At What Price Beauty?
It used to be that cigarettes were bad for me: they’re highly addictive; they cause multiple types of cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, circulatory disease, and even birth defects. Add in wrinkles and it’s a no-brainer: I don’t smoke. Then it was farm salmon, trans-fats, pet-food (I went cold turkey on that one), coffee,—though the next day it was declared good for me again—and toothpaste. I cried onto my toast crumbs last week when a houseguest declared that burnt toast—the only way I know how to make it—causes cancer. Well of course it does. Lately, it seems that everything is bad for me, or bad for the environment, or even worse—bad for both.
When I first heard that toothpastes made in China contained the antifreeze chemical diethylene glycol, I was sure Erin Brockovich was reaching for a new cause, and movie. Toothpaste? C’mon! I rolled my eyes and called my dentist to see if perhaps antifreeze prevents cavities. It doesn’t.
I flip-flop between “ignorance is bliss” (a Haagen Daaz Dazzler dessert has two days worth of saturated fats) and “knowledge is power” (Guinness is good for you!) on any given day, but in a recent “knowledge is power” moment, I decided to look past the scary headline and find out if my toothpaste is a product of China. The good news is that my toothpaste is not made in China. The bad news? Chinese antifreeze is the least of my worries.
Opening Pandora’s Cosmetic Bag.
According to The Environmental Working Group (EWG), more than a quarter of all personal-care products sold in the United States may contain cancer-causing agents. Apparently, I’d be better off buying my shampoo and moisturizer in Europe, where companies are restricted from using any of 450 chemicals—that are known or strongly suspected of being carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins—in their cosmetics. Here in the United States, the FDA has restricted nine chemicals.
The cosmetics industry is constantly bombarding me with products that will make my pores smaller, my lips bigger, and my hair shinier, but apparently they could care less about my health and safety.
So should I wrap myself in bubble wrap and brace for the end? (Sigh, bubble wrap is not biodegradable.) Perhaps I should pull a Grizzly-Adams and scramble into the woods to live off the grid, grow my own vegetables, and never brush my teeth or wash my hair. Not an option. I’ve avoided becoming a fashion freak, a health freak, and a green freak, and I’m not about to become an alarmist freak with bad breath and frizzy hair.
Instead, I will find the balance between ignorance is bliss and knowledge is power. I’ll figure out what I need to avoid and then I’ll make sound, balanced decisions about my beauty routine.
On the trail of the Chinese antifreeze, I’m learning more than I ever wanted to know about Federal Regulations (or lack thereof) and product labels. Before, all I cared about was whether that lip balm had lip-plumping powers, now I want to know if it’s petroleum based, and well, if it’ll kill me.
A quick search of EWG’s Skin Deep cosmetic safety database shows that the mousse I use daily is rated moderate risk with ingredients that are linked to cancer, allergies, and immunotoxicity. My favorite lip balm is rated high risk for ingredients linked to developmental/reproductive toxicity, violations to industry safety guidelines, and other concerns.
It’s kind of scary to take a clinical look at my beauty arsenal; it’s even scarier to imagine myself without same beauty products. Fortunately, for every moderate-to-high-risk product, there’s a low-risk or even no-risk alternative. There’s no need for panic: you just need to know what you’re looking for.
Five Baby Steps to Safe Beauty.
1. Research your products. Check how your beauty products rate at the EWG’s Skin Deep database. Skin Deep pairs ingredients in nearly 25,000 products against fifty definitive toxicity and regulatory databases, making it the largest integrated data resource of its kind. You can also generate a custom shopping list using Skin Deep’s advanced search feature. This is a fast and easy way to find safer products and eliminate hazardous ingredients from your beauty routine.
2. Read the label. You don’t need to be a scientist to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys on the back of that bottle. These are the worst-offending ingredients that you need to recognize and avoid:
- Petrolatum/ Petroleum jelly: This is considered a probable human carcinogen (in the EU but not in the U.S.). This chemical is found in high levels in the tissues of women with breast cancer.
- Phthalates (or ingredients with this word in the name like dibutylphthalate): This is linked to fertility problems and abnormal genital development in infant boys whose mothers were exposed during pregnancy.
- Parabens (or again, ingredients that contain this word in the name like methylparabens): This mimics estrogen in the body and has been linked to breast cancer and birth defects.
3. Buy fragrance free. A loophole in federal law means companies don’t have to list any of the potentially hundreds of chemicals in a product’s fragrance mixture. Yet, fragrances are among the top five allergens in the world and they can contain neurotoxins. The beauty industry wants to protect their secret formulas. I want to protect my own skin, so I’ll be looking for fragrance free haircare and skincare next time I’m cruising the beauty aisle.
4. Go natural. Quite simply, if you reduce the amount of products you use every day, you’ll reduce the number of chemicals coming into contact with your skin. Can you skip a few steps in your beauty routine today? Consider swapping an expensive facemask with a homemade one. The only secret ingredients are the ones you ate. This one works wonders for me: mix 1-1/2 teaspoons honey, the juice from 1/2 of a lemon, and one small carton plain yogurt. Stir in one whipped egg white. Apply to face and let set about fifteen minutes. Gently wipe off with a damp washcloth.
5. Buy natural. Luckily you don’t have to settle for Chinese antifreeze-infused toothpaste or even U.S. toothpastes jumped up on parabens, whitening titanium dioxide, and high levels of fluoride. You can opt for good, old-fashioned baking soda or buy a natural toothpaste. Same goes for deodorant: skip the antiperspirant (which contains aluminum and prevents your body from eliminating toxins naturally) and opt for an aluminum-free deodorant. While you’re on a natural-kick, swap out your petroleum based lip-gloss and pucker up with a natural alternative. Burt’s Bees beeswax lip balm is rated one for low hazard by Skin Deep (which just goes to show that you can’t make assumptions about beauty brands) while Cosmic Tree Essentials Ambrosia Lip Balm (vegan friendly) gets an all-clear zero rating.
I’m a little sad to say that it seems it’s no longer enough to be conscious of whether a product is cruelty-free, organic, and contributing to our landfills. I’m sad, but not jaded. I don’t plan to stop wearing make-up or styling my hair, but I reckon that I spend enough time beautifying to spare a little time to find out if what I’m using is harmful to me, to my family, and to the environment. I’m keen to shop for healthier alternatives, and I’m hoping the beauty industry takes notice. Maybe they’ll take notice when I join the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and demand that the government requires pre-market safety tests on personal care items and full disclosure of ingredients. I hope you’ll join me so that some day, we won’t have to suffer unknowingly for our beauty … and I can go back to being blissfully ignorant.
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