Toxic beauty: The dangerous truth about the cosmetics industry

Every October, we're barraged with a cavalcade of pink ribbon products promoting breast cancer awareness and research. The biting irony: Many of them may actually be contributing to the same disease they purport to seek a cure for. Cosmetics companies, including Estée Lauder, Revlon, and Avon, are some of the worst offenders, touting rosy-hued wares that include known reproductive toxins, hormone-disrupting chemicals, and carcinogens. In fact, as part of the Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrance Association trade group, the companies opposed a California bill that would require cosmetics firms to disclose their use of chemicals linked to cancer or birth defects.

"They say it's 'just a little bit' of carcinogens in any given product," says Malkan, "but these carcinogenic exposures are adding up, and these companies are part of the problem." The beauty industry is a huge customer of the chemical industry. When these companies decide to be true pink-ribbon leaders, and true champions for women's health, they will refuse to buy carcinogens from the chemical companies and they will demand and develop safer green chemistry technologies."

An ounce of prevention

In 2007, the Silent Spring Institute and Susan B. Komen for the Cure released a scientific review identifying 216 chemicals that cause breast cancer in animals, many of which are commonly found in our homes. Some of the most widespread mammary gland carcinogens include 1,4-dioxane (found in detergents, shampoos, and soaps), perfluorooctanoic acid (used to manufacture Teflon), vinyl chloride (used to make PVC), and atrazine (a herbicide banned in Europe but widely used in the United States)."The public health impacts of reducing exposures would be profound even if the true relative risks are modest," the researchers wrote. "If even a small percentage is due to preventable environmental factors, modifying these factors would spare thousands of women."

3. There are no safety assessments required for cosmetic products sold in the U.S.

The United States has no safety standard for cosmetics. Period. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require companies to prove that personal-care products are safe for use before they put them on store shelves.

The industry's attempt to police itself hasn't fared any better: Only 11 percent of cosmetics ingredients have been assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel, a self-regulating body that is the only publicly accountable institution that reviews cosmetics ingredients for safety in the United States.

"It's time for wholesale reform of the cosmetic safety laws in the U.S., which is far behind other countries such as Europe and Canada," says Malkan. "The current system of self-regulation in the U.S. is a complete failure—it fails to protect health and it fails to inspire innovation." The big cosmetics companies, she adds, continue to use the same polluting technologies and toxic formulas they developed decades ago, rather than innovate the next generation of safer, nontoxic products. "This will change only when new laws are put in place that hold the beauty industry accountable for the chemicals they use, and give consumers the information they need to make safer choices," she says. Until then, the beauty industry is "operating in a virtual Wild West." In other words, anything goes.

4. Many personal-care products contain toxic chemicals not listed on labels

Trying to avoid phthalates? What about 1,4-dioxane or formaldehyde? Good luck with locating these and other toxic chemicals in the product fine print. Sheltered behind ambiguous terms like "fragrance" or smuggled in as trace contaminants or the byproducts of chemical processing, these hidden hazards sail by undeclared because loopholes in our ingredient-labeling laws exempt companies from listing them.

Sidestepping undercover toxins is no easy feat, but Malkan suggests examining labels for chemicals that are likely to be contaminated, including urea, quarternium-15, PEG compounds, and sodium laureth sulfate. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database is another great resource for researching the contents of your products and how likely they are to be tainted. "But it's important to do more than just read labels, we also have to consider which companies we can trust," she says. "Which companies are standing up for what's right? Unfortunately, none of the major mainstream cosmetics companies have committed to removing carcinogens or other harmful contaminants."

[image-1]5. Not one of the mainstream beauty giants has signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics pledge

More than 1,000 companies have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, a voluntary pledge to remove known and suspected toxic chemicals from their products and replace them with safe alternatives within three years, in addition to publicly reporting their progress. Missing in action are the world's largest makers of cosmetics and personal-care products, including L'Oréal, Revlon, Estée Lauder, Avon, Mary Kay, and Procter & Gamble.

Still, many of these major cosmetics firms have developed their own "green" product lines. "The Origins brand by Estée Lauder, for example, brags that it is free of a long list of hazardous chemicals," says Malkan. "So if Estée Lauder has already figured out how to make products without the harmful chemicals, why do they continue to use those chemicals in all their other product lines?"

So ladies, the next time you try to cover or improve how you look, think about what this is doing to the really important part of who you are.

More on toxic cosmetics:

Beyond Parabens: 7 Common Cosmetics Ingredients You Need to Avoid

5 Greenwashed Myths of the Beauty Industry (And How Not to Fall For Them)

Also see: Green beauty products: How to know if they’re the real deal

Tampa mom asks cosmetics victims, “WTF?” (audio interview)

The $500 billion beauty industry is embraces a message that tells women they must correct, conceal and camouflage. Peel away the glitz and glamour, says Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, and you'll expose the toxic truths lurking beneath the beauty industry's seedy underbelly. Malkan shares five of the biggies that the major beauty purveyors would rather keep under wraps.

1. Many skincare products contain chemicals toxic to the skin

"A mind-boggling array of products contain chemicals that sensitize skin and trigger skin problems such as rashes, redness, acne, and other symptoms of contact dermatitis", says Malkan, who notes that doctors often misdiagnose these problems as eczema and prescribe drugs such as steroids or immunosuppressants. Then, of course, there are the toxic chemicals that are known or suspected causes of long-term health effects such as asthma, infertility, learning disabilities, and cancer—ingredients that companies persist in including despite the fact that they "already know how to make great products without these hazardous chemicals," she says.

2. Companies that donate to breast cancer research still use carcinogens in their products


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