April 30, 2007

cosmetics: it's what's on the inside that counts

Pop quiz: How do pollutants enter your body?

(a). We inhale them.
(b). We swallow them in food and water.
(c). They're absorbed through the skin.
(d). All of the above.

Did you pick (d)? You're a smarty. Although the skin is the body's largest organ of absorption, people often forget about it, or think of the skin as a barrier to the ills of the world outside. Not so. The things that get onto our skin can be readily absorbed into our bodies. Since that's the case, all the cosmetics that people - especially women - use must be stringently tested by federal agencies like the Food & Drug Administration, right?

Um... no. Sorry, you got that part of the quiz wrong. In fact, the FDA doesn't have the authority to require cosmetics companies to test their ingredients for safety. As a result, there are all sorts of nasty pollutants in our cosmetics - more than 10,000 different chemicals, the vast majority of which have never been evaluated for safety (you can read more dirty details at the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep website).

Some of the nasties that are common ingredients in cosmetics like makeup, lotions, shampoos and hair coloring include:
  • Lead acetate - powerful developmental toxicant; used in hair coloring and facial cleansers.
  • Formaldehyde - a known human carcinogen (causes cancer); used in nail treatments.
  • BHA - a possible human carcinogen; BHA can disrupt normal development by acting like a hormone in the human body. Used in hundreds of products, from makeup to moisturizers.
  • Tolulene - a reproductive toxicant used in nail polish.
  • Coal tar - a known human carcinogen banned from cosmetics in the European Union; in the US it's used in shampoos, especially for dandruff treatment.
  • Phthalates - Hormone mimickers that cause many types of health problems; dibutyl phthalates have been blamed for feminizing young boys. Phthalates are used in nail polish, skin care, lip gloss, facial cleanser, hair color and many other products.
  • Progesterone - may cause cancer and reproductive toxicity; mimics hormones in the human body and disrupts development. Used in around-eye creams, hair loss treatments, and men's hormone creams.
Popular brands of cosmetics frequently contain these types of nasty pollutants. They're cheap ingredients that are used for all sorts of purposes, from intensifying color to making cosmetics penetrate the skin better. It's particularly troubling that so many of these products containing developmental toxicants and hormone mimickers are marketed to young girls and teens, who are still developing, and therefore highly sensitive to them. As an adult, I'm not much of a makeup and potion user, but as a teenager I obsessed over products that would make me look different - especially things that would make my frizzy, curly hair straight and glamorous, or hide all my crazy freckles. Marketers of cosmetics play heavily on women's insecurities about the way they look, from changing your eye color to lightening your skin (let's not even get into deconstructing that one).

Recently I saw Jane Houlihan of Environmental Working Group speak on a women's environmental health panel. Pressed to name the worst-offending cosmetics, these are the products she named: hair coloring, skin lighteners, and nail polish. These products in particular are not only bad for you, the consumer, but also quite dangerous for the salon workers who apply them (and inhale them) all day long.

Many companies have signed on to the Compact for Safer Cosmetics, a pledge to eliminate toxics from cosmetic products. You can use the website to look up the companies you buy from and decide whether they really deserve unfettered access to the inside of your body. You can also use simpler solutions and home-made remedies to cut your exposure to dangerous pollutants in cosmetics.


One of my favorite home remedies is a simple facial scrub (I think I must have learned it from not martha). Just use the soap of your choice (a pure one, of course), get a good lather going, and sprinkle about a tablespoon of baking soda into the lather, then wash your face. The baking soda gives a good gentle exfoliation to your skin and leaves it feeling very smooth.

Here are a few more sources for making your own natural beauty products:
Atomic Teen: Natural Beauty
not martha: Home Spa-erific
a mind-bogglingly complete list at makeyourcosmetics.com

Home safety hint: When making your own cosmetics, be sure to use safe ingredients to which you are not allergic. Essential oils in particular may irritate your skin, even though they are "natural." It's always smart to test a dab of the stuff in an inconspicuous place to find out whether it will irritate you. I recently learned the hard way that I'm allergic to tea tree oil. Itchy!


Carlene said...

Thanks so much for this, especially the list of nasties. It's been on my mind lately. I've done the baking soda scrub, it's actually nice. A homemade sugar and olive oil scrub is also wonderful.

Shona~ LALA dex press said...

everyone contributing to this blog are wonderful, i really enjoy the diversity of subjects discussed here.

