Not Just a Pretty Face

May 15, 2008 10:25:25 AM PDT
The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry

Lead in lipstick? Harsh chemicals in baby shampoo? How is this possible? Simple, says Stacy Malkan, a self-described former makeup addict. "The $50 billion cosmetics industry is so powerful they've kept themselves unregulated for decades," says the author of a new book, Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (New Society Publishers, 2007). In her book, www.NotJustaPrettyFace.org, Malkan investigates the products we smear on our bodies and slather in our hair. She tells the inside story of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, www.SafeCosmetics.org, a national coalition of health and environmental groups working to eliminate toxic chemicals from everyday products.

"I admit, I was a teenage make-up diva. I had an elaborate morning ritual involving eight types of make-up and multiple hair products, topped off with a generous cloud of Aqua Net Extra Super Hold hair spray," Malkan says. "Twenty years later, thanks to the modern wonder of the Skin Deep database, I learned that my beauty routine was exposing me to 200 chemicals a day, many of them toxic -- all before I even left the house to get on the school bus! These days, I still use products, but the old brands are gone in favor of safer alternatives."

Still, on any given morning, the average person uses up to 20 cosmetic products before they leave the house, Malkan says. But do they really know what their exposing themselves to?

Malkan claims there is:

  • Lead in lipstick
  • Over 61% of lipsticks recently tested contained the deadly ingredient
  • 1,4-Dioxane in baby shampoo: a form of ether and suspected of causing damage to the central nervous system, liver and kidneys
  • Phthalates in a wide array of common items including baby lotions and powders, nail polish, and fragrances: Linked to infertility, birth defects, malformations of the male reproductive tract, and breast cancer
  • Neurotoxin in mascara: a form of mercury
  • Coal tar in shampoo
  • Parabens in deodorant: Proved to be estrogenic and disrupt hormones
  • Malkan helped launch the campaign in 2002 with a report that found phthalates -- a set of industrial chemicals linked to birth defects and reproductive harm -- in more than 70% of personal care products tested. (California recently banned these chemicals from toys, but they are legal to use in personal care products.) Since 2001, she has been the communications director of Health Care Without Harm, and before that, she worked for ten years as an investigative journalist and newspaper publisher in the Colorado Rockies. In her book, she describes what she's learned along the way about the science and politics of chemicals, and shares stories about the activists, entrepreneurs, scientists and politicians who are working toward a safer world.

    "My hope for the book is that readers will use it to launch their own investigations into the products we bring into our homes, the companies that make them, the government that is supposed to protect us, and the ways we can work together to create a green economy that is healthy for people and the planet." Malkan says.

    For more information, visit:

  • www.NotJustaPrettyFace.org
  • www.SafeCosmetics.org
  • www.cosmeticdatabase.com (offering brand-by-brand comparisons of more than 25,000 products using research from government and independent studies)
  • A conversation with author Stacey Malkan

    1.) Why did you decide to write this book and what made you challenge the cosmetics industry?

  • For five years, I was working with some of the top researchers and advocates in the field of environmental health, seeing amazing stories, learning about the science, seeing many disturbing trends -- and I just saw a great chance to tell a story through the people I was getting to know: women taking on big corporations, teenagers lobbying for political change, companies making safer products, chemists thinking of new, safer ways to create chemicals.
  • But it is upsetting to learn about all the toxins that we're exposing ourselves to ... through products we've trusted and used for years. When you start to think about all of the products you use in a day, or a week, the numbers are just staggering.
  • 2.) Can you talk about what we are exposing ourselves to on a daily basis?

  • The average woman in the U.S. uses 12 products a day with exposure to about 180 chemicals. Men use about six products daily with exposure to about 80 chemicals.
  • 3.) What are some of the most harmful ingredients in products?

  • Lead in lipstick. Over 61% of lipsticks recently tested contained the deadly ingredient
  • 1,4-Dioxane in baby shampoo: a form of ether and suspected of causing damage to the central nervous system, liver and kidneys
  • Phthalates in a wide array of common items including baby lotions and powders, nail polish, and fragrances: Linked to infertility, birth defects, malformations of the male reproductive tract, and breast cancer
  • Neurotoxin in mascara: a form of mercury
  • Coal tar in shampoo
  • Parabens in deodorant: Proved to be estrogenic and disrupt hormones
  • 4.) How dangerous is nail polish?

  • Nail polish is among the highest-concern product categories in terms of serious health effects. This has to do in large part to the chemicals formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate (DBP), all three of which make it into the top ingredients of concern in personal care products, and all three of which could be found in many brands of nail polish until very recently.
  • The U.S. National Toxicology Program says formaldehyde is "reasonably anticipated" to be a human carcinogen. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) restricts toluene in drinking water because it can cause nervous system disorders and damage the liver and kidneys. DBP is prohibited for use in cosmetics in the European Union because it is a possible human reproductive or developmental toxin.
  • 5.) You state that a number of products labeled "organic" and "natural" are anything but. Explain.

