Which Toxins Did YOU Apply Today?

13383589723_131a0d8dae_zThe 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.


  1. Allison Mora says:

    Where can I find the information of the toxin products? So I can educate myself in which products to not use?

  2. Rhonda Pegg says:

    Why are there never any critiques of Hair Dyes and the multiple toxins in them… I contacted the American Cancer Society 25 years ago when I was dying my hair and starting to feel “flu-like symptoms” for no apparent reason… They sent a 20-page report back to me stating that any hair dyes from Black to Red had been shown to cause lymphoma in women who used them for 20 years or more… think, Jackie Kennedy… I see so many young women dying their hair black, purple, etc. and then complaining of fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, or worse, lymphoma… What does it take for our country to wise up!! The UK has already banned almost 300 harmful chemicals from their cosmetics and hair dyes… Do you have any answers to this???

    • I hear you – and am as equally frustrated by the fact that big industry is put ahead of the health of the consumer. Hair Dyes – dark ones have also been known to cause Bladder Cancer.

  3. Agreed. It is so difficult to find a truly okay cosmetic line. So many companies make it difficult to even find out what is in their products!

  4. I am a consultant with a company that is working to get safe beauty products in to the hands of everyone. They provide a “never list” that lists the items that should never be used. Feel free to look at my website

  5. Conny Riley says:

    Use Arbonne. It’s pure, safe and beneficial. Botanically based and made without the harmful toxins. Vegan and no mineral oils either!

  6. We keep hearing about more amor cases of mental illness, bipolar, autism, ect. Is there any correlation ?

  7. I have just joined with a company that provide an amazing range of completly organic (every process, from seed selection to growing, to even bottling) natural non synthetic ‘alternatives’ for our daily cleansing routine. They do not provide a natural make up range yet but are starting to bring some out. (only have a lipgloss with a perfume on the other side so far, as they are just going into the make up area) They provide every care product that you could think of, from every single different types of facial cleanser, to ‘Age Reforming Technology’ care products, hair products, tooth paste and to cleaning products for the home. (Just to name a couple) As i said before all completely natural. If you would like to hear more about this outstanding company, please do not hesitate to contact me – lalalaleanna@hotmail.com

  8. This is great, but I would like to know if there is a website of alternative products to buy. Because sadly, many women use makeup for a specific reason, and I speak for myself, will not stop using it until I find something to replace it with. I would love some guidance in the right direction so I can save myself =) thanks!

  9. I have just started getting super SUPER interested in this topic . Probably because I just had a baby and now I have turned into a crazy person trying to protect her from crap! Ava Anderson non toxic is absolutely awesome! All of the stuff is rated either a 0 or 1 on the environmental working group skin deep app. contact me for more info or if you need help! http://www.avaandersonnontoxic.com/ahamel

  10. Good Lord, I’m 75 years old and in great health. I have 3 healthy grown kids. I have been using these products for years. Give it a break and chill!!

    • That’s wonderful that you remain a healthy 75 year old even after using toxic products for years. It doesn’t mean everyone else ends up unscathed. Bottom line is there is no reason for companies to saturate their products with known harmful carcinogens, and I for one will not support companies whose bottom line is more important than people’s health.

    • Why is it that some individuals do NOT understand that all people are NOT one and the same? You may, for example, have a peanut allergy, while I may not. Re:toxic chemicals- some individuals are unable to detoxify them due to poor methylation, etc. My aunt smoked for 70 years and was as healthy as a horse, but other smokers, well, not so lucky. It’s all a genetic lottery. Please be considerate and count yourself blessed that you were not harmed thus far. It doesn’t mean others should be bullied or victimized by insensitive folks.

  11. Another fine article on the serious lack of regulation issue in this country. And as a result most personal care products are saturated with toxins and chemicals that are harmful, or have not been tested for safety. You can learn more at https://thechoosychick.com
    We aim to inform and stay on the forefront of this concerning issue. Thanks Heather!

  12. Thank you for continuing to educate about toxins in daily used products! Just think of all of the toxins people are putting on day after day – and we wonder why so many are sick! It’s so important that we use “safe” products and minimize our exposure to these harmful toxins for the sake of our health.

  13. Thank you to the EWG for opening my eyes to this!! I decided that one of the best things I could do to protect my family from the toxic products out there is to buy from and support companies who self-regulate, test for safety (on humans) and ban the use of harmful chemicals in their own products. The company, Beautycounter, is leading this change. Their products are beautiful, effective, and SAFE! Check them out at ash.beautycounter.com.

  14. Bravo! Heather White’s article contains the most succinct history and explanation of toxic ingredients in personal care products I’ve ever read. Thank you, Heather, for your hard work and effort in educating all of us.

  15. We started GreenMUA in 2009 to find and list the best green beauty brands and services. Updated regularly.

  16. As always Heather, Thank you for being such a wonderful advocate for safer products. It’s so good to let people know there are companies out there who do care. Keep up the great work! http://www.goodforyougirls.com

  17. The EWG has a database where you can look up your ingredients and your products –
    Don’t be fooled by what’s on the label, since companies can say what ever they want on their labels the only way to really know what’s in the products is by reading the ingredients lists.
    All kinds of products say they are “natural” – “pure, safe & beneficial”, “non-toxic” but this means absolutely nothing because there are no regulations or standards for any of those claims.

    The only claim I know that can be verified is the claim for CERTIFIED organic. If a product is using the USDA logo or the ACO logo that means the product meets a food standard organic certification. Then you know what you are getting.

    The Organic Consumers Association also has some really great information on how to understand what you are buying – http://www.organicconsumers.org/bodycare/index.cfm

    Don’t be fooled by what’s on the label, read the ingredients list…. if there are long chemical names on the list, these are not “natural” and they are also not “organic”

  18. Miranda Spencer says:

    Thank you for bringing this info to a mainstream audience. We in the “green media” have been covering/complaining about this for some time yet it’s not that commonly known about toxicants in cosmetics. A couple of websites I work with can help you follow along with environmental health issues that affect women: Environmental Health News (http://www.ehn.org) and the Think Pink, Live Green column at BreastCancer.org (http://community.breastcancer.org/livegreen).

  19. Thank you Heather White for speaking at our recent Beautycounter Leadership Summit. Your vast knowledge and your incredible stage poise are remarkable. Thanks for helping us understand how important what we put both IN and ON our bodies truly is. I love being a part of Beautycounter’s mission…thanks for supporting us! https://LA.beautycounter.com

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