Coal tar in shampoo, lead in lipstick, petroleum distillates in mascara: These are just three of the 1,100 chemicals banned from beauty care products by the European Commission in 2003. The United States, however, is far behind other countries when it comes to cosmetic safety. To date, the Food and Drug Administration has banned only nine ingredients " and lead in your lipstick is not one of them.
"This leaves a vast number of known carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxins and hormone-disrupting chemicals in personal care products in the U.S.," said Dr. Ann Blake, an independent consultant who works with governments, occupational health, public health and environmental advocates to find viable alternatives to toxic chemicals in manufacturing and consumer products.
What this means for American consumers is it's up to us to sift through labels, research companies and digest a ton of technical information about chemicals and their effects on the body in order to make smart and healthy decisions on beauty care. Thanks, FDA.
So in an effort to make our lives easier, I've asked a couple of health experts who have already done the leg work on cosmetic safety to weigh in on which skin and hair care products to use and how to choose them.
"First, I look for companies that have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics (www.safecosmetics.org), a pledge to not use chemicals banned in Europe. More than 1,000 companies are on the list, but none of the major mainstream brands have signed. I avoid products made by L'Oreal, Proctor and Gamble, Avon, Estee Lauder, Revlon and Unilever "all these companies can do better," said Stacy Malkan, author of "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry" and co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
Malkan uses Dr. Bronner's rose oil bar soap on her face, Tween Beauty shampoo and conditioner on her hair and Grateful Body face lotion " products produced in California where she lives. Trying to buy local is important, too, she says, and for Coloradans, Malkan likes brands Mychelle in Frisco and Pangea Organics in Boulder.
As with many of the products we bring into our homes, like cleaning products, read labels, Dr. Blake suggested, and simplify. If you can do the job with soap and water, why buy the expensive three-strong-chemicals-in-one spray cleaner? The same goes for cosmetics.
"The average woman uses 20 products a day, containing over 100 unique chemicals. Men are exposed to about half of that, as they tend to use fewer products. Teens are exposed to many more chemicals, and at a time when their bodies are particularly vulnerable to the hormone-disrupting chemicals many personal care products contain," said Dr. Blake. "Try to reduce the overall number of products you buy, look for products without synthetic fragrance, and sit back and enjoy a simpler approach to personal care."
Dr. Blake likes Tom's of Main bar soap for her face, and occasionally if she's worn Bare Minerals makeup that day, she'll wash with Burt's Bees' Facial Cleanser and Toner.
Malkan agreed " in general, simpler is better, and people should avoid products with long ingredient lists and multiple synthetic chemicals.
"I look for indicator chemicals," Malkan said. "These may not be the most toxic ingredients, but they indicate that the company can definitely do better. Avoid products with parabens, fragrance, sodium lauryl or laureth sulfate, PEGs, triethanolamine and DEA."
Dr. Blake avoids certain sunscreens because they contain compounds such as oxybenzone that break down into carcinogenic byproducts in sunlight. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep cosmetic data base (www.cosmeticdatabase.com) recommends 20 sunscreens, seven of which have zero harmful ingredients. Another biggie to avoid, she said, is fragrance because it often includes hormone-disrupting phthalates, and there are no disclosure requirements for fragrance components.
Both women offered up the one product they would never use again: Blake said nail polish because of the harm it causes to the mostly Vietnamese immigrant women who apply it to customers day in and day out. Malkan suggests tossing your bubble bath.
"Sitting in a bath tub full of synthetic chemicals for long periods of time is not a good idea, especially for kids," she said.
There's no laws yet, but as a personal rule, I aim for products that contain ingredients I can eat. Michelle Connolly from Skin Deep at Dogma Athletica in Edwards, recently turned me on to Eminence, made from organically grown herbs, fruits and vegetables. A yummy kind of skin care. And besides their ingredients, Eminence's farms are powered by 100 percent solar and wind energy and use geothermal heating in their laboratory. Their packaging contains 30 percent post consumer recycled material.
So if you've been needing an excuse to simplify your beauty routine, health and cancer prevention and helping the environment are as good excuses as any. So open up those cabinet doors underneath the bathroom sink, throw on a gas mask and start ridding your life of unneeded toxins. Save your liver for something more fun than bad moisturizer " like a good bottle of pinot.
Freelance writer Cassie Pence is married to the superhero of green cleaning Captain Vacuum, aka Tim Szurgot. Together they own Organic Housekeepers, a cleaning company that uses strictly organic, natural and nontoxic cleaning products. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.