This is a story about Cosmetics about a world obsessed with the stuff. It’s a story about a system in crisis. We’re trashing the planet, we’re trashing each other, and we’re not even having fun. The good thing is that when we start to understand the system, We start to see lots of places to step in and turn these problems into solutions. Can I tell you, I love my Pantene Pro V. Of the dozen or so personal care products use every day, it’s the one I can’t live without.
Says it gives my dull hair “the ultimate cool shine.” How does it do that? I was wondering that, while I waslathering it into my hair one day, so I read the ingredients right here: Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Tetrasodium EDTA, Methyl-iso-thiazo-linone… What is this stuff? I took this list to some scientistswho know how to read it.
Turns out my Pantene contains a chemical linked to cancer. And lots of other products in my bathroom from sunscreen to lipstick and even baby shampoo also contain chemicals linked to cancer or other problems like learning disabilities, asthma, and even damaged sperm. Like most parents, I try to keep my family safe but now I find out my bathroom is a minefield of toxins. What are we supposed to do? To find out the answers we have to go back to one of the key features of our materials economy: Toxics in, toxics out.
If, at the factory, you pour toxic chemicals into a product – like baby shampoo – you’re going to wind up with… toxic baby shampoo … AND toxics in workers, communities, and, duh, babies. So let’s take a closer look at this toxic outrage where it seeps into our lives every day – in the bathroom. The average woman in the U.S. uses about twelve personal care products daily. The average man, about six.
Each product contains a dozen or more chemicals. Less than twenty percent of all chemicals in cosmetics have been assessed for safety by the industry’s safety panel so we just don’t know what they do to us when we use them. Would you fly on an airline that only inspects twenty percent of its planes? Of course, not all of these chemicals are dangerous. But we know that many are.
Some are carcinogens – that means they can cause cancer. Others are neurotoxins and reproductive toxins; proven to mess up brain development and reproduction in animals. Wait a minute, we’re animals too! It’s like a giant experiment. We’re using all these mystery chemicals and just waiting to see what happens. One thing we do know is that they’re getting inside us. I had my body’s toxicity levels tested, and I’m loaded with things like mercury, flame retardants, triclosan, and lead! We all are.
Even babies are being born pre-polluted. Now I know we can’t live in a lead-free world, but do they have to put lead in our lipstick? I don’t know. Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I just bought the wrong thing. At the store, the choices seem endless. I can get lipstick in 49 shades or shampoo for hair that’s too dry, oily, fine, limp, or frizzy. But what about the choices that really matter?
Like the choice to buy products that are safe? It turns out the important decisions don’t happen when I choose to take a product off the shelf. They happen when companies and governments decide what should be put on the shelves. So who are these companies? This is Procter & Gamble. They’re the ones offering me “Herbal Essences,” the number two shampoo in the country. It contains toxic petrochemicals – made from oil.
Since when is oil an herb? On cosmetics labels, words like “herbal”, “natural”, even “organic” have no legal definition. That means anybody can put anything in a bottle and call it natural. And they do. I mean, can you imagine a top seller called “petro-essences?” Gross. What’s even nastier are hair relaxers marketed to 5-year-olds, and skin whitening creams.
These are super toxic both in their ingredients and in the message they send about what beauty is. Ooh, here’s Estee Lauder offering me a chance to help find a cure for breast cancer. That’s nice. But wait…they’re also using chemicals linked to cancer. Don’t you think the best way for Estee Lauder to fight cancer is to stop using those chemicals in the first place? So really, I get to choose between meaningless claims on a bottle.
But these guys get the real choice about what goes into those bottles. And that happens back here at the factories where they’re formulated. Why do the makers of these products use all these toxics, are they trying to poison us? No, they’re just working from a 1950smindset when people were totally swept up in “better living through chemistry”. In all that excitement, they forgot to worry about human health impacts.
That was years ago, and they are still using these same old toxic chemicals. Today big cosmetics companies say the doses of poisoning their products are small enough to be harmless. Yeah maybe if you use them once a year! I guess they never get out and see that their products are being used and combined with other products every day: a little toxic dose under your arms, a little more on your hair, on your lips.
And workers in nail and hair salons get dosed all day long! So the industry is used to doing things this way. And they can, because even now that scientists have linked the chemicals they’re using to all sorts of problems, there are no laws to get rid of them. You’re thinking – Really? Come on. Nobody’s making sure that the stuff we smear all over our bodies is safe? No! The FDA doesn’t even assess the safety of personal care products, or their ingredients.
Since 1938, they’ve banned just eight out of over12,000 ingredients used in cosmetics. They don’t even require that all of the ingredients be listed on the label! Now, this is an example where we can all agree little more government action would be helpful! This lack of regulation leaves a huge hole that the cosmetics industry is all too happy to fill. They set up their own committee to self-police their products.
And compliance with their”recommendations” is voluntary! So, the cosmetics industry is making the rules and then deciding whether or not to follow them. So, you see, it isn’t our fault that these toxic products are in our bathrooms. It’s a whole broken system that’s ignoring the simple rule: toxics in, toxics out. But we’re not helpless. There are resources online that we can use to protect ourselves by identifying the best possible choices in the store.
But the real action is with people working to change the system. Because, if we really want to solve this problem, we gotta start here with these guys. Women, parents, workers, people all over the country are demanding that Congress pass a new law giving the FDA the power to make sure that our personal care products are safe. We need common-sense laws based on the precautionary principle.
That means that when we’re dealing with hazardous chemicals, just err on the side of caution. Let’s not debate how much lead should be allowed in lipstick… Just get toxic chemicals out of our products. Smarter laws would force companies to get past that old 50s mindset and figure out how to get us all clean and shiny without toxic chemicals.
Can they? Totally. Many responsible cosmetics companies are already putting safer products on the market. Green chemists are developing substances that are designed to be safe and non-toxic in the first place. European governments have required the removal of many toxic chemicals and companies have figured out how to comply.
When cosmetics are reformulated to be safe and labeled honestly, then we can feel comfortable with the choices available at the store. We can choose bouncy hair or full hair. Shiny lipstick or matte. We can even choose to feel beautiful without using twenty products. But we’ll know that whatever we choose, the most important choice, the choice to be safe and healthy, has already been made.
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