Friday, October 29, 2010

"The Story of Cosmetics" informs about hazardous personal-care products

Did you know that lipsticks often contain lead? Photo: SpooSpa

Remember "The Story of Stuff" If you didn't see that short but powerful film online, I recommend it. The same coalition has now made "The Story of Cosmetics," another online short that carries a punch.

The Story of Cosmetics

Somehow, before watching "The Story of Cosmetics," I had assumed that the FDA reviews the safety of personal-care products such as body lotions, deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo, nail polish, lipstick, hair dye, sunscreen, and the hundreds of other products Americans slather on their skin. But I was wrong, the FDA does not. That's unfortunate because many of the chemicals in these products are toxic, and are in fact restricted or banned by the European Union.

 Many of us use lotions with hazardous ingredients every day. The repetition makes such products especially dangerous to our health. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Vaseline lotion and nail polish

Immediately after watching "The Story of Cosmetics," I had to go examine some of the products my own family uses. On many of the bottles, the ingredients were barely visible without a magnifying glass. On others, such as Oil of Olay, the ingredients weren't even listed. The first two products I looked at, hand lotion and nail polish, both had chemicals that are possible or probable carcinogens: petrolatum and formaldehyde.

This "Vaseline Intensive Rescue" lotion contains petrolatum as the 3rd ingredient, one of Green Guide's "Dirty Dozen" to be avoided in all personal-care products. The European Union has banned all petroleum distillates. Photo: Sally Kneidel

This nail polish contains formaldehyde, a "probable human carcinogen," according to the Green Guide's "Dirty Dozen." Photo: Sally Kneidel

As consumers, women have the power to force change

Environmental researchers have clamored for more oversight in the U.S., pointing out that many ingredients can have cumulative effects when applied day after day, year after year. The average woman uses 12 to15 personal-care products; the average man 6. Diane MacEachern, author of Big Green Purse published this year, says 85 cents of every dollar spent in the marketplace is spent by women. Since women are the target audience of cosmetic companies, she believes women can influence cosmetics offerings with choices they make while shopping.

"The way we spend our money is our first line of defense. American women have more economic clout than the GDP of China. It's huge," says MacEachern.

The cosmetics database is a fantastic safety tool

So how do you decide which products feel safe enough for you? For one thing, you can check online guides such as "The Shopper's Guide to Safe Cosmetics" by Environmental Working Group, or National Geographic's Green Guide (The Dirty Dozen). Especially useful is the "Skin Deep" cosmetics database by Environmental Working Group. You can enter any personal-care product into the database search window, and the website will show you all the ingredients, the toxic effects that have turned up in experiments, and will rate both the product and each ingredient in terms of toxicity! Amazing!

Products in our home, all of which have some toxic ingredients according to the Skin Deep database. Photo: Sally Kneidel

The "Skin Deep" database helped me evaluate the stuff in our closet

On the "Skin Deep" database, I entered "Oil of Olay " - a product I've been using for years. I found that it's loaded with chemicals that have toxicity concerns, such as parabens and PEG. I then looked up about 10 other products we own.  According to the "Skin Deep" cosmetics database, these all turned out to have chemicals with toxicity concerns: Colgate MaxFresh toothpaste, Suave Body Lotion, Dial Hand Soap, Suave for Kids 2 in 1 Shampoo, Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunblock, Aveeno Continuous Protection Sunblock Lotion, Ivory Bar Soap.  One trend I noticed in looking up all these products is that the "fragrance" is usually the most hazardous ingredient. Parabens are also very common.

The precautionary principle

Both Annie Leonard (of "The Story of Cosmetics") and author Diane MacEachern recommend using "the precautionary principal." That is, beware of products with possible or probable toxicity - don't wait until cause and effect has been proven. If consumers boycott suspected toxins, the industry will be forced to offer safe alternatives. Print a copy of the "Dirty Dozen" and take it shopping with you.

Toxic to factory workers and environment too

If formaldehyde is dangerous in nail polish, then it's hazardous to the workers who make the polish, and to nail salon workers who breathe it all day.  And it's also an ingredient in the waste material leaving the factory.  That waste material is going to wind up in the environment in some form, whether as effluent from the factory or leaching into the groundwater under the landfill.

What to do?

  • Sort through your personal-care-products and find a couple you don't really need.
  • Once a week, do the bare minimum - wash your face and brush your teeth, but stop there.
  • Take the Dirty Dozen list when you shop and read the labels.
  • Products with the fewest ingredients are often the safest.
  • Look for products that are free of fragrances and parabens. Some possibilities include Aubrey Organics, Burt's Bees, Ecco Bella, Jason, Honeybee Gardens, Miessence, Pangea Organics, Terressentials and Tom's of Maines, to name a few.
  • For safe baby products, look at this Parents' Guide.
  • Look at  this list of companies that have signed the "compact for safe cosmetics and have pledged not to use ingredients that are known or strongly suspected to cause cancer.

Source in addition to the links above:

Edward M. Eveld. "Face it: Harmful chemicals can lurk in beauty products." McClatchy Newspapers.

Key words: The Story of Cosmetics personal care products consumer health FDA consumer safety Diane MacEachern The Story of Stuff Annie Leonard factory worker safety worker rights human rights factory safety nail polish toxins hazardous chemicals carcinogens parabens

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