Easy, Breezy, Beautiful, Carcinogens: The Rise of Toxins in Our Cosmetics

As I brush my teeth each morning it is difficult not to notice the colorful array of shampoos, conditioners, lotions, antiperspirants and perfumes that are line the countertop. Each label boasts a new and improved formula. The meticulously designed images and lettering describe advanced technology that helps the product last longer, smell better and shine brighter. What do all of these bold statements mean? What is actually giving millions of women across America an “elegant gleam” to their hair, ora “radiant white” glow to their teeth? Perhaps an even more important question is: Who is making sure that the multitude of chemicals and creams that we use everyday are safe? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are not as promising as you might hope. Cosmetics are defined by the Food and Drug Administration as products that are intended to applied to the body for cleansing or beautification. According to an article published by Scientific American, the average American woman uses 10 such products each day, while the average American teenage girl will use a whopping 17 cosmetic articles per day.

Despite the fact that a majority of women and young girls in the United States are exposed to an array of chemicals – safe or otherwise – through the application of cleansers and makeup, the federal regulation of cosmetic companies is almost nonexistent. Unbelievably, there is currently no law that requires companies to reveal all the ingredients of their marketed products. As it stands today there is also no system that approves the some 2000 new cosmetic products that are made available on the market each year. Although most chemicals present on Earth are harmless, there are staggering levels of toxic chemicals in makeup and cosmetics – a fact that is not comforting when you consider just how many times we use toothpaste, or place a mystery blend of substances on our very absorptive skin. Among the most dangerous toxins in cosmetics are those that come in the form of heavy metals, carcinogens or endocrine disrupting chemicals.

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Heavy metals, such as lead or mercury are often found in powder and lipstick products and are known to cause neurological damage if consumed or absorbed in large levels – heavy metals, in other words, damage our nerve receptors and our brains. Carcinogens are known to cause cancer by triggering abnormal cell growth, while endocrine disrupting chemicals mimic hormones that are found in the body and can cause birth defects, infertility, and cancer. After learning which companies are responsible for using these toxins in makeup and hygiene products the hands-off approach towards the management of potentially toxic chemicals becomes even more unnerving. A study conducted by the Environmental Working Group found that the companies that produce lipstick with the highest concentrations of lead include the well regarded names of L’Oreal, Covergirl, Maybelline and Revlon. The chances are that you, or at least someone you know uses these lead tainted lipsticks; I for one can safely say that as I am writing this sentence I can see my own shiny tube of Covergirl “midnight mauve” protruding from my makeup bag. It does not stop there.

Aveeno baby products stock the shelves in specialized “all-natural” stores for children and mothers, but behind the earthy green packaging lies a concoction that is laced with embalming solutions and 1,4 Dioxane, both of which are neurological toxins and carcinogens. It is difficult not to bring yourself to ask why these chemicals are in these products in the first place, and it is safe to say that the presence of these toxins are not accidental. This issue is fueled not only by the responsible companies themselves, but by the ignorance that society has towards the potential dangers exhibited by the chemicals we produce, ignorance that dominated consumerism in the early 1950s. During the post-war economic boom in the 1950s, Americans saw technological advancements as the single shining path towards the future. As people began to show demand for the best and brightest inventions, science and engineering took center stage in the path towards building a “perfect” lifestyle.

While living under conditions of peace and economic growth, consumers sought to find solutions for their daily problems through the newfound appreciation for chemistry. These promising economic gains as well as the sure-fire reliability of new fields of science made conditions perfect for sparking a chemical revolution. The application of uncharted techniques and chemicals to every household in America also meant that the U.S. government ensured that all needs – ranging from the desire to create military weapons, to the invention of new stain removers – were often met with the same aggressive response. Before long everything from flowerbeds to children’s pajamas were coated with toxins before anyone took the time to ask if it was really a good idea to surround humans with untested chemicals.

The issues with this unsustainable use of toxins as a panacea for all ills manifested itself through notable failures such as the poisoning of children and the near extinction of the bald eagle as caused by the unregulated use of DDT. As humans began to learn more and more about the production of chemicals, society became increasingly less of aware of what they were being exposed to each time they bought a great new formula or invention. Even today the public remains largely unaware of how their own health is affected by toxic chemicals. In a 2013 Gallup Poll, it was concluded that a mere 51% of the U.S. population believes that they have not been impacted by the release of hazardous waste or through use in health products.

This poll starkly contrasts the fact that 98% of Americans were found to have detectable and possibly dangerous levels of toxins in their skin cells, muscle tissue, bones, and organs. The impact that these chemicals can have on members of the public can be seen in the case of Natalija Josimov, a hair stylist from New York. Josimov specialized in permeant straightening treatments, which mean that each day she spent hours being surrounded by the noxious plumes of gas that are released when the straightening solution is released, pressed, heated and reapplied. With each procedure Josimov became visibly more ill. Josimov began feeling a constant burning sensation in her eyes, throat and nose, and after leaving her job she noticed that the symptoms of respiratory infections and asthma condemned her to staying inside for fear of dying from oxygen deprivation.

Josimov later learned that the chemical found in the straightening solution was none other than formaldehyde, an embalming fluid that is known to cause leukemia, throat cancer and respiratory failure. Natalija Josimov is one of thousands of hairdressers who experience similar symptoms through their work, and she is just one of millions who have developed cancer or other health concerns as a result of the exposure to carcinogens. The societal-wide misconceptions about the dangers of these unregulated cosmetic products is summarized by Josimov when she stated, “I thought this wouldn’t be on the market if it was dangerous. I really didn’t understand there was no protection” (Natalija Josimov). Even those who are the most notably expose to these chemicals are left in the dark about the dangers of using them.

Despite the flaws within the organization of the cosmetics industry, there are those who fight to make products and to expose the dangers of using them. After experiencing emotional and physical strife from chemical exposure, Josimov herself has begun to lead a federal court case to ban the straightening gels that so reduced her quality of life. Although there are currently no efficient laws in place to protect cosmetics consumers from these health risks, the growing support for new legislation on behalf of the public can ensure that we look just as beautiful with are lipstick without the lead. In 2010 the Safe Cosmetics Act was introduced into the House of Representatives, but the lack of support and the choice to continue along the path of ignorance meant that the bill never passed. In order to ensure that these new laws are being put in place, leading cancer research associations have exposed the largest offenders in the production of toxic makeup. The most important step in breaking the system is breaking the cycle of ignorance that has been propelling us forwards since the 1950s.

The easiest steps that can be taken to ensure your products are safe, are to turn over those brightly colored bottles in your bathroom or makeup bag and read the fine print, to learn what chemicals really rest next to your sink. If enough people chose to learn what chemicals they are exposed to, perhaps there will come a time when we will already know the answer to these questions as we brush our teeth with safe, healthy toothpaste each morning.