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Pretty Poison: An Insight into Cosmetic Safety

toxic makeupby Allyson Drosten-Brooks

This past week I headed home to spend time with my family for the holidays. Upon settling in, my mom handed me a book Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry by Stacy Malkan. A year ago I would have thanked my mom and tossed the book aside. My mom has constantly been on my rear about the amount of makeup and personal care products I use. I didn’t think it was a big deal. They sell the stuff in stores, there’s no warning label on them like there is on alcohol or tobacco. Could they really be that bad?

After meeting Sean and becoming a part of the Underground Wellness Team, I’ve learned to think twice about everything I put in or on my body. I feel like I’m going to live twice as long with all the knowledge I’ve gained! That’s what made me take a second look at the book. I skimmed the back and thought to myself, this book is SO Sean!

I started reading. The book mentioned that phthalates, a common ingredient found in personal care products, were toxic. I jumped up and ran to the bathroom to read the labels on my products. None of them listed phthalates as an ingredient. Phew! Then I kept reading. A study was done in 2002 where 72 popular beauty products were tested for the toxin and nearly 75% had phthalates. I couldn’t help but wonder whether I had been dousing myself in toxic chemicals for the past 25 years.

According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website, research suggests that phthalates disrupt hormonal systems, which can cause harm during critical periods of development. One of the ways that phthalates interfere with reproductive functioning is by reducing the levels of sex hormones, which are critical for development and functioning of the sex organs. Additional research suggests that these same mechanisms may link phthalates to breast cancer.

Due to pressure from consumers, some types of phthalates are being phased out of cosmetics and personal care products. The products tested in the 2002 study were retested in 2008 and the results were bittersweet. Some, though not all, of the products had lower levels of phthalates than the initial study, but none of the products eliminated phthalates completely. Loopholes in federal law allow the cosmetic industry to put unlimited amounts of phthalates into personal care products by labeling the chemicals as “fragrance”. Fragrance is considered a trade secret so companies don’t have to tell us what’s in it. Perfumes, colognes, and body sprays are the most dangerous culprits. Even products marked as “unscented” may contain chemicals added to cover up the odor of other chemicals!

In addition to phthalates, other common chemicals found in personal care products are parabens, lead, and other heavy metals. Parabens appear mostly in personal care products that contain significant amounts of water, such as shampoos, conditioners, lotions and facial and shower cleansers and scrubs. Parabens are linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, and skin irritation. Lead, a proven neurotoxin, can be found in a range of cosmetic products including sunscreens, foundation, nail colors, lipsticks, and whitening toothpastes. Zinc can be found in moisturizers, shampoos and foundations. Even mercury has been reported in some brands of mascara and eye drops. Accumulation of these metals in your body undoubtedly adversely affects your health.

So what can you do?

A good rule of thumb is, “simpler is better”. Count the number of personal care products you use daily. Are all of them necessary?

Buy from companies you trust. Many companies DO have high standards for ingredient safety, good social values, and effective products. Dr. Bronner’s Magic All-One is an example. Their products are certified under the USDA National Organic Program and certified Fair Trade as well. In addition to their classic liquid and bar soaps, they now have a wide range of personal care products, including hair products and shaving gels.

When deciding on personal care products, check to see if the brand has signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics. Companies that sign the Compact agree to comply with six provisions intended to improve the safety of cosmetics and personal care products and to provide better information about product ingredients so consumers can make informed decisions about the products they buy.

An alternative to buying products from a store is to make your own! Sugar or sea salt mixed with strawberries makes a great exfoliant. Use pure coconut oil on your skin instead of lotion and in your hair in place of conditioner. Cool, caffeinated tea bags on your eyes helps reduce puffiness. It might sound crazy, but blackberries, cherries, or pomegranate will stain your lips a darker shade of red.

The bad news is that we live in a toxic world. The good news is that there are things you can do to reduce your chemical exposure. Think twice before you use a product on your skin or hair. Is perfume or cologne really necessary? Does everyone have to smell you when you walk in to a room? Research the products you use and the companies that make them. Get in the kitchen and whip up your own products. Remember, there are safe, non-toxic ways to look your best without poisoning your body.

After a bit of research, I found that most of my personal care products were safe brands that signed The Compact for Safe Cosmetics. I need to switch up a few things but I feel good knowing a majority of the products I use are not full of toxic ingredients. I am forever grateful that I met Sean and learned the values of Underground Wellness. And of course, I have my mom to thank for giving me the book that allowed me to share some of its contents with all of you.

Not Just a Pretty Face is available in the UW Store!

Find safer products:
Environmental Working Group



5 thoughts on “Pretty Poison: An Insight into Cosmetic Safety

  1. Geny

    Congratulations Allyson on your writing debut!!! This is a very good article that I’ll especially share with women in my family and friends. Looking forward to more of your newsletter 🙂

  2. Uncle David

    My homeopath says that you should never put anything on your skin that you would not put in your mouth.

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