What’s Lurking in Your Lipstick, Shaving Cream and Shampoo? What You Don’t Know Could Hurt You

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Thoughts on the state of the cosmetics industry.
By Wanda Urbanska

Back when my son was born at the end of the last century, my eco-friendly energies focused on serving him organic food and deciding whether conscience would permit the use of disposable diapers. Like many green-leaning consumers, personal care products weren’t high on my radar screen. If Johnson & Johnson marketed baby shampoo, it had to be safe, right?

It wasn’t until 2004, when the nonprofit coalition Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) was born, that national attention began focusing on the danger lurking in a range of beauty and personal care products created to make us cleaner, sweeter-smelling and more attractive. Since then, a series of disturbing reports have issued showing, for instance, high levels of lead in many common lipsticks; the carcinogen 1, 4-dioxane as a byproduct of the sodium laureth sulfate prevalent in popular sudsy shampoos and body washes; and chemicals in many ordinary sunscreens that may disrupt estrogen and thyroid hormones. Indeed, the average American bathroom, with its array of makeup, shaving creams, sunscreen, toiletries, perfumes and deodorants, proclaimed Annie Leonard, director of The Story of Cosmetics, is a “mine field of toxic chemicals.”

For those who suspect Leonard of hyperbole, consider this. If you believe that personal care products found in major drugstores and supermarkets are government-tested for safety, you’re wrong.  According to the CSC, the $50 billion cosmetics industry uses over 12,500 chemical ingredients in personal care products, “the vast majority of which have never been assessed for safety by any publicly accountable body,” according to a bill introduced in Congress last year that aims to introduce regulatory oversight.

“Americans are left in the dark about harmful mystery ingredients in personal care products,” says Rep. JanSchakowsky (D-IL), the bill’s lead sponsor. “Consumers deserve confidence that the products that they use will not hurt them.” Since on the average Americans uses 10 such products daily, resulting in exposure to no less than 126 chemicals, this cumulative effect of these chemicals amounts to a significant body burden. 

At present, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cannot require companies to safety-test personal care products before they go to market and nor does it have the power to recall defective or harmful cosmetics, according to Stacy Malkan author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (New Society: 2007). Instead, an industry-appointed group, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) panel – funded and run by the industry’s trade association – “polices” members’ products; compliance with the panel’s recommendations, however, is strictly voluntary. This CIR panel, according to Malkan, is dominated by dermatologists with negligible expertise in evaluating “the risks to the reproductive system of chronic exposure to phthalates” and other systemic impacts over time; instead, their paramount concern is allergies and skin sensitivities.

Ironically, when concerns about toxic substances in personal care products surfaced in Europe, the reaction was swift and proactive. Now BDIH, a private-sector certification label for personal care products, sets the industry standard with a short list of allowable synthetics; it disallows synthetic fragrances, petroleum-based ingredients and dyes along with the preservative parabens. As I’m headed to Europe this month, I plan to stock up for myself and my loved ones when there.

For concerned consumers with no European travel plans in the offing, following are steps to take.

  • Visit the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website  for more information on specific products. For instance, with regard to lead in lipstick, in a 2007 study, the CSC identified a few brand names with higher lipstick lead levels compared to other brands. “The worst offender in the CSC study was L’Oreal, which made three of the top five highest lead-containing brands. Cover Girl and Maybelline NY (made by L’Oreal) also had higher lead levels.”

Always read the labels on cosmetics and personal care products. Look for products that are “paraben-free” and “phthalate-free.”

Check out Dr. Bronner’s fair-trade products, which are made from organic and essential oils. I like the company’s low-hype approach and the multi-prong product application. Dr. Bronner’s classic liquid soaps, for instance, can be used to shampoo your hair, to wash your skivvies, or clean your floors.  

Make your own. Try making your own facial scrub from organic oatmeal and strawberries. To lighten dark spots on your skin, mix fresh squeezed lemon juice with water and spray on. Make your own deodorant from cornstarch and baking soda. Go to your library or go online for countless DIY recipes.

Urge your Congressional representatives to support the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011, a bill that would require stricter labeling requirements and give the FDA the ability to order recalls of dangerous products

To learn more about safe cosmetics and beauty products, make a trip to your local library. Check out the following resources:

The Non-Toxic Avenger: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You
by Deanne Duke (New Society: 2011)

Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry
by Stacy Malkan (New Society: 2007)

The Story of Cosmetics on YouTube
by Annie Leonard 


Photo credit: Nail Savvy by melloveschallah.


Bio: Sustainability advocate and media consultant Wanda Urbanska is author or coauthor of nine books, including The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life (Krause: 2010). She directs the Jan Karski U.S. Centennial Campaign, www.jankarski.net.


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