The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry

by Misha Warbanski

Take a look around your bathroom. The average North American woman uses 10 or more personal care products every day.

From toothpaste and soap to antiperspirant and moisturizer, personal care products are made from 10,500 chemical ingredients that are as much a part of our daily routine as sitting down to breakfast.

And like most things that happen before a mug of morning coffee, it’s easy not to think about them too much. But researchers and women’s health activists are sounding the alarm bell about the makeup of makeup.

Take a look around your bathroom. The average North American woman uses 10 or more personal care products every day.

From toothpaste and soap to antiperspirant and moisturizer, personal care products are made from 10,500 chemical ingredients that are as much a part of our daily routine as sitting down to breakfast.

And like most things that happen before a mug of morning coffee, it’s easy not to think about them too much. But researchers and women’s health activists are sounding the alarm bell about the makeup of makeup.

Women and girls are particularly susceptible to exposure to certain chemicals that mimic hormone activity. Because our bodies have a greater percentage of fat in comparison to men, chemicals that are fat-soluble are more easily absorbed. Breast tissue is one such site where chemicals can accumulate.

“As more and more women are diagnosed with cancer, we have to question, where is this all coming from?” posits Carol Secter, a board member of Breast Cancer Action Montreal. With an emphasis on breast cancer prevention, Secter’s group is part of a North America-wide movement to have harmful chemicals banned from personal care and household products.

Increasingly, science is pointing out that exposure to many of these chemicals—including parabens used to preserve antiperspirants and creams, and phthalates added to perfumes and nail polish—may harm our health. A 2004 study of breast tumours by Dr. Phillippa Darbre, from the University of Reading in the U.K., and published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, found parabens in each of 20 samples.

This led researchers to suspect that parabens, which mimic estrogen when absorbed through the skin, may play a role in the development of breast cancer. The researchers suspected the parabens came from underarm deodorants; however, they concluded that more research is needed. While parabens aren’t restricted in Canada, many manufacturers are going paraben-free because of consumer demand.

Now banned in the European Union, phthalates are another common ingredient in personal care products suspected in a variety of health problems from liver malfunction to low testosterone levels and low sperm counts in men. In 2002, researchers in Chicago tested 72 brand-name cosmetics and found that 52 contained phthalates, a compound that helps cosmetics stay put without smudging.

Phthalates are also used to make perfumes and soaps. Scientists suspect the absorption of cosmetics through the skin could explain why young women in one study had 20 times the level of phthalates in their body compared to young men. Seventy years ago, the first cosmetics law in the U.S. banned the use of coal tar dye in mascara after the ingredient was found to cause blindness.

Today, the accumulation of chemicals found in personal care products may affect men and women’s offspring. In August 2005, researchers, including University of Rochester epidemiologist Shanna Swan, published the first study to examine prenatal exposure to phthalates. The study found that the development of the genitals of boys whose mothers had high levels of phthalates in their bodies was less complete compared to those exposed to lower levels. Swan believes phthalate exposure may be contributing to increasing rates of male infertility and testicular cancer.

In response to a growing concern about the risks associated with personal care products, Health Canada now requires personal care product manufactures to list product ingredients by the end of the year. The department also maintains a hotlist of already restricted and banned chemicals. The hotlist was expanded in 2003 from less than 100 to almost 500 after reviewing some chemicals that are restricted in the E.U.

However, no independent testing is done prior to a new product hitting the shelves in Canada—manufacturers are only required to submit a list of product ingredients. This is just one reason critics are demanding that the precautionary principle be imposed on Canada’s $3.5-billion personal care industry.

“There is no review to ensure the list on the label is accurate,” says Madeleine Bird, a researcher at McGill University’s Centre for Research and Teaching on Women. Bird cites a Danish study on parabens that discovered that contents listed on a product’s label were different from the makeup of the product, which sometimes had much higher concentrations.

“Some check and balance is needed,” adds Bird. However, health activists say harmful chemicals shouldn’t be there, period. Formaldehyde, benzene and lead are associated with not only cancer, but endometriosis, birth defects and developmental disabilities in children. Coal tars used in hair dye have long been associated with liver cancer. Petroleum distillates, a suspected human carcinogen banned in the E.U., are still in use in North America.

According to the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, 89 percent of ingredients in personal care products have never been assessed for safety. Breast Cancer Action Montreal figures Canada would be roughly similar, as ingredients were grandfathered into use in Canada without being tested for safety. Under the 1999 Environmental Protection Act, Health Canada and Environment Canada are reviewing more than 23,000 chemicals that were never tested for safety.

Until recently, the contents of personal care products have been a mystery. While the Canadian government requires food manufacturers to list ingredients on packaging, cosmetics and personal care products have historically been exempt. Last November, Canada caught up with the United States and European Union and will require the contents of personal care products to be labelled by the end of the year. Retail outlets and manufacturers were given a year’s grace to sell off unlabelled products.

Still, Dr. Samuel Epstein, coauthor of The Safe Shopper’s Bible and head of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, has said that the labelling will be meaningless to anyone without a pharmacology degree. Secter agrees.

“I don’t want to go shopping for my body products, my cosmetics, with a chemical dictionary telling me this one’s okay, this one’s not. I want to be able to walk in and buy it off the shelf with the understanding that it’s safe.”

In Europe, Secter would be better protected. The European Union bans more than 1,100 chemicals from personal care products because they may cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive problems. In stark contrast, just nine chemicals are banned from cosmetics in the United States; Canada follows U.S. standards.

