What’s Happening With: Chemicals in Cosmetics and Beauty Products

August 4, 2019

People have been using chemical-ridden cosmetics and beauty products for thousands of years. In the beginning, nobody knew that such products were toxic. Ancient Egyptian women didn’t know that the kohl they used to darken their eyelids contained lead sulphide, nor did Greek women know that the lead carbonate they used to make their complexion pale (yes, pale) was poisonous. The problem is, now we know. Science has come a long way since then, and we know which chemicals are harmful to our bodies, and the potential consequences of prolonged contact with them. So, how is it that we can still find some of these chemicals in our cosmetics and beauty products? The big cosmetic companies have gotten away with selling us products containing ingredients known to be carcinogenic, alter our hormone levels, or cause reproductive harm for too long. Now that we know what we know, what’s happening now? Are we progressing toward safer practices in the beauty world?

 

Due to the fact that the average beauty product contains anywhere between 15 and 50 ingredients, and the average woman uses nine to 15 personal care products per day, we can gather that the average woman puts 515 individual chemicals on her skin every day just by doing her daily routine. These personal care products include everything from shampoo, soap, lotion, perfume, sunscreen, make-up, and deodorant. 515 is a staggering number, so it may seem a daunting task to try to figure out for oneself which ingredients are harmful/safe. There is one category which has been created to cover twenty known harmful chemicals—called the “Toxic Twenty.” These include lead, diethylhexyl phthalate formaldehyde, toluene, asbestos, carbon black, four different parabens, fluorinated PFAS compounds, mercury, and seven types of formaldehyde releasers. Part of the problem is that the law does not enforce U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval before cosmetics are put on store shelves, ready to be sold. The other part of the problem is that a product label will likely not list all the product’s ingredients because manufacturers aren’t required to list them all. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, some of the brands to avoid include Avon, Estée Lauder, Johnson & Johnson, L'Oréal, P&G, Revlon, and Unilever. 

 Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

 

How exactly can these toxic chemicals affect us? Even low exposure to lead—found in lipsticks, can interfere with the development of the brain. The development of the male reproductive tract can be disrupted or altered by phthalates, which are found in nail polish, hair spray, shampoos, and perfumes. Formaldehyde can cause cancer, and it can be found in toothpaste, deodorant, and the “Brazilian Blowout” hair treatment. BHA and BHT are found in sunscreen, make-up, fragrance, and creams, and can cause allergic reactions to the skin. Triclosan can cause antibiotic resistance and is found in some soaps, mouthwashes, deodorants, foundations, and lotions. Unfortunately, there are many carcinogenic ingredients still present in our everyday products. The U.S. currently only restricts 11 types of chemicals in personal care products, while there are over 1,300 restricted in Europe. There is something very wrong with this discrepancy.

 

It’s about time someone stepped up and fought to make these products safer. Legislators in California are currently trying to pass a bill that would ban the sale of any cosmetics that have cancer-causing or reproduction-altering chemicals; specifically, the same chemicals listed as the “Toxic Twenty.” Furthermore, under the proposed bill, if a cosmetic was found to have any of the harmful chemicals, it would be reported to California’s attorney general, leading to an investigation and possible prosecution. The proposed bill is called Assembly Bill 495. Not only would selling those toxic cosmetics be illegal in that state, but the cosmetic companies would also be held accountable by someone, since they are currently not overseen by the FDA.

 

What could this bill mean for the rest of the country? If the big-name cosmetic and beauty product brands are forced to essentially create new products that no longer contain any of those twenty toxic chemicals known to be harmful to our bodies, it is doubtful that they would continue selling the toxic products in the rest of the US. Kevin Cook, the president of the non-profit, non-government Environmental Working Group, stated in a press release, “No cosmetics CEO would make a product with a cancer-causing chemical ingredient that could not be sold in California, the fifth-largest economy in the world.” Furthermore, if the bill passes, it may inspire other states to follow suit. 

 

For those of us who don’t live in California and may have to wait a little longer before we can trust everything we find in the beauty section of the local drugstore or cosmetics store, we have to put more of an effort into being aware of what we are putting on our skin, and whether or not it is safe. It is possible to make your own beauty products and cosmetics using only organic, natural ingredients and essential oils. Such ingredients include lemon, coconut oil, honey, coffee, avocado, and grapefruit. Misswish.com has a list of 60 different products you can make yourself. Think of it like cooking: you can only be 100% sure what goes into your meal if you cook it yourself.

 

There are also many newer companies who offer natural, organic, chemical-free products. Wild Earth Beauty is a UK brand that offers plant-based products that are organic and free of ingredients including parabens, GMOs, fillers, synthetic ingredients, preservatives, and more. They have products for skin care, body care, hair care, and baby care. While these products have to be purchased online as they are not available in stores in the US, it is worth it because you can relax knowing the products are safe. One company that is present in the US is Beautycounter, whose mission is “to get safer products into the hands of everyone.” Founded in 2013, Beautycounter’s products contain none of the 1,300 ingredients (which they call “The Never List”) that have been restricted in Europe. In fact, on their website they list every single ingredient they use, along with the products that contain each one. They currently have three stores and an impressive website where you can purchase pretty much anything you can think of when it comes to skin care, make-up, and bath & body. Some other companies promoting chemical-free products include Cosmeto Food Organic, Skin Yoga, SeaSoul, Juicy Chemistry, and The Honest Company.

 

 Photo by The Honest Company on Unsplash

 

The days of using cosmetics and beauty products containing harmful chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption, reproductive harm and allergic reactions may be finally coming to an end. Thanks to emerging new brands offering safer, organic, chemical-free products, we have options when it comes to finding mascara, sunscreen, shampoo, and soap that doesn’t have the potential to negatively affect our health. Thanks to legislators in California, toxic ingredients could be banned from our everyday products in that state and hopefully beyond. The best thing you can do before buying your next beauty product is to do a little research. Find an organic product or maybe even try making your own. Just don’t become a victim of your beauty products.

 

Amanda Woodman is 30 years old and has a Bachelors Degree in English. She is a full-time bartender. You will most likely find her at her Crossfit gym, an obstacle course race, or a concert. She hopes to be a senior editor for a book publishing company someday, and maybe even write a novel of her own.

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