Are Your Beauty Products Harming Your Health? Here's What You Need to Know.
In today's world where most of our information is obtained from social media, there are a lot of buzzwords thrown around on beauty and wellness articles describing products as non-toxic, clean, organic, green, and all-natural, to name a few. At first glance, you would think they all mean the same thing, but do they really? Why does it suddenly seem so important to seek these items out in our beauty and personal care products? And what's wrong with what you're using now?
Here Are The Facts
It turns out that all those soaps, lotions, makeup, and hair products you have been using daily to keep your hair and skin looking and feeling healthy, are actually causing more harm than good. According to the Environment Working Group (EWG), there are 10,500 chemicals used in personal care products and only 11% of those products have been tested by the Federal Department of Agriculture (FDA) for safety concerns.
To find out how many of these untested chemicals we should be worried about, in 2007 EWG created a database of ingredients taken from the product labels of over 60,000 personal care products and cross-referenced them with 60 different toxicity databases. Here are some of the staggering statistics that they uncovered:
1 in every 5 products contains cancer-linked chemicals.
80% of all products contain ingredients contaminated with hazardous impurities.
56% of all products contain chemicals to increase the absorption of ingredients into deeper layers of the skin - which wouldn't be such a big deal if they weren't also increasing the absorption rates of these cancer-linked and contaminated chemicals.
Addressing Skin Absorption
Some people still claim that the chemicals we have been slathering onto our bodies stay on the surface of our skin and are not absorbed, but the evidence against this idea is overwhelming. The American Journal of Public Health conducted a study in 1984 where they assessed the skin absorption rates of chemicals from plain old drinking water. The study found that on average, 64% of chemicals found in drinking water were absorbed into the skin. More recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published an extensive report in 2007 explaining the concepts of skin absorption mechanisms and environmental toxin exposure.
Even they admit that science has proven the skin to be more than a protective barrier to the environment, and should at the very least be considered, "a dynamic, living tissue whose permeability characteristics are susceptible to change." This information combined with the general knowledge that there are many well-known methods of drug delivery through skin patches such as nicotine, birth control, or pain patches, only reaffirm the point that the hazardous chemicals in our personal care and beauty products are definitely being absorbed by our skin.
What To Avoid
By now you are probably wondering what are the specific ingredients you should be avoiding in your personal care products. Organizations such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and EWG are great resources for lists of ingredients to avoid. To keep things simple for now here is a list, created by the David Suzuki Foundation, on the"Dirty Dozen" ingredients to avoid when purchasing personal care products:
"1. BHA and BHT : Used mainly in moisturizers and makeup as preservatives. Suspected endocrine disruptors and may cause cancer (BHA). Harmful to fish and other wildlife.
2. Coal tar dyes: p-phenylenediamine and colours - listed as “CI” followed by five digits. P-phenylenediamine is used in some hair dyes; other colours are used in a variety of cosmetics. Potential to cause cancer and may be contaminated with heavy metals toxic to the brain.
3. DEA, cocamide DEA and lauramide DEA : Used in some creamy and foaming products, such as moisturizers and shampoos. Can react to form nitrosamines, which may cause cancer. Harmful to fish and other wildlife.
4. Dibutyl phthalate : Used as a plasticizer in some nail care products. Suspected endocrine disruptor and reproductive toxicant. Harmful to fish and other wildlife.
5. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives: DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quarternium-15 and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate Used in a variety of cosmetics. Slowly release small amounts of formaldehyde, which causes cancer.
6. Paraben, methylparaben, butylparaben and propylparaben : Used in a variety of cosmetics as preservatives. Suspected endocrine disruptors and may interfere with male reproductive functions.
7. Parfum : Any mixture of fragrance ingredients used in a variety of cosmetics. Some fragrance ingredients can trigger allergies and asthma. Some linked to cancer and neurotoxicity. Some harmful to fish and other wildlife.
8. PEGs (e.g., PEG-60) : Used in some cosmetic cream bases. Can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which may cause cancer.
