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The Ugly Side of Pretty MAG
Lip gloss, nail polish, mascara, eyeliner, and foundation, the list goes on and on; these are some of the myriad products girls and women use to enhance their beauty. This past spring, my high school held a special day where none of the school's thousands of students wore makeup. The event was called Operation Beauty. Its goal was to boost the self-confidence of its female students, and it worked. The event received national attention, from ABC News to the online newspaper Huffington Post. But forgoing makeup does much more than promote self-worth. There is a hidden underbelly to the business of beauty – one that will frighten and even scar you. As it turns out, there's an ugly side to pretty.
Ten thousand is the approximate number of chemical additives used in personal care products. One in five ingredients in your favorite cosmetic is a known carcinogen – a toxic, cancer-causing chemical.
You may be thinking, certainly if we just read the labels … but many cosmetic labels are known to be fallacious, and the beauty industry does not disclose certain ingredients for pecuniary reasons. Companies are well aware that consumers will not buy their products if they are known to contain certain chemical compounds. In addition, the cosmetics industry is plagued with corruption, feeding consumers misleading messages and deceptive advertising. Case in point, certain nail polish manufacturers are making products touted as free of the “toxic trio”: toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). These chemicals have been linked to asthma, cancer, and birth defects. Yet California state testing identified trace amounts of the toxic trio chemicals in some 25 products that were labeled “three free.”
The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can be infamously slow at enforcing regulations that could ban these noxious ingredients. In fact, cosmetic companies are not always required to conduct safety tests on their products. And remarkably, personal care products are not required to be recalled.
In 2012, 2,350 American women participated in the “National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey” conducted in Boston. Through analysis of urine samples, researchers sought to detect a family of chemicals known as phthalates, which add scent to various cosmetic products and household items. Phthalates are tied to increased risk of diabetes and obesity. The results were appalling. The study showed that women with the highest concentration of phthalates had a 70 percent increased risk of diabetes compared with women with the least amount of these chemicals in their bodies.
In 2008, another study, conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), found sixteen dangerous chemicals from four chemical families – including musks, parabens, triclosan, and phthalates – in the blood and urine samples of twenty adolescent females. How many potentially noxious ingredients are teenagers exposed to on a daily basis? Is anyone keeping track? In Europe and Canada, certain chemical compounds that are known to be hazardous to health are banned from personal care products, but in the United States these are not strictly regulated.
How can consumers avoid exposure to dangerous chemicals? Well, some changes are being made. In 2006, a public campaign put pressure on the $6 billion nail care industry to make necessary formula changes. When doing your nails, try brands like OPI and Sally Hansen, which have made significant efforts to eradicate highly toxic chemicals from their products. Or try water-based polishes, such as Acquarella. When in doubt about product formulations, contact the manufacturer.
Young women can join the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, founded by Stacy Malkan and the Breast Council Fund. This group, which has garnered significant international attention, promotes the eradication of dangerous chemicals from cosmetics and personal care products. It has enlisted the help of organizations, businesses, and activists to demand better governmental oversight of chemicals in cosmetics. The Campaign has made several significant strides: it has reduced or removed phthalates from many products; it has forced major nail polish brands to remove the toxic trio of chemicals; most importantly, the Campaign has helped to create the online database Skin Deep.
Skin Deep, which is sponsored by the Environmental Working Group, educates consumers about the pernicious chemicals in over 60,000 cosmetic products. To use the Skin Deep database (www.ewg.org/skindeep), simply type the name of a beauty product into the search box, and – voilà – products are rated on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being the absolute safest and 10 being the most toxic.
Everyone can also support H.R. 1385: “Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2013.” Over 1,500 companies have voiced their support for it. Its goal is to replace harmful additives with safer alternatives. The act hopes to force the FDA to disclose the full list of ingredients in all cosmetic products. This legislation will ensure that the cosmetics industry is making the safest products. The law also hopes to find alternatives to animal testing. If the Safe Cosmetics Act passes, get ready to say good-bye to cancer-causing, birth-defecting, developmentally-harming chemicals. Girls (and guys), with your power, you can encourage local representatives to co-sponsor the Act. We must not let companies continue to hide the true ingredients in cosmetics. Spread awareness of this cause among friends and family. Hold a screening of the informative short film “The Story of Cosmetics,” hosted by Annie Leonard.
The best solution to protect yourself from chemical exposure? Go au naturel. Don't wear makeup. While this might not appeal to everyone, at very least be sure you are informed about your personal chemical exposure. American women have the power to tell these cosmetics giants that beauty shouldn't just be skin-deep.