Many of you probably try to be aware of your nutrition, but what about what you put on your skin? Whether you're soaping up with fruit-scented body wash or applying your daily mascara, you're probably exposing yourself to dozens of synthetic chemicals. Looking at the labels for almost any cosmetic product will lead you to find long lists of chemical ingredients, and unless you're a biochemistry major, you probably have no idea what they do. The problem is that some of these chemicals are linked to cancer, health problems, and may be toxic at certain levels.
A common misconception is that products used on your skin don't get into your body. However, your skin actually absorbs a significant amount and what you put on your skin can end up in your bloodstream. Surely there must be extensive research done on cosmetic products then, right? Unfortunately, the cosmetics industry mostly just regulates itself. In fact:
The FDA does not need to test cosmetics for safety before they are put on the market
The FDA prohibits the marketing of "adulterated or misbranded cosmetics," but they also state "It is the manufacturer's and/or distributor's responsibility to ensure that products are labeled properly." Need more proof? According to the FDA website, "Cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority, with the exception of color additives."
The safety of most cosmetics products has not been tested
According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, 89% of the ingredients in cosmetics products have never been tested for safety by a publicly accountable institution. True, the cosmetics industry does have a panel to review products, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, but companies are not even required to submit themselves.
Only 8 chemicals used in cosmetics are banned in the U.S.
Compare this number to the 1,100+ chemicals banned in the European Union. The EU restricts any chemicals that are known or suspected to be linked to cancer, reproductive defects, or genetic harm as a precautionary measure. While it might be argued that these harmful chemicals are fine in small amounts, the build up of these chemicals from different products and over time has not been given much consideration.
"Natural" and "organic" does not always mean safer
Labels like "natural", "pure", and "organic" have no legal definition, and companies may use these words freely. In addition, even if products are natural, harmful chemical preservatives might have been added to extend the shelf life of the product.
What can I do?
We're not saying you should stop using shampoo and start going au naturale, but you can help ensure your own safety by being an informed consumer. You can educate yourself on the harmfulness of the products you use and look for safer products if the ones you use are on the harmful side. Skin Deep / Cosmetics Database rates cosmetics and personal care products on safety. Another great resource is the Good Guide, which rates the safety and environmental harm of all kinds of products. Reading up on recent articles such as this 2009 NY Times article on lead as an ingredient in lipstick can also keep you informed of the dangers.
Sources: Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Skin Deep/Cosmetics Database, Total Wellness, New York Times