  • Looking for the words "natural" or "safe" won't guarantee that the product you buy really is safe. That's why we're asking all manufacturers to sign the Compact for Safe Cosmetics and pledge not to use chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and other health harms and replace them with safer alternatives.
  • 6.) What is the Compact for Safe Cosmetics?

  • Some companies are making safer products today and striving to make even safer products in the future. Nearly 800 companies have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, a pledge to remove hazardous chemicals and replace them with safe alternatives within three years.
  • 7.) How do I know if a particular product is safe?

  • To find safety information on specific products, check out Skin Deep, the online database of nearly 25,000 personal care products. You can search the database for specific brands or ingredients, or for product types, like nail polish, to see how brands within that product class compare. Skin Deep will also tell you if a company has signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics.
  • 8.) Why isn't the cosmetic industry regulated? Doesn't the government certify that personal care products are safe and healthy before they can be sold to consumers?

  • No. Major loopholes in federal law allow the $50 billion cosmetics industry to put unlimited amounts of chemicals into personal care products with no required testing, no required monitoring of health effects, and inadequate labeling requirements.
  • Neither cosmetic products nor cosmetic ingredients are reviewed or approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they are sold to the public. FDA cannot require companies to do safety testing of their cosmetic products before marketing.
  • 9.) You're a self described "former makeup addict." What impact do you think your consumption may or may not have contributed to your own health problems?

  • Stacy Malkan contracted benign lumps in her breasts and thyroid and suffers from infertility which may, or may not, be related to her cosmetic use.
  • 10.) What are phthalates? Where are they found and why should I be afraid of them?

  • Phthalates are plasticizing chemicals that are probable human reproductive or developmental toxins and endocrine disruptors. Phthalates cause reproductive birth defects in laboratory animals, particularly males. Two phthalates often used in cosmetics (dibutyl and diethylhexyl) have been banned in the European Union. Unfortunately, phthalates are still found in some nail polishes and hair sprays, and are commonly hidden on ingredient labels under the term "fragrance." We recommend that consumers steer clear of products with fragrance, especially pregnant women, babies and pubescent young adults.
  • 11.) What is 1,4-Dioxane? How can I avoid it?

  • 1,4-Dioxane is a petroleum-derived carcinogenic compound that is used intentionally in dry cleaning solvents, lacquers and automotive coolant. 1,4-Dioxane also shows up in personal care products because it is the byproduct of a chemical ingredient manufacturing processes.
  • Independent lab results released in February 2007 revealed 1,4-Dioxane contamination in kids' bath products, as well as some adult products. 1,4-Dioxane is a known animal carcinogen and probable human carcinogen as well as a skin and lung irritant. It is strongly suspected to be toxic to the kidneys and nervous system. It also appears on California's Proposition 65 list of substances known to cause cancer or birth defects.
  • Although 1,4-Dioxane can be vacuumed-stripped out of personal care products for pennies, this step is often not taken by manufacturers. And because it shows up in many sudsing products, an individual may be exposed multiple times each day through different products.
  • Since it is an impurity, not an intentional ingredient, 1,4-Dioxane does not appear on ingredient labels. For consumers, that means having to go one step further to avoid any products containing petrochemical ingredients that often come along with 1,4-Dioxane contamination. These include the ingredients or partial ingredient names: "PEG," "polyethylene," "polyethylene glycol," "polyoxyethylene," "-eth-" (such as sodium laureth sulfate), "oxynol" "ceteareth" or "oleth."
  • 12.) What advice do you have for consumers wishing to protect themselves from some of these harmful products?

  • Join the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics! Sign up for updates, write to companies and join our action network. Together we can make over the cosmetics industry and make ourselves and our families safer.

  • Choose safer products now. Visit our partner Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database, the world's largest searchable database of ingredients in cosmetics. Find out if your favorite products contain hazardous chemicals, find safer alternatives and search for Compact signers' products in Skin Deep.

  • Tell your cosmetics companies you want safe products. Contact the companies that have not signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics. Call them, write them, e-mail them to let them know you want safe products now! Look on product packaging for a customer service hotline or Web site.

  • Contact your elected officials, and tell them you want to see state and federal level action to make all cosmetics free of carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxins, and other chemicals linked to health problems or chemicals that have never been tested for long term effects. Some states already have pending legislation on cosmetics ingredients. Find out if yours is one of them!

  • 13.) How can people find out more about you, your book and The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics?

  • Stacy Malkan:www.NotJustaPrettyFace.org
  • Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: www.SafeCosmetics.org


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