Recently, I was invited to speak to a group of Jr High girls about natural and nontoxic beauty products. I was immediately struck by the intelligence and enthusiasm of these young women. They cared not only about the impact cosmetics could have on their personal well-being, but also showed a compassionate interest in the larger public health implications resulting from weak chemical legislation in the United States.
What I most wanted to impress upon these young women is exactly what I seek to impress upon any visitor to The Beauty Proof: that you have the capacity to make informed choices about what you apply to your body. The lotions, makeup and goopy face masks that you put on your skin are being applied to the largest organ of your body. Some of what you apply will get into your body and your bloodstream. And those chemicals which make it into your body may, or may not, cause harm. Ultimately, you need to decide for yourself what you’re willing to allow on and in your body.
I deeply enjoyed my time with these young women. They were perceptive and unafraid to ask tough questions.
In regards to cosmetic safety, I encouraged this group of young women to avoid making these five assumptions:
1. “The government would never allow questionable or dangerous ingredients to be used in beauty products. This is America, right?”
The United States lags behind Europe, Asia and even Canada in regards to chemical and consumer product safety legislation. A shocking example of that is that the EU bans 1,300 ingredients for cosmetic use, while the United States bans a mere fourteen (this includes chloroform, chlorofluorocarbon propellants & some specific cattle products).
This is, in part, because the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was enacted in 1976, and is so weak that the EPA has reviewed only a tiny fraction of the over 80,000 chemicals currently being used in consumer products. The federal government and consumers know little to nothing about the health implications and safety record of most of these chemicals. And although the FDA actively regulates food and drugs, they do not review or approve the vast majority of beauty products before going to market.
If that doesn’t seem like a big deal, consider this: until 2014, the classic Johnson & Johnson No More Tears baby shampoo still had formaldehyde* and 1,4-dioxane in its formulation. And it wasn’t governmental pressure which caused Johnson & Johnson to change their formulation; it was consumer outcry.
*Formaldehyde is considered a known human carcinogen by the International Agency on Research for Cancer. It is also a neurotoxicant & developmental toxicant.
2. “If the label says ‘natural’, it must be alright.”
Here’s a little secret: Officially, “natural” means nothing. In 1998 the FDA tried to establish an official definition for the term natural, but the initiative was overturned in court. However, the word organic on a bottle does carry a bit more weight. Only products containing at least 95% organic ingredients are allowed to display the USDA Organic Seal. Products with lesser amounts of organic ingredients are allowed to specify organic on the back label.
There is also NSF Organic Certification for products containing at least 70% organic ingredients, but this certification allows for the use of chemical manufacturing processes considered synthetic by the USDA.
It’s not just what’s in the product that makes it truly natural, but also how that product was made.
3. “Only a little bit of a bad product can’t make a difference, can it?”
When we talk about dangerous or undesirable ingredients in beauty products, our concern is chronic, low-dose chemical exposure.
A few of the common ways people are exposed to cosmetic ingredients are through inhaling sprays or powders, swallowing lip products, and absorbing topically-applied products through the skin. What we apply day after day adds up.
Common pollutants in the bodies of men, women and children in the United States include: phthalate plasticizers, paraben preservatives, sunscreen ingredients, triclosan and synthetic musks. Not a big deal, you say? The CDC showed that oxybenzone, a sunscreen ingredient, is present in 97% of American bodies. Oxybenzone is bioaccumulative and may cause endocrine disruption.
Bioaccumulation exists when an organism absorbs a toxic substance at a rate greater than it can metabolize or excrete it.
4. “There’s no way I could understand the gibberish written on a bottle to understand what’s actually inside.”
Yes, you can! You’ve got a big, beautiful brain just waiting to help you become an informed beauty consumer. So go ahead and find a helpful independent resource, preferably one whose information isn’t connected to a sales pitch. My favorite resources are the EWG Skin Deep website, the Think Dirty app, and the Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winter.
And a final assumption to avoid:
5. “If it’s all-natural and full of safe ingredients, this product is going to be awesome.”
Unfortunately, some natural makeup and skincare products don’t work very well. Although the natural beauty market has exploded in the last five years with effective, quality products, some duds are still hanging around, giving natural beauty a bad rap.
Years ago, one of the first natural body products that I bought was a crystal deodorant, and I sincerely believe that it enhanced body odor. Yikes. But great natural beauty products are out there, I promise.
Also, be aware that some nontoxic ingredients may be irritating for some skin types. Bismuth Oxychloride (in popular mineral makeup formulations) and some essential oils are frequent offenders in this category. If you just switched to “natural” makeup and skincare and your skin isn’t too happy about it, check the ingredients for any potential irritants. But also be encouraged by the fact that a growing number of natural brands are catering to those of us with hyper-sensitive skin.
Instead of becoming overwhelmed by all this information and vowing to toss the contents of your makeup bag into a roaring bonfire, go slow. There are simple steps you can you take, right now, to protect yourself:
- Learn what’s in the products you put on the greatest surface area of your body, such as body lotion. Use one of the independent resources listed above (Skin Deep, Think Dirty or Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients). If the ingredients aren’t up to snuff, swap that product for a natural one.
- Take great care with any products that you can inhale, such as loose powders or hairspray.
- The next time you’re shopping for a beauty product, turn the bottle over and read the ingredients. See for yourself if the ingredient list matches the promises made on the front of the bottle.
When I was in Jr High I assumed there was a big FDA lab somewhere, painstakingly assessing the safety of each new mascara and pimple cream before it made its way to the drugstore shelves. No one ever told me that this magical warehouse existed; I created it out of my own imagination to avoid considering the price of my blind trust in companies I knew little to nothing about.
Ignorance was my bliss.
Nowadays, I’m definitely older and, hopefully, wiser. And it is my honor to share what I’ve learned about beauty products with young women in the classroom and online. Whereas previous generations believed in the promise of “better living through chemistry,” this new generation— comprised of our future leaders, activists, and consumers—understands that ignorance is not bliss, and that educating oneself is the first step to creating meaningful change.1