9. Petrolatum : Used in some hair products for shine and as a moisture barrier in some lip balms, lip sticks and moisturizers. A petroleum product that can be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which may cause cancer.
10. Siloxanes: cyclotetrasiloxane, cyclopentasiloxane, cyclohexasiloxane and cyclomethicone Used in a variety of cosmetics to soften, smooth and moisten. Suspected endocrine disruptor and reproductive toxicant (cyclotetrasiloxane). Harmful to fish and other wildlife.
11. Sodium laureth sulfate : Used in some foaming cosmetics, such as shampoos, cleansers and bubble bath. Can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which may cause cancer.
12. Triclosan : Used in some antibacterial cosmetics, such as toothpastes, cleansers and antiperspirants. Suspected endocrine disruptor and may contribute to antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Harmful to fish and other wildlife."
What About Those Buzzwords You Mentioned Earlier?
Social media sites have clearly gotten wind of these studies exposing harmful chemicals in our personal care products and as they do best, they report this to the consumers via blogs, vlogs, podcasts - you name it. So now there is a large base of consumers seeking out products that are safe for them to use and product companies are quick to compete to target this audience - queue buzzwords like all-natural and clean. For marketing purposes, most of these terms are used interchangeably. Legally, these words are loosely regulated or not regulated at all. This means that all products labeled as all-natural, green, non-toxic, clean, plant-based, and "free-of" may actually contain just as many harmful ingredients as other standard personal care products.
The only word that is regulated in the US is the term organic, however, according to EWG, the regulations are much different than organic standards for food. While the FDA regulates personal care products, it's actually the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), that regulates the term organic and it's only applied to the agricultural ingredients in the products. The USDA supplies two types of organic certifications when the criteria are met. 100% organic means that the product only contains organic agricultural ingredients. Just organic means that 95% of the agricultural ingredients are organic, and the rest have been approved for cosmetic use. There is also one more organization, National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), which provides an organic certification, but only 70% of agricultural ingredients need to be organic to meet their requirements. It's up to you to decide if a company's marketing claims are believable or not, but at least you are now aware of which claims are actually backed by the government.
Who is Most at Risk for Exposure to These Hazardous Chemicals?
Recently, there have been many studies examining the health implications of the long-term use of toxic personal care products and which populations are the most affected. The most notable of which is a study published by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (AJOG) in 2017 that demonstrated that black women are at the highest risk due to beauty products with more hazardous chemicals being marketed to them (this also applies to black Hispanics and black Asians). These products included chemical hair relaxers, skin whitening creams, and vaginal douches, which the study concluded that those products contribute to the development of mercury poisoning, neurotoxicity, kidney damage, uterine fibroid tumors, premature puberty, endocrine/hormone disruption, and gynecological cancers.
Beauty products marketed towards black women are filled with more chemicals than other beauty products because of societal pressures for black women to obtain and maintain lighter skin, straight hair, and smell better (due to a historically inaccurate portrayal that black women smell bad) to fit within caucsasian women's beauty standards and to be perceived as less threatening and more competent in the workforce. This is only one part of a systematic racial injustice that affects black women. Black women are also more likely to live in low-income and highly polluted areas and have less access to organic foods, which only adds to daily toxin exposure and increases their risk of developing health issues. Bhavna Shamasunder, who co-authored a commentary on the study mentioned previously with Ami Zota, made the following statement:
"For women who live in already polluted neighborhoods, beauty product chemicals may add to their overall burden of exposures to toxic chemicals. Certain racial/ethnic groups may be systematically and disproportionately exposed to chemicals in beauty products since factors such as institutionalized racism can influence product use."
Another more recent study, published in April 2018 by the Silent Spring Institute, conducted an analysis to measure the amount of hormone-disrupting chemicals specifically in hair products marketed towards black women by testing 18 products for 66 chemicals known to be hazardous. Shockingly, the study found that 84% of the chemicals they tested for and found in the products were not even listed on the ingredient labels of the products. This just goes to demonstrate how loose our government's regulation of the cosmetic industry is. Robin Dodson, a co-author of the study, commented on this finding saying, "Unfortunately, companies aren’t required to disclose everything that’s in their products, so it’s hard for consumers to make informed choices."
