Which Toxins Did YOU Apply Today?

The following is an excerpt from Heather White’s investigative report, “Skin Deep,” published in the Fall 2014 issue of Ms. 

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When I was a little girl, my favorite thing to do was watch my grandmother get ready to go out. She would sit at her vanity in bright pink curlers, dab on foundation makeup, ring her eyes with liquid eyeliner and paint her lids with pearlescent sky-blue shadow (after all, it was the 1970s).

Then came blush and flame-red lipstick. The best part was when she powdered her face with the puff from her gold Max Factor compact. She then pulled out her curlers, one by one, and wielded a fine-toothed pink comb to tease her hair into an enormous and magical beehive. Her final step was to apply what seemed like an entire can of hairspray. She emerged from this mist a goddess.

Fast-forward three decades. As an environmental-health advocate, I now know that my grandmother’s mascara probably contained a preservative with the neurotoxin mercury, and her red lipstick was most likely made with some lead. As she sprayed her hair, she may have inhaled vinyl chloride, a potent liver carcinogen. Chances are her foundation had a few toxic ingredients as well.

Every day, the average woman uses 12 personal-care products filled with 168 ingredients, and the average man uses six products with 85 ingredients. In all, Americans buy around $60 billion worth of personal-care products yearly and apply them without a second thought. Many think there’s nothing to worry about because government regulations must protect them from hazardous chemicals. And I have to tell them, think again. In fact, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not legally required to test, review or approve ingredients used in cosmetic products. It even lacks the ability to recall products that cause harm. Our country’s cosmetics regulations have been in dire need of reform for a long time.

In 2004, The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit research and advocacy organization which I run, took a hard look at cosmetics. We created a searchable online database called Skin Deep® and evaluated the toxicity of ingredients in 70,000 personal-care products.

We discovered that about a third of these products contained carcinogenic chemicals, 45 percent were made with substances associated with reproductive or developmental toxicity and 60 percent contained chemicals linked to hormone disruption. Our own research and peer-reviewed studies by academic institutions and government agencies discovered that these cosmetics chemicals were not confined to the outermost skin: They were showing up in people’s bodies. Children were being exposed to them even in the womb.

Among the substances detected in the umbilical cord blood of 20 American newborns were:

  • mercury, a pollutant emitted from coal-fired plants and damaging to the brain and nervous system
  • polybrominated diphenyl ethers, added to foam furniture as fire retardants until they were phased out because scientists found they disrupted brain development and thyroid function
  • bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic estrogen associated with a wide variety of serious disorders. An integral ingredient of epoxy, BPA shows up in the coatings inside most cans of food sold in the U.S.
  • synthetic musks, a common ingredient in personal-care products linked to hormone disruption

Many personal-care products contain chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system and interfere with hormone signaling. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals have received less attention than carcinogens until recently, but they are now receiving intense scrutiny.

Phthalates, found in nail polish, fragrances and cosmetic preservatives, have been linked to thyroid disruption, birth defects in male reproductive systems and infertility. Parabens, used as preservatives in fragrances and in lotions, are associated with hormone disruption and cancer.

Synthetic musks, used in artificial fragrances in personal-care products, have some links to hormone disruption but have not been investigated extensively. Triclosan, however, an antimicrobial agent often used in hand soap and toothpaste, can disrupt thyroid function, may contribute to antibacterial resistance and can react with chlorine to form chloroform, a potential carcinogen.

This potent mix of chemicals has made scientists question whether they may be contributing to the earlier and earlier onset of menstruation.

As a mom of two elementary school girls, I hope that Congress will soon update the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which has remained unchanged since 1938. If my girls decide to be parents, perhaps my grandchildren will watch me get ready for a night on the town. I would want them to remember a beauty ritual that celebrates wellness and self-care and that is, above all, safe and nontoxic.

Pick up the new issue of Ms. to read more from this report!

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Joshua Kirby licensed under Creative Commons 2.0




Heather White is executive director of Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research and advocacy organization.