Beauty & the Beast: The deadly side of beauty products
It was a gift. The perfect little blue and white bottle of “Gentle! For Bebe!” baby shampoo in its foam pump bottle. I used it on my baby for two years before I thought to check if it was safe. It was French, I thought, it certainly wouldn’t contain known carcinogens, neurotoxins, and allergens. But, it did.
Start counting now. How many personal care (or beauty products) have you used already today?
Cleanser for your face, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, deodorant, lotion, mascara, lipstick, make-up remover, something for that blemish? What about your child? Diaper cream, baby wipes, sunscreen, something for that cradle cap? You have probably already come into contact with more than 10 personal care items, if you have a young child, maybe even more. Or, if the baby is really young, maybe the answer is 0. If it’s been days since you brushed your teeth, showered, or used deodorant, you might be luckier than you realize.
You have probably applied more than 126 unique chemicals to your body today, according to the independent scientists at the Environmental Working Group (one of my most trusted non-profit research groups). Most of these have never been tested for safety. Many of these we know cause cancer, feminizing properties in boys, and disturbances to wildlife. There is strong evidence to suggest that some of them are also endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins, and carcinogens.
And should you be desperately looking for the good news right about now, clinging to the life raft of “It’s just my skin, it hasn’t killed me yet, my mom did it with me” or something similar, get ready to have your personal flotation device taken away.
It is not just skin-deep
“Cosmetic ingredients do not sit tight of the surface of the skin — they are designed to penetrate, and they do. Scientists have found many common cosmetic ingredients in human tissues, including industrial plasticizers called phthalates in urine, preservatives called parabens in breast tumor tissue, and persistent fragrance components like musk xylene in human fat,” according to a recent study by the EWG.
We don’t know how bad it is
There have not been many studies done yet to determine just how big of a problem skincare and beauty care products are. However, as studies are finally being done, what is being discovered isn't encouraging: feminization of young boys attributable to certain commonly used phthalates, newborns with industrial chemicals from cosmetics found in their bloodstream, similar chemicals found in breastmilk of American mothers at higher concentrations than anywhere else in the world.
As we use personal care products and wash them down the drain, we are conducting a huge, real-life experiment on the effects of these chemicals on wildlife. Pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCP) have been found in just about every stream, river, and lake tested. Some ingredients have been linked to feminization in fish. According to the EWG, 57% of all beauty care products contain paraben preservatives (which are linked to estrogen mimicking effects).
The number of chemicals are multiplying fast
Maybe your mom did use baby wipes, baby cream, and baby powder on you and you are fine. But the number of chemicals we are exposed to daily is growing exponentially, so chances are even if she used more products, they contained fewer chemicals. The U.S. government approves an average of 7 new chemicals every day, 80% are approved in 3 weeks or less with or without safety tests, according to the EWG. Industrial chemicals are the foundation of most personal care products. There are 10,500 unique chemicals used in personal care products, 1-out-of-every-8 of which contain known “carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, endocrine disruptors, plasticizers, degreasers, and surfactants. They are the chemical industry in a bottle,” says the EWG.
Who is keeping your baby safe?
On average your baby is exposed daily to 27 chemicals through her baby care products that have never been tested for safety by industry or the government. Even worse, according to the EWG’s study: 89% of products labeled “recommended by a doctor” contain known chemical hazards. These include diaper wipes that contain skin irritants and ingredients linked to cancer, sunscreen that triggers allergies and disrupts the hormone system, and diaper cream that contains a chemical collected in the brain and liver.
Surely, the government wouldn’t let this happen?
According to the agency that regulates cosmetics, the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, "...a cosmetic manufacturer may use almost any raw material as a cosmetic ingredient and market the product without an approval from FDA." Only 11% of the 10,500 chemicals currently found in personal care products have ever had any review at all. For things like sunscreen, guidelines regulating industry claims have been in the works for 30 years, and in the meantime anything goes. From outright lies: “Broad Spectrum Protection” when a sunscreen offers only UVB protection, to dangerous misleading statement: “Safe & Gentle” when the product contains carcinogens, consumers are left with few protections.
The Green Mama’s TIPS for taking the beast out of beauty care products (and to keep from going mad in the process)
These recommendations are, at best, a life boat. The world should be designed such that you don't need to worry about exposing your child to neurotoxins by kissing him on the cheek while wearing the wrong lipstick. Or, worse, when you find him having just polished off a new tube of your favorite brand. The world also shouldn’t work such that even after you have done your research and made the changes, you and your child are still exposed because someone else is unknowingly rinsing their hair with parabens in the shower next door and down the drain and into the water it goes. Until the world changes for the better, what is a mama to do?
1. The EWG’s cosmetic database has kept me from going mad with uncertainty on many occasions. Go there now, find which products are truly safe, and stock up on those. Additionally, you can feel confident that the independent research the group is doing and the access to the database is also changing policy. As more consumers get educated, more companies will change.
2. Don’t be fooled just because the brand is European, says it is for Sensitive Skin, or even because it is labeled non-toxic or safe. These labels aren’t regulated and can sometimes mean more chemicals not less. The Mustela Bebe Baby Shampoo that I had used on my baby from the time she was born seemed great, but it ranked 8 (High Hazard) on the database. Despite its label, which abounded with French (it just looks safer with all those accents) and phrases like: “Gently cleanses hair with its ultra-gentle plant washing base” and “Hypollergenic.” it still contains ingredients linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, allergies, and irritation.
3. Less is more. Little babies rarely get dirty and a gentle soap and water is more than enough to clean them when they do. Even using water alone every day can be harsh on the delicate skin of a baby. In our house, we would often use Olive Oil or another very gentle, edible oil on the baby’s skin BEFORE bathing her so we could get the benefit of a relaxing, warm bath but without drying out her skin, especially in the winter. We still don’t wash our toddler’s hair very often and when we do we are more careful now to use something really gentle, like Dr. Bronner’s, which can be used as a gentle soap as well.
4. Less is more applies to all skincare products. Instead of wipes, when you are home use washable rags or run your baby under the faucet. Instead of diaper cream, use cloth diapers or use Olive Oil, zinc oxide, or a plain non-petroleum jelly.
5. (You don’t have to stop wearing make-up, just find a better brand.) Heck, without my eyeshadow, moisturizer, and skin tint I would be lost. Just make sure it is a good one and price is not an indicator.
To do more research on this topic, check out some of these resources:
- The Green Mama's favorite resource on this topic is The Environmental Working Group and bookmark their Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.
- The FDA's cosmetic website.
- The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has information on what is in beauty products, the laws relating to the industry, and many additional resources.
- The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 's National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals.