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Beauty or Poison? The Truth about Cosmetics
We live in a society obsessed with beauty. From the moment each of us sets foot on this earth to the day we die, we are taught by the culture around us that beauty means happiness, prosperity, and wellness. As children, we learn that the beautiful princess or prince lives happily ever after, while the hideous witch or ogre is doomed to meet a grisly end. We grow older and the princesses of our bedtime stories make way for shimmering Hollywood stars and carefully made-up models in magazines. The message, however, remains the same: beauty is everything. But as we strive for this elusive perfection, we must ask ourselves what it truly means to have beauty and how much we are willing to sacrifice to obtain it.
Today, cosmetics is a 20 billion dollar global industry. According to the cosmetics industry, beauty is less in the eye of the beholder and more in the glamorous products urged upon us as the cure for our insecurities. Lured by promises of smooth skin and shiny hair, men and women buy countless personal care products, including shampoo, conditioner, lotion, sunscreen, toothpaste, deodorant, makeup, and more. A 2006 study by Chemical Safe Skincare Research found that the average woman uses 12 toiletries per day, cumulatively containing up to 175 different chemicals. Because 60 percent of products applied to the skin are absorbed into the body, the average woman absorbs five pounds of chemicals per year through her cosmetics. Additionally, nursing mothers can pass on these chemicals to their babies. When the chemicals are absorbed into the mother’s body, they are stored in her fat tissue and transmitted to her milk.
Of the 10,500 plus ingredients in personal care products, the majority have never been evaluated for safety. The Environmental Working Group reports that one fifth of cosmetics may be contaminated with impurities that increase the risk of cancer. Lead can be found in two thirds of the leading brands of red lipstick. So, why are these products allowed to be sold? In the U.S., cosmetics are “self” regulated by an industry supported organization called the Cosmetic Ingredient Review board, or CIR. The Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, participates in the CIR in a non-voting capacity, meaning that it has limited power. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act does not authorize the FDA to approve cosmetic ingredients with the exception of color additives that are not coal tar hair dyes. As a result, cosmetics manufacturers are allowed to use anything they choose in their formulas.
Because of the bias that inevitably accompanies groups supported by an industry, we might be smart not to fully trust the CIR with the task of keeping harmful chemicals out of our bodies and our environment. It’s up to us to educate ourselves about the issue at hand, beginning with an understanding of the chemicals in question. It would be impossible to describe the full extent of the chemicals in our cosmetics here, but the following is a list of those found to be the most harmful: diazolidnyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, diethanolamine, triethanolamine, parabens, petrolatum, propylene glycol, PVP/VA copolymer, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, stearalkonium chloride, synthetic colors, and synthetic fragrances. Each of these chemicals has its own set of side effects and properties, but let’s examine one of the most common, sodium lauryl sulfate.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a foaming agent, is a leading ingredient in many soaps, shampoos, conditioners, and toothpastes, and is most often absorbed through the skin. It is actually used in clinical studies to cause skin irritation in order to identify properties of other chemicals. SLS mimics estrogen, a hormone found in both genders, by latching on to estrogen receptors. Estrogen levels are maintained carefully by glands in the body, so when SLS disrupts normal estrogen levels, hormonal chaos ensues because the body can no longer control its own endocrine functions. In men, this results in breast enlargement, reduced male hormone levels, and a decline in sperm count and motility. Consequences for women include menstrual problems, menopausal symptoms, and potentially infertility.
Many cancers, especially breast and ovarian, are directly related to estrogen levels. Some cancer cells even secrete their own estrogen to help the tumor grow. Tampering with the body’s carefully regulated estrogen system can therefore have drastic repercussions. In addition to mimicking estrogen, SLS is a known mutagen and has the capability of damaging genetic material. Also, carcinogenic nitrates can form during the manufacturing of SLS or through reactions with other nitrogen bearing ingredients in that shampoo bottle. Thus cancer is a serious risk associated with SLS.
Some of the problems linked with SLS are a result of its effect on proteins. Forming a chemical bridge between the fat soluble and the water soluble parts of a protein molecule, SLS causes the structure to collapse, rendering the molecule useless. This causes irreversible damage to both existing and new proteins and can lead to the early stages of skin cancer. And despite never coming in direct contact with the eyes or eye area, SLS has been shown to cause permanent eye damage in studies of young animals.
It’s appalling that most people are unaware of the prevalence of potentially harmful chemicals in their products. Even those who read labels are often confronted with words like “natural,” accompanied by images of cascading waterfalls and flowers too perfect to be real. In fact, there are no requirements for the word “natural,” meaning that manufacturers can use it at their discretion. Consumers are being misled through eco-friendly claims, a process known as “green washing.” It’s important to use skepticism in the face of claims such as “natural” and “eco-friendly” by taking a close look at the ingredient list.
Unfortunately, even the ingredient list is not as transparent as it should be. The word “fragrance” is used as an umbrella term, encompassing as many as 200 different chemical ingredients that manufacturers are not required to list individually. These unknown chemicals combined with known toxins and potentially dangerous impurities may react with both the other chemicals in the bottle and the chemicals in whatever other products we use each day. Our bodies take in some of the chemicals in cosmetics, shampoos etc., and what washes off our skin in the shower goes into the water supply. And yes, there are wastewater treatment plants, but they do not have tests for every chemical known to be in the water, let alone the unknown ones. Thus some of the chemicals in our cosmetics that are not absorbed immediately into our bodies find their way in later when we reach for a glass of water.
In today’s world, exposure to man-made chemicals is unavoidable. We breathe polluted air, we drink polluted water, and we don’t have a choice. However, we do have a choice when it comes to our personal care products. We can limit our exposure by avoiding products that contain harmful chemicals. There are two ways to achieve this. One option is to make and use homemade products from recipes found online, most of which are extremely simple. Shampoo, for instance, can be made by mixing one tablespoon of baking soda and one cup of water, while conditioner is one tablespoon apple cider vinegar with one cup of water. The amount of vinegar in this recipe is not enough to leave an odor if you rinse well, but adding natural fragrance is another option. This is an inexpensive and non-toxic way of getting clean and shiny hair. Alternatively, one can buy products that are natural and safe. The following brands make naturally derived shampoos and conditioners free of the dangerous chemicals listed earlier: Avalon Organics, Desert Essence, Kiss my Face, Burt’s Bees, and Nature’s Gate. They can be purchased online, at health foods stores like Whole Foods, and even stores like Target.
There is something disturbing about sacrificing our health and that of our planet and calling the result beauty. Such a sacrifice is unnecessary, as conventional standards of beauty can be achieved cheaply, safely, and greenly. But who is to say what is beautiful? Different cultures have different understandings of the word, and we don’t need to limit ourselves to the cosmetic industry’s definition of beauty. True beauty transcends the limits of what any cosmetic can do. By keeping ourselves and our environments clean and pollutant free, we can build a more beautiful world.