Pretty hurts: Are chemicals in beauty products making us ill?


Some shampoo contains coal tar, a known carcinogen. PHOTO/Shioguchi/Getty Images

Cosmetics and personal care items women use every day are packed with a constellation of chemicals that health advocates say could be connected to a host of health problems

Anyone who has ever glanced at a lotion or shampoo bottle has probably noticed a mystifying array of multi-syllabic chemicals. We assume they’re safe enough to put on our bodies – but how much do we really know about the products we slather on each day?

The US cosmetics and personal care industry – everything from makeup to shampoo, lotion and sunscreen – is largely self-regulated. Since it first came under FDA purview in the 1930s, the industry has had only nine chemicals banned from use. More than 12,000 chemicals are approved for use today.

Consumer health advocates and some researchers have for years warned that at least some of those are unsafe. And they are trying to connect the dots between these intimately used products and some worrying and unexplained disease trends – particularly in women.

American women use an average of 12 products a day – nearly 200 chemicals – according to a 2004 study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit environment and health advocacy group. Another survey, conducted by a beauty retailer in 2016, found women averaged 16 products a day on their face alone.

“Cancer is on the rise, infertility is on the rise, allergies in children are on the rise, and people can’t figure out why,” said Nneka Leiba, the director of healthy living science at EWG, which has been monitoring chemicals in cosmetics for over a decade. “The increases are not just due to genetics and new diagnostic techniques.”

In the US, overall cancer rates have declined in recent years, but certain types of cancer – including those of the thyroid, liver and skin – are on the rise, according to the latest government data. And while the rate of cancer diagnoses among men is decreasing, rates for women have remained stable since 2008.

Leiba said known or suspected carcinogens like formaldehydefound in some keratin hair treatments, body soap and nail polish – and coal tarfound in some hair dyes and shampoo – are of top concern in beauty products. So are heavy metals, like lead found in lipsticks and clay-based products, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals like parabens and phthalates, among others. EWG has also found toxic PFAS chemicals – used in flame retardants and Teflon – in some cosmetics.

EWG, along with other advocacy groups, is pushing for more transparency and regulation of the industry to ban certain ingredients, many of which are already blocked in other countries. A recent report by the organization found that more than 40 countries have banned 1,400 chemicals in cosmetic products, compared with nine in the US.

The Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), the trade group representing 90% of the US beauty industry, says their products are “among the safest” regulated by the FDA, and maintains that fears of certain chemicals are overblown.

“The number of substances on a country’s restricted list is a misleading measure of the effectiveness of regulation in protecting human health and safety,” Lezlee Westine, the president and CEO of the Personal Care Products Council, said in an emailed statement on EWG’s analysis. “The materials cited as examples by EWG are not, and would never be, used as cosmetic ingredients because they are pesticides, narcotics, and radioactive substances.” (EWG’s list includes current cosmetic ingredients like formaldehyde, parabens and toluene.)

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