Anonymous said...

yes...people really need to be aware of what they put on their skin. my feeling is, that if i wouldn't eat it, i wouldn't put it on my skin. it's estimated that between 60-80% of what we put on our skin goes directly into our bloodstream...that's pretty scary!

i did notice that you made sort of a big leap from using only nasty cosmetics to not using anything or making your own. for those of us who don't have the time or inclination to make our own stuff, there are plenty of good, clean cosmetic and skincare companies out there, and i would encourage people to READ labels on anything before buying it. a healthfood store is a really good place to start, but you will still want to read the ingredients, since words like "organic" and "natural" are not regulated by the FDA, and many of these "natural" companies use parabens, propylene glycol, edta, etc...

some of MY favorite skincare companies:
*Pangea Organics ...clean, good quality, very socially and envirnmentally responsible (their packaging is plantable!!)
*Lily Organics (Lily Morgan, the owner, also wrote a fabulous book with lots of do-it-yourself skincare)
*MyChelle Dermaceuticals (very clean and natural, with lots of science & technology thrown in)
*Body Botanicals (i love everything they do, but try their Baby Balm to get rid of eczema)
*Dr. Hauschka makes nice make-up
*Grateful Body

and also look for local companies making skin-care products…you might be pleasantly surprised.


Kerstin Svendsen said...

excellent post and thank you anonymous for the tips too. do you know anything about good sun screens? i will have to research that one and/or ask the folks at rainbow (organic grocery). i see looking at mine that it has various parabens. and it's eucerin, a supposedly dermatoligist recommended for sensitive skin. oy!

lisa solomon said...

such a good post. thank you ms. pea!!!!

Lolly said...

Very helpful post. I actually blogged about the same thing last week. Many thanks for the lists. I am in the processing of clearing out my cosmetics and replacing them with better alternatives. I know it is worth it!

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

i like All Terrain sunscreen. it's a broad spectrum sunscreen (uva&uvb) and uses, i believe, titanium dioxide &/or zinc oxide, which provides a physical barrier instead of a chemical one. they don't list their ingredients online, but i do remember that they're relatively clean. if i bought it, it must've been pretty clean! =) but, you'll of course want to read the label for yourself!

also, MyChelle makes a sunscreen and her products are always very clean. her stuff is a little expensive, but very high quality (you get what you pay for) =) it would be a good one for the face.

Burt's Bees just came out with a new sunscreen, too...which also uses titanium dioxide (a physical sunscreen). i don't always love burt's stuff, and haven't tried the sunscreen yet...but it will definitely be clean (their stuff is always very clean). and you can find burt’s just about everywhere.

sunscreens are usually pretty nasty, honestly. the chemicals involved have been known to mimic estrogens, and can be particularly dangerous for children (it's absolutely amazing to me the horrible, toxic stuff people put on their children & babies!!). there's also some research showing that these chemicals contribute to skin cancer!!! (*great*) a physical sunscreen is always a cleaner choice (zinc oxide & titanium dioxide).

some oils make natural, low spf sunscreens as well. st. john's wart oil, kukoi oil, shea butter...these all provide low (around spf 4) protection. if you have a darker complexion (unlike me!), sometimes these will provide you with enough protection.

and don't forget, the sun is a nutrient...everything in moderation. i think too much sunscreen (every second that you're awake), is not healthy. just like too much sun is not healthy (you don't want to look like an old leather handbag! yikes).


amisha said...

fantastic post and very thought-provoking. i am not a very big cosmetic user but the thought of all the gunk in soap is one of the things that led me to start making my own... that and it is just so much better feeling! :) there are so many fast + easy things you can do at home, especially for scrubs and such, and it is gratifying to see more and more cosmetic companies offering green products. i keep thinking that this will be like animal testing, which now seems beyond the pale even for the most mainstream cosmetic corporations.

sustainableisgood said...

Important area to focus on thanks! Skincare products are an interesting area one I've focused on myself -lots of misinformation out there on them. I use Mychelle products myself.
There is an excellent story on this topic in today's SF Chronicle check it out.


Anonymous said...

Also, from a man's perspective, can I just tell you all that you look wonderful just as you are? I don't love my fiance despite of her flaws, I love her because of them, they're what make her unique and I would never want her to cover them up. Maybe there's no need for cosmetics at all. :)


Anonymous said...

Great post!
Maybe an aspect to remember (even if not in-scope for this blog) is to remember that store-made toxic-free stuff/it's ingredients might stil be animal tested.
Check the label, and www.buav.org.

Anonymous said...

i actually had a weird experience this last month - went to an new esthetician that purported to use all natural products and ended up with a nasty allergic reaction. found out on wednesday that the only things im allergic to are formaldehyde and epoxy resin. and then i found out that even the esthetition didnt have the full ingredients list for her "natural" products. Im reading labels diligently from now on.....also something to note about cosmetics and their effect on the environment...alot of scrubs actually have polyethelene beads in them - and anything you wash off your face ends up in the ocean. something to consider is not just what you would put on your skin, but also what you will allow to enter the ocean environent - water treatment plants do only so much.
theres a great (awful) article in this months Orion Society magazine about plastic polymers that talks about this.

bugheart said...

great post
thanks for
the fabulous links
and great info
{as usual}.

Anonymous said...
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Marie said...


Pure, safe, beneficial products. You must check it out for yourself.

Anonymous said...

There are some great winter skin care products for your face!

tracy said...
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Dentists said...
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