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Your Toxic Beauty Regime
Kiara Ventura
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As I flipped through Seventeen magazine, I stopped to look at an ad for Neutrogena’s Pink Grapefruit Oil-Free Acne Wash. I’d been getting annoyed at having random pimples on my face, so I was instantly gripped by it. I smelled the scratch-and-stiff that came with the advertisement and agreed that that it was an “uplifting blast of naturally derived grapefruit.” As added bonuses, two actresses I like, Hayden Panettiere and Miranda Cosgrove, are the brand spokespeople, and when you purchase the product, Neutrogena will donate $1 to something called Global Giving.

So when I buy this product my skin will be as clear as Miranda’s and I will help out a charity? “Wow!” I thought, “that sounds like a plan!” But then I thought a little more, and one thing stopped me from running to my local Rite-Aid and buying a magical bottle of this stuff—the worry that some of the ingredients in it could be harmful.

I had just read a book called No More Dirty Looks, which takes a critical look at the beauty products industry, and I’d interviewed one of the authors, Siobhan O’Connor. During the interview, my friends and I brought in some personal care products like hand lotion, styling gel, deodorant, and shampoo for her to evaluate.

When she started reading the labels on our products, she showed us that many of the ingredients were chemicals that are carcinogens (which means they can cause cancer), neurotoxins (poisons that can mess up your nervous system), and endocrine disrupters (which can screw up how your body regulates hormones). It was hard to believe that we use products every day that could potentially damage our health.

Serious Risks

Health problems linked to ingredients in common products include everything from acne and rashes to brain damage, cancer, and nervous system damage. Young people and pregnant women should be especially wary because the harmful ingredients can hurt developing bodies. For example, “scientists are finding that women with high levels of certain chemicals in their blood and urine—BPAs and phthalates are the two big ones—are having babies with genital birth defects in baby boys at much higher rates than people who have low levels of these chemicals,” O’Connor said.

So why would companies knowingly put harmful stuff in their products? Well, apparently it’s just good for business. These chemicals are generally cheaper and less likely to spoil than natural ingredients, and they give products that feeling, smell, and quality that we consumers love. Certain chemicals make our shampoo lather up nicely, give our perfume that wonderful smell, and make our lotion smooth enough that it absorbs into our skin in seconds. But the truth is that some of the chemicals that improve our consumer experience can hurt our health.

image by Da Capo Press

Companies say that the dose of bad chemicals is so tiny that they’re not dangerous, which is a convincing argument until you think about how many different products we use—each with its own trace amount of bad chemicals. Most people use about 12 to 20 products a day, including toothpaste, face wash, lotion, perfume, deodorant, ChapStick, soap, shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, nail polish—and let’s not even get started with makeup.

Just imagine how many chemicals our skin absorbs and our noses inhale each and every day of our lives. One product might not be so bad, but some would argue that the cumulative effect of all those chemicals—which is called “bioaccumulation”—is not worth the risk. In addition, no one really knows what constitutes a safe level of many of these chemicals, or how all the chemicals we use interact with each other. Unfortunately, this is something we don’t usually think about—until something bad happens.

A Bad Reaction

The authors of No More Dirty Looks, best friends Siobhan O`Connor and Alexandra Spunt, first came up with the idea for the book after they got a popular keratin hair-straightening treatment at a salon. O’Connor recalled, “Our eyes were watering, we were coughing, I ended up getting a weird, red rash on my scalp and the back of my neck that has come and gone since then. And it was a reaction, we found out after the fact, to formaldehyde, which is one of the ingredients used to straighten our hair.”

Formaldehyde (yes, the same stuff used to embalm dead people) is typically used as a preservative in things like nail polish, antiperspirant, makeup, bubble bath, shampoo, baby lotions, and hair dyes. It’s also a known carcinogen. It’s not that once you use these products you will definitely get cancer. Rather, they add up over a long period, which can increase risk.

After their reaction to the hair straightening treatment, the authors began researching how beauty products are regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Their book provides a little history lesson that will not make you snooze. “The laws that govern cosmetics were written in 1938, and it is 2011 and they’ve barely changed,” even though tons of new chemicals and products are being produced every year, O’Connor said.

