It turns out beauty is more than skin deep: The average person slathers, lathers, rubs and sprays, 10 different skin care products on his or her body every day–and since our skin acts more like a sponge than a barrier, we absorb the nearly 130 chemicals we regularly expose ourselves to. Cosmetics companies and the FDA maintain that these chemicals are safe, and many of them are–in small doses at least. But consider that the average woman ingest as much as four pounds of lipstick in her lifetime, and you begin to understand how a little dab here a quick spray there begins to add up. The fact is, no one really knows how certain chemicals affect us over a time, or how they react in our bodies in combination. Other chemicals have known dangers: Phthalates, for example, which are often found in artificial fragrances, are a class of hormone disruptor known to cause birth defects, sperm damage, infertility, and the feminization of baby boys, for instance.
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Almost 90 percent of the 10,500 cosmetics and skin care ingredients known to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have not been evaluated for safety by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, the FDA, or any other publicly accountable institution, according to the Environmental Working Group. To be fair, no one’s dropping dead after a using a mascara wand or a body wash, and manufacturers have an interest in creating products that don’t harm their customers. But complex chemicals with potential unknown side effects lead us to follow the Precautionary Principle. That is to say, if we’d prefer to err on the side of safety until we know. We’re not the only ones who feel this way: More than 1,110 personal-product ingredients have been banned for use in cosmetics in the European Union because of concerns that they may cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive ills. By contrast only 10 are banned in the U.S.
Some of the Cosmetic “Culprits”
1,4-dioxane: A known animal carcinogen and probable human carcinogen, according to the EPA. It’s also a byproduct of a petrochemical process known as “ethyoxlation,” which involves adding ethylene oxide (a toxin linked to breast cancer) to other chemicals to render them less harsh. More than 56 cosmetics ingredients are associated with 1,4-dioxane, including sodium laureth sulfate, sodium myreth sulfate, polyethylene glycol, and chemicals that end in “xynol,” “ceteareth” and “oleth.”
Aluminum chlorohydrate: An astringent used as a topical antiperspirant or topical body deodorant. Aluminum is a neurotoxin that alters the function of the blood-brain barrier, linking it to Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
Ammonia: A compound used in hair dyes and bleaches. It releases a caustic, pungent gas that severely irritates the eyes and respiratory tract.
Dibutyl phthalate: A chemical plasticizer found in nail polish and mascara that helps prevent cracking. Studies have shown that it causes birth defects and harms male reproductive organs. DBP and other forms of phthalates are also frequently present in fragrances used in air fresheners, cleaning detergents, and hair sprays. A loophole in federal law allows phthalates to be included in fragrances without ever appearing on the product’s label, which means that phthalates are more ubiquitous than we realize. In September 2000, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found seven phthalates, including DBP, in the bodies of all 289 persons they tested. More alarming, however, was the fact that women of child-bearing age, who could conceivably be pregnant and expose their fetuses to dangerous toxins while in the womb, appeared to receive the highest exposures–up to 20 times more DBP than the average person, well above the federal safety standard.
Formaldehyde: A preservative and disinfectant classified by the EPA as a probable human carcinogen. Found in cosmetics such as mascara and eye shadows, formaldehyde can cause nausea, coughing, and asthma symptoms, as well as burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat.
Lead actetate: Although banned from use in cosmetics in the European Union, this lead compound, which is a known developmental and neurotoxin, can be found in hair dyes and cleansers in the United States.
Hydroquinone: A skin-bleaching chemical, as well as a possible carcinogen, neurotoxin, and skin sensitizer. Hydroquinone can cause a disfiguring skin disease called ochronosis, which results in irreversible black-blue lesions.
Mercury: Used as a preservative and antibacterial agent in cosmetics such as mascara, where it can be listed under the name “thimersoal,” mercury can damage brain function even at low levels. Mercury can be found in eye drops and certain imported skin-lightening creams, as well.
Nanoparticles: Largely untested, these extremely minuscule particles are usually undeclared on product labels, even though they can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. You can find them in bronzers, eye shadows, sunscreens, and lotions.
Parabens (methylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, isoparapben, etc.): The most common preservatives used in cosmetics to prevent bacterial and fungal growth. Parabens can mimic the hormone estrogen, which some studies show plays a role in the development breast cancer and urogenital abnormalities.
Triclosan: An antibacterial compound found in cleansers, deodorants and other cosmetic products that is classified by the EPA as a probable human carcinogen. Overuse could also result in strains of drug-resistant superbacteria.
Toluene: A solvent and nervous-system toxin found in some nail polishes. High amounts can affect kidneys and cause birth defects. It’s also used to dissolve paint and as an octane booster in gasoline fuels used in internal combustion engines.
If you found this article informative, here are some tips on how to take care of your skin naturally.