The ability to make informed choices about what toxins black women expose themselves to, is completely dependent on having all the information and education available. Right now, a large amount of that information is missing, causing societal beauty standards and traditions to dictate what information is accessible. In a HuffPost Interview, Tenya Steele director of environmental health at WE ACT sums this up perfectly when she commented on the results of a similar study conducted by EWG saying:
“Growing up in an African-American home, I would always hear ‘a women’s crown is her glory,’ or in other words, a woman’s hair is her ‘crown and glory.’ It’s something that she takes much pride in.
It’s almost intimate; the relationship a black woman has with her hair. We learn from early childhood, what to do with it. And at some point, for an African-American young girl, that becomes using perms and relaxers on the hair. It’s a cultural norm. It’s a behavior that we learn to do and it’s understood it’s what you should do with your hair.
There’s a serious lack of knowledge that using such toxic products, at such frequency, can have detrimental effects on one’s health and reproductive systems. This knowledge is imperative. Black consumers are totally in the dark about the deadly chemicals lurking in their hair products. And even if we do know that there are some harsh chemicals present, we still don’t understand the risks to our health. If our moms and aunts and friends all do it then it must be okay, right?
Black women need to know what this means for their health. We have a right to know.”
What You Can Do to Stop the Injustice
After giving you so much information about the issues we are facing in today's cosmetic industry, I want to leave you feeling inspired about the changes you can make to help instead of feeling hopeless about the situation. There are so many empowering ways to help you and your family reduce your exposure to hazardous chemicals to and help spread awareness about the issue so that more pressure is put on the government to help us make these changes. Here's what you can do:
Try making your own beauty care products, if you have the time. It's fun and it's one of the only ways you truly know what is going into your products. There are many easy recipes to find online for all of your personal care needs from head to toe.
Even if you don't want to get too creative, try limiting what type of products you are using. You might be pleasantly surprised at how far a bar of natural soap from a local farmers market and bottle of almond or coconut oil can get you for way less chemical exposure and way less money.
Buy products rated by EWG to have a low exposure safety rating.
Support black-owned businesses, like myself, who sell handcrafted beauty products meant to help us heal and detox from chronic chemical exposure with ingredients from trusted sources.
Stop perpetuating racist beauty standards! If you were born with the privileges that come with having lighter skin, please use it to support and empower the people of color around you. Don't shame them for wearing their curly and kinky hair out naturally, or for wearing traditional hair wraps, weaves, or locs just because this society incorrectly implies that anyone's hairstyle has anything to do with professionalism or intelligence. If you are a black man or woman, be PROUD and UNAPOLOGETIC of your beautiful natural features and stop risking your health just to "fit in". Let your relaxer grow out, try wearing makeup less often, switch to fragrance-free moisturizers or ones only scented with essential oils.
If you are into technology, here are a couple of really amazing apps that help you to reduce chemical exposure in your daily life and give you easy access to information on safe products to buy on the go:
Detox Me: "This free smartphone app walks you through simple, research-based tips on how to reduce your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals where you live and work—and it keeps track of your progress." Created by Silent Springs Institute. Available for free on the Google play store and Apple Store.
Healthy Living: "EWG’s Healthy Living provides mobile access to our Food Scores and Skin Deep guides, providing on-the-go information on tens of thousands of foods and more than 72,000 personal care products ." Created by Environmental Working Group (EWG). Available for free on the Google play store and Apple Store.
Donate or volunteer your time to help any of these amazing nonprofit organizations who are doing everything in their power to make change happen sooner:
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or medical professional. This post is not meant to diagnose or treat any medical conditions or diseases. If you or a loved one are suffering from any symptoms or illness, please seek proper diagnosis and treatment with a physician.