Scary Secret Ingredients

image by YC-Art Dept

Because there aren’t many laws regulating what companies put into their products, the government has very little power to ensure that the stuff you see on the shelves is safe.

“Let’s say we’re all using lotion on our bodies and our skin’s turning red, or we’re getting rashes, or maybe our kids are having asthma reactions, getting really sick when they smell [a certain product]—the FDA cannot tell the company [that makes the product], ‘You’re not allowed to sell that.’ It’s not within their rights to do that, which is crazy,” O’Connor said. The U.S. is clearly lagging behind in this area: Europe has banned more than 1,000 ingredients for use in personal care products while the United States has only banned nine.

One of the major issues that O’Connor warned us about is a sneaky ingredient called “fragrance.” In the book, the authors tell us the story of Betty Bridges, who couldn’t breathe when she came in contact with a mysterious substance that seemed to be in several products she used. When she called up the manufacturers to try to figure out what, exactly, she was allergic to, they wouldn’t reveal what chemicals were in the fragrances they used in their products.

You see, “fragrance” isn’t one particular chemical. It is just a word representing many chemicals. Companies don’t list the specific ingredients they use to make their products smell good, because they consider this their secret formula (like SpongeBob’s “krabby patty formula”). They don’t want other companies to steal the recipe and make the same scent.

To protect companies’ competitive advantages, the FDA allows them to hide the ingredients in “fragrance,” so we basically don’t know what chemicals we’re using on ourselves. And unfortunately, “fragrance” is in almost everything—even in my friend’s Purell Hand Sanitizer. Knowing this made me want to go “all natural” and stop buying products full of chemicals—but figuring out which products are healthy was harder than I thought.

Natural—or Nasty?

In the beauty section of any pharmacy, you see bottles of hair care products decorated with pictures of plants, fruits, and natural scenery. They may claim to be “natural” or “clean,” which would make you think that they are safe, or free of synthetic chemicals, right?

image by YC-Art Dept

Well, the authors warn us that even if a product says “organic” or “sulfate free,” it doesn’t mean that it is completely innocent. For example, while evaluating a green tea-scented Dove soap my friend brought to the interview, O’Connor pointed out, “There’s no green tea anywhere in the whole thing!” In fact, it contained “fragrance” and something called propylene glycol, which animal studies have shown can affect the brain and nervous system and cause endocrine disruption.

“The illusion of something natural sells,” said O’Connor. “They’re trading on the idea that we don’t know any better, because we don’t.”

To help us out, the book lists some dangerous ingredients to look out for (as does our story "Buyer Beware!"), and provides information about alternatives that are made from safer ingredients. O’Connor admitted that natural products can be less appealing in some ways: “Sometimes the packaging looks a little hippy-dippy; it’s not as pretty, not as appealing—but it’s loaded with ingredients that are ultra-great for your skin and body.”

Even if a natural product doesn’t feel as good as an artificial one—for example, some natural lotions will be a bit greasier than conventional ones, and natural shampoos will not create that satisfying lather because they don’t contain the chemicals that create suds—just know that it is still doing its job and not exposing you to harmful chemicals.

Beauty Background Check

There are also a lot of online resources to help you investigate your beauty products. For example, the fantastically useful website ewg.org/skindeep gives products a rating from 1 to 10, and provides information about potential health hazards associated with the product’s ingredients. If you are concerned about your products and your health, I recommend the site. You may be surprised by what you find.

In fact, when I looked up that awesome-looking grapefruit-scented Neutrogena face wash, I found out that it had some pretty toxic stuff in it. According to the website, it was a “high health concern,” mostly because of two ingredients: fragrance and something called PEG-80 sorbitan laurate, which it said could possibly cause “organ system toxicity.”

The advertisement for this face wash made it seem so positive, clean, and fresh, but I guess there is an ugly side to most products these days. So, the next time I go to my local pharmacy looking for a new face wash, I will have my glasses on and the bad ingredient list in hand!

Look up your favorite products at ewg.org/skindeep or goodguide.com

Read about non-toxic alternatives at: nomoredirtylooks.com

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(NYC-2011-09-12)

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