors. Some are neurotoxins. Some can cause organ damage.
How did these compounds get into these products, onto our skin, and into our bodies? Again, no shocker there. They’re cheaper than natural ingredients, easy to use, and, unlike food or drugs, ingredients in cosmetic and personal care products are not reviewed by regulators for potential toxicity prior to their use and sale. They can be withdrawn from public sale after the fact, but there’s little chance of even that happening since manufacturers aren’t required to report product-related injuries or illnesses or provide any kind of safety data whatsoever to the government.
The information in Drop Dead Gorgeous is yet another clue that our world is awash in synthetic chemicals and that we lack both the information that would allow us to identify where those chemicals are coming from and regulations that would require safety testing before they could be sold. There are quite simply too many synthetic substances in our lives, materials that are not be found in nature and therefore have no way of being processed by biological systems, human or otherwise. Again, evidence such as that presented by author Erickson begs a now familiar question: what possible wisdom can there be in subjecting ourselves and our life support mechanisms to these wholly new materials, chemicals that never before existed until the last century? None at all if existing evidence is any indication.
The use of harmful chemicals in mainstream cosmetic and personal care products is made more alarming by the fact that these are potions meant to be applied to the human body. Though household cleaners and pesticides may contain substances that are more acutely toxic and represent a bigger and broader threat to human health, at least we’re not intentionally spraying, rubbing or otherwise applying them directly onto our skin, an organ with tremendous absorption abilities.
Adding insult to literal injury is the point that the vast majority of these products are unessential at best. Their ubiquitous presence in our daily lives is not the result of any pressing need but of an unhealthy manipulation of our collective consciousness by marketers and the media who prey on our insecurities and subtly (and often not so) urge us to reject our natural selves, our innate beauty as individuals, and seek instead some higher and utterly mythological ideal, a wholly contrived brand of beauty as false and unachievable as the godlike immortality it so often implies.
At the same time, I’m fairly certain that I speak for most people when I say that we remain grateful for the affordable availability of such olfactory kindnesses as soaps and deodorants. But even here, among those products that many consider necessities, better ways and safer substitute ingredients exist.
So there’s really no excuse. Yet manufacturers remain reticent to change. And I think I understand some reasons why. I am, after all, the president of a company that sells a wide variety of chemical compounds, albeit safe, natural, and healthy ones. I know it’s both difficult and expensive to reformulate a product. Seeking natural alternatives that perform in the same way as their synthetic chemical counterparts and combining these alternatives to create products identical to their toxic cousins, is far from simple. And in a cutthroat marketplace, when the competition isn’t trying to undertake such a conversion itself, it can be a dangerous thing to do from a business perspective.
But given what we know, it’s clear that there’s more at play here than pure business. Much more is at stake than profits. It’s become obvious even to those that might deny it that the use and dissemination of chemicals represents an experiment on a mass scale whose unwitting effect is to see just how much of an onslaught of unnatural materials the biosphere and its occupants can take before a breakdown occurs. With the vast bulk of the evidence now indicating that the answer to that question appears to be “not much more,” using hazardous and untested chemicals in personal care and other products no longer can be properly called a business decision. It has become a moral decision. And all too many people in all too many industries are making it incorrectly.
We need a big table and everyone around it. We need to agree to re-engineer much of our civilization, to wean it away from its reliance on petrochemicals and toward the use of natural, sustainable, biodegradable replacements that offer the same performance without the high environmental and human costs. We certainly possess the ingenuity necessary for such a transformation. How do you think we invented all these chemicals in the first place? The only thing needed to start is the motivation. Maybe when people find out what the truth about the products they’ve always believed were safe, chemical companies and the people that support them will get the kick in the pants they seem to need in order to take the appropriate action.
Beauty & The Beasts: Personal Care
Chemicals We Don't Care For
Now that we’ve exposed the ugly fact that beauty and personal care products contain an unpleasant plethora of surprisingly unpretty things, even the most casual readers would no doubt like some additional details in the form of just what specific ingredients that you need not apply to your skin or anyone else’s. On that count, we’ve got you covered from head to toe with this look at some of the biggest no-no’s.
According to Kim Erickson, author of Drop-Dead Gorgeous, the following chemicals or types of chemical share two essential traits: they are some of the most common and most unhealthy of the many toxic ingredients in personal care and cosmetic products. If you see any of these in a formula near you, reach for the haz-mat suit and run:
Coal tar colors. You won’t find “coal tar colors” (CTCs) directly mentioned on any cosmetic label, but you will see specific “FD&C” and “D&C” colors listed. These synthetic coloring agents are all made from coal tar, a poisonous material derived from (surprise) coal. CTCs can contain a variety of toxins like benzene, xylene, and napthalene, and almost all of them have been found to cause cancer. Grandfathered under the 1938 Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, they’re still in widespread use even though most have been not yet been tested for safety.
Formaldehyde. A common preservative and disinfectant, formaldehyde is used in nail polishes and hardeners, soap, shampoos, and hair growth products. In addition to its direct inclusion in a product formula, formaldehyde can hide in other ingredients like hydantoins. This chemical is a carcinogen and can damage DNA.
Lead. In spite of all the bad PR this toxic metal has gotten, it can still be found in certain hair dyes, especially those that change hair color gradually. According to one study, some brands of hair dye contain up to 10 times the amount of lead used in paints. One toxicologist involved with that research dyed his own hair with a popular men’s formula and afterwards found lead contamination on his sink, hair dryer, and hands (so much so that in the last case that it couldn’t be washed off).
Nitrosamines. While not a common ingredient in cosmetics, these carcinogenic compounds are frequently formed when nitrous acid and a class of ingredients called amines combine during raw materials storage or product manufacturing processes. Common substances that can form nitrosamines include diethanolamine (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA), and monoethanolamine (MEA). Because of their abilities to foster nitrosamine creation, experts recommend avoiding products that contain these ingredients. Phenylenediamine. This ingredient, which is often proceeded in ingredients listings by an m-, o-, or p- is found in a variety of permanent hair dyes, also known as peroxide or oxidation dyes. Grandfathered into use as coal tars were, this chemical can cause asthma, gastritis, photosensitivity, cancer, and variety of skin problems including eczema. At one point the FDA was so concerned about phenylenediamine that it proposed serious warning labels for products containing it. That labeling initiative was defeated by industry lobbying efforts.
Quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs). QACs are preservatives, germicides, and surfactants (or detergents) all at once. Caustic to skin, these irritants can be quite toxic depending on the concentration and exposure. They hide behind such names as bezalkonium chloride, cetrimonium bromide, quaternium 1-29, and quaternium-15 (which is according to the American Dermatological Association is the number one cause of preservative-related contact dermatitis).
Talc. The source of talcum powder, this mineral is also used in deodorant sprays, and make-up and skin products. Talc, however, is chemically similar to asbestos, and often contaminated with that carcinogenic mineral because both kinds of deposits are often found together in the earth’s crust.
Written by: Jeffrey Hollender, Seventh Generation
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