Women in California won a recent victory with the passage of the Safe Cosmetics Act, which takes effect later this year. The law compels manufacturers to disclose product ingredients if they are on state or federal lists of chemicals associated with cancer and birth defects. Importantly, California’s bill also contains provisions designed to protect the safety of nail-salon and cosmetology workers who handle solvents, chemical solutions and glues.

In the rest of North America, governments remain slow to regulate, so activists and consumers are taking the matter into their own hands, using the power of the pocketbook to pressure companies to change their formulas. “Information is something that can be very empowering,” says Bird, who completed her degree in women’s studies and is now working to raise awareness about chemicals so that individuals can reduce their own exposure, seek out alternatives and demand change.

Abby Lippman, a professor of epidemiology at McGill University, says the answer for her is simple: “If you can’t say it, don’t wear it.” Although not using cosmetics may seem like a simple answer, Lippman doesn’t expect most women will suddenly stop using them. “I don’t want to make women who are wearing makeup sound like victims when they’re making a conscious decision,” says Lippman, who is also a member of Breast Cancer Action Montreal.

“But when they make a conscious decision, I want them to be able to be aware of what they’re putting on their bodies, and I want them to have access to the safest products. We need good choices, not just an array of some worse than others.”

Deciding which products are safest can be a time-consuming task. Designed to make those decisions easier, the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep report created a searchable database of personal care products and ingredients. The Working Group’s information looks at American brands and formulas, most of which are sold in Canada.

The group created fact sheets that identify which chemicals and which companies to avoid. Revlon, Estée Lauder, Avon, L’Oreal and Johnson & Johnson are ranked in the group’s top 20 of concern. Chanel cosmetics are not tested on animals, but the group gives them the number two rating of brands to avoid, citing a lack of safety data available for the ingredients used.

In 2006, The Body Shop announced it would phase out the use of phthalates from its products and packaging, but the company still uses parabens, which are not among the 37 top ingredients of top concern on Skin Deep’s list. With its custom shopping list feature, Skin Deep provides consumers with information to enable them to choose the safest products. The website offers suggestions on where to find that elusive non-toxic lipstick or deodorant and lists over 300 companies that either don’t use harmful chemicals or have pledged to eliminate ingredients related to cancer, birth anomalies or hormonal disruption within three years.

Companies like The Body Shop, Burt’s Bees and Afterglow Cosmetics have signed on. However, the industry’s major players such as Avon, Estee Lauder, L’Oreal, Revlon and Proctor and Gamble, are notably absent. According to the Environmental Working Group cosmetics report, hair colour, nail polish and nail treatments contain some of the most toxic chemicals. One product in particular, OPI natural nail strengthener, received the highest hazard rating of all 14,100 products in the database. The company’s nail polish and nail treatments contain toluene, formalde-hyde and dibutyl phthalate—three of the top ingredients of concern.

Of particular concern are products aimed at black consumers that promise lighter skin and straighter hair. Not only do these products impose a white standard of beauty that is harmful, but many hair relaxers and skin lighteners contain ingredients linked to cancer, early puberty and other ailments. For example, hydroquinone, a skin whitener, is deemed a carcinogen by the E.U. While not permitted in Canada in cosmetics, hydroquinone is available in products classified as drugs in Canada.

Black women under 40 have a higher breast cancer incidence compared to white women of a similar age, and studies have noted that many of these products are used starting in childhood, prolonging exposure. The cosmetics industry says it can regulate itself and lobbies for fewer, not more, regulations.

Organizations like Breast Cancer Action Montreal aren’t waiting for industry to change its practices voluntarily. That’s why the organization has launched letter-writing campaigns to four cosmetics companies—Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Avon and Estée Lauder—the big names that have been stubborn about changing their ingredients. Until we can get all toxic ingredients banned from personal care products, a generous application of consumer pressure may be our best bet. -30-

Online Resources:

The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Report: Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist:

What’s on the Ingredient List?

If personal care ingredients are not listed, you can request content information from the manufacturer. Check the Environmental Working Group’s Campaign for Safe Cosmetics report Skin Deep to get details on specific ingredients and to find safer products. Hotlisted ingredients in Canada may be subject to limitations in their concentration or can still turn up in products categorized as drugs, like antiperspirant and anti-dandruff shampoos.

These are some ingredients to avoid: LEAD ACETATE Found in some hair dye, and cleansers, lead acetate is hotlisted in Canada and banned in the E.U. Lead acetate is a reproductive and developmental toxin.

FORMALDEHYDE Found in some nail products, antibacterial soaps and foundations, formaldehyde is a carcinogen restricted in Canada.

TOLUENE Found in some nail polish and hardeners. It is suspected of being a reproductive or developmental toxin. One form, Toluene-2,4-diamine, is prohibited in Canada.

PARABENS A class of preservatives commonly found in moisturizers, deodorants and many personal care products. Methlyparaben, butlyparaben, isobutylparaben and propylbaraben are classed as endocrine disruptors in Skin Deep.

PETROLEUM DISTILLATES Found in mascara, perfume, lipstick and foundation, petroleum distillates are a suspected carcinogen.

COAL TAR Found in dark hair dyes and antidandruff shampoo, coal tars are carcinogenic and permitted in hair dyes in Canada when accompanied by a warning.

DIBUTYL PHTHALATE Found in nail products. All phthalates are banned in the E.U., but not restricted in Canada. Dibutyl phthalate is an endocrine disruptor and suspected to reproductive toxin.

Source: Environmental Working Group Campaign for Safe Cosmetics