The Ugly Truth of Toxic Beauty Products

Scratch the surface of the American beauty industry and what you’ll find is anything but pretty, at least when it comes to ingredients. The ugly truth: many of the products we use on our bodies are poorly (if at all) regulated for ingredients that harm our health.

How did we get here?

In short, it’s mostly a matter of cost, convenience and conception. For example, here’s one myth you can wash down the drain with your next shower: Contrary to what many companies suggest with their foam-filled shampoo ads, the amount of lather created is not indicative of how well a product cleans. Thick suds are mostly there for psychological reasons—the result of Madison Avenue using fun and sexy ads to convince us that whipping up a full head on our heads equates to squeaky clean hair.

And while there’s nothing to worry about with the many chemical-free lathers on the market (feel free to take a page out of a Mad Men-style playbook and create a mountain of froth when using them), the synthetic ingredients powering most lathering shampoos are cause for concern. Many high-suds shampoos—as well as facial cleansers and soaps—rely on an an industrial-grade cleanser called sodium laureth sulfate (SLS), which first made its way onto the shelves of post-World War II America as “Gunk,” an engine degreaser that more than fifty years later is still sold under the same brand name in auto parts shops.

In fact, a large percentage of the ingredients found in our personal care products grew out of the World War II chemical revolution—with some going back even further, originating with World War I—as suppliers looked for new markets for their surplus stocks and quickly found them in synthetic drugs, household cleaners, cosmetics and more. (Thus the tagline from American chemical company, DuPont, “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry,” which the company launched in 1935 and used in some variation for almost 50 years.) As osteopathic physician and alternative medicine proponent Dr. Joseph Mercola wrote in a review of Unacceptable Levels, a documentary about the many chemicals polluting our bodies, “Industry was booming [after World War II], and Americans began to demand that technology focus on making home life easier and more convenient. When the war ended, scientists were snapped up by private industry.” The documentary also argues that the sharp escalation in the use of cheap, readily available industrial chemicals has coincided with the rise of  disease rates—cancer, metabolic disorders, infertility, behavioral problems, obesity and more.

Even small amounts matter

American women use an average of 12 personal care products a day, dousing their system with some 168 chemicals, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an organization dedicated to environmental research and advocacy. (Men apply a daily average of 6 products containing 85 chemicals.) The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics commissioned an independent lab to test 33 top-selling red lipsticks and found lead in 61 percent of them. And although the beauty industry argues that their products include only small amounts of industrial ingredients and are thus harