Most of us probably worry more about the healthiness of our breakfast cereal or caffeinated eye-opener than we do about the safety of the other cornerstones of our morning routines. But the disturbing truth of the matter is that unless you're eating bacon, eggs, and donuts with abandon, what you're putting on your body every morning may be doing more long-term damage to your health than what you're putting in it.
If nothing else, you at least know a lot more about what's in your bacon, eggs and donuts than what's lurking in shampoo, shaving gel or make-up. That's because food and food ingredients are regulated and safety-tested before being sold, whereas cosmetic contents are not. And should your breakfast ingredients pose any risks-the potential salmonella in your eggs or the trans fats in those donuts, for example-the product label would indicate it.
But don't expect the cosmetic industry to give you much of a heads up if that "fragrance" in your moisturizer has been linked to reproductive birth defects or if that mascara contains mercury.
It's more than a little nutty that manufacturers are even allowed to mix toxic chemicals, poisons and known carcinogens into products we use -- quite liberally in many cases -- on a daily basis. And it seems crazier still that they aren't required, at the very least, to tell us what they're adding or to test the effects. But federal law, astoundingly, allows the cosmetics industry to put a mind-boggling amount of chemicals into personal care products with no required safety testing, no required monitoring of health effects, and limited labeling requirements.
In addition, cosmetic products -- and the ingredients used to formulate them -- are NOT reviewed or approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they are sold to the public. The FDA cannot require companies to do safety testing of their cosmetic products before marketing.
Cosmetic manufacturers have long maintained that their products are safe and that the chemicals and/or poisons they may contain are in amounts too small to harm consumers. U.S. manufacturers may have faith in their products, but others don't. The European Union has far more stringent and protective laws for cosmetics. In January, 2003, the EU instituted new directives to ban the use of chemicals that are known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation or birth defects. That means many of our cosmetics-the very ones manufacturers deem safe for us-cannot be sold in Europe.
Many cosmetics companies are on board with consumers and the EU and are taking steps to make cosmetics safer. But their actions came about only as a result of outcries from concerned consumers.
A number of advocacy groups have been arming us with the information we need to demand better regulation and labeling from all cosmetics companies. I invite you to visit their web sites and support their efforts. Thanks to these groups -- including the Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics -- there's more information than ever to help consumers make better decisions. They especially recommend that we watch out for the following five chemicals:
Last year, the news was filled with alarming reports about dangerous levels of lead in children's toys manufactured in China. What received less media play but was equally disturbing: the release of a study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics that found six times as much lead in lipsticks as the maximum permitted in toys. Lead is a potent neurotoxin and is linked to numerous other health and reproductive problems. While the industry maintains that its inclusion in lipstick is not a problem- because lipstick isn't ingested-in my view, anything, that's applied to your lips will find its way into your system. And what little child hasn't experimented with Mom's lipstick at some point? We all know there is no safe level of lead ingestion. What many women don't know, however, is that lead is often an ingredient in their lipsticks.
Boric Acid/Sodium Borate
Here's an ingredient that actually appears on the labels of most big-brand diaper-rash ointments. What's missing, however, is the warning that this ingredient has been linked to testicular development problem. Also absent is the recommendation by the Cosmetic Industry Review Board-an organization of scientists and medical professionals funded by the industry-that the ingredient NOT be used on infant or damaged skin. Yet many big-brand diaper-rash ointments contain boric acid or sodium borate. None of those brands, however, advise consumers of the Board's recommendation.
These chemicals have been proved to cause reproductive birth defects in laboratory animals, particularly male animals, and are probable human reproductive or developmental toxins and endocrine disruptors. Two phthalates often used in cosmetics (dibutyl and diethylhexyl) have been banned in the European Union. Unfortunately, phthalates are still found in some nail polishes and hair sprays, and are commonly hidden on ingredient labels under the term "fragrance."
Mercury, even in tiny quantities, has long been known to cause neurological damage. The phrase, "mad as a hatter," is rumored to have emerged in the 18th century, when droves of hat-makers began exhibiting neurological disorders and dementia as a result of their exposure to mercury during the manufacturing process. Most make-up manufacturers have phased out the use of mercury, but it's still added legally to some eye products as a preservative and germ-killer. But given that even small doses can cause neurological damage, it would seem prudent to ban outright its use in cosmetics (a step that Minnesota has already made law).
In all fairness, no cosmetic company intentionally adds this petroleum-derived carcinogenic compound to personal care products. But it is a common byproduct of some chemical ingredient manufacturing processes, including the process by which sodium lauryl sulfate becomes sodium laureth sulfate-a common ingredient in shampoos, body washes and, most disturbingly, baby-bath products. A study released in February 2007 showed 1,4-Dioxane contamination in kids' bath products, as well as some adult products. 1,4-Dioxane is a known animal carcinogen and probable human carcinogen, as well as a skin and lung irritant. It is strongly suspected to be toxic to the kidneys and nervous system. And since it is not an intentional ingredient, it is not listed on product labels. While manufacturers know how to strip 1,4-Dioxane out of grooming products, few do. Seventh Generation's dish liquid, in fact, contains a minute amount of 1,4-dioxane and we are working with our surfactant manufacturers to completely eliminate it.
Activists and grassroots organizations have done much in recent years to improve full disclosure labeling and safety warnings on food. We can have a similar impact on the cosmetic industry if we all start taking steps now.
Large companies always respond when their profits are threatened. If we stop buying products that aren't labeled accurately or clearly, the cosmetics companies may respond. In addition, we can all begin choosing those products we know are safer-visit the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database to find out if your purchases contain hazardous chemicals and to identify safer alternatives. And make your voice heard! Call, write or email the cosmetic companies to let them know we all want safe, clearly labeled products today. Consumers have the muscle to force change -- it's just a matter of flexing it!