Cosmetic Safety: What are you really applying to your skin?

By Sarah Tyrrell

Recent health fads are leading consumers to buy organic, GMO free, rBGH free, gluten free, grass-fed only, and locally grown type food products. People prefer natural ingredients and food suppliers are beginning to comply. This year, Chipotle began cooking with only non-GMO ingredients. Big moves such as this show that people care about what they are eating. But, with all of this fuss about mindful eating there has been little attention drawn to what we are putting on the outside of our bodies compared to what we put on the inside.

It might concern some people to learn that the well-known carcinogen coal tar is found in shampoos, soaps, and hair dyes. Others may be disturbed to discover their favorite lipstick, eyeliner, or nail polish contain heavy metals such as lead or arsenic. Certainly nobody wants to purposely apply octinoxate, an endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen and causes thyroid dysfunction, but it can be found in shampoos, sunscreen, and skin creams.

These are only a few of the thousands of chemicals that we are exposing ourselves to unknowingly. Yes, many of these chemicals could be benign, and yes, low dose exposure might not lead to serious side effects. But, when it comes to our cosmetics, what risks are people willing to take in regard to chemical exposure? Further more, do consumers have a right to know these associated risks?

It is actually a myth that if a product is for sale in the grocery store or drugstore, that it must be safe. It is also a myth that the ingredients applied to the skin fail to make it into the body and have any effect. The FDA actually has no authority to recall harmful cosmetics and the manufacturers have no requirement to report cosmetic-related damages to the FDA; it is a voluntary report system. Perhaps it is time for a cosmetic revolution.

The truth behind the components of these products is in the ingredient label, although some chemicals do go unlisted. Unfortunately, the average person can have problems deciphering which ingredients are safe and which are not. Most of us are in dire need a translator.

In recent years, there has been the coalition born through the Breast Cancer Fund known as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Since 2004, the Campaign has educated millions of people globally about the issues concerning toxic chemicals in cosmetic and personal health care products. Working to demand transparent labeling from cosmetic companies, the campaign has had its successes over the last decade.

However, there is always room for progress. The Campaign is currently working on “Cosmetics Without Cancer,” which is an operation targeting major cosmetic makers to take action and eliminate possible carcinogens from products. By targeting companies such as Unilever, L’Oreal, and Procter & Gamble, the Campaign is going after the big dogs in hopes to having significant impact.

The Environmental Working Group is also working on a campaign called Skin Deep, aiming “to fill in where industry and government leave off.” They offer top tips for shopping for makeup and skin products, and they have developed a rating system for product health and critical product information. Their database has reviews on over 64,000 products, and they even have a mobile app that you can use when shopping at the store for new products.

In the grand scheme of things, choosing products with simpler ingredient lists and using fewer products altogether is a smart health decision. There are also so many DIY personal care products that are easy to make at home and great for the body.

Unfortunately, these alternatives are not always as convenient as buying our favorite products. Going forward, it is important to read labels and inform friends and family that the products they are buying could be potentially harmful. This is especially true when considering that these big companies are going to continue to shelf cosmetics that are not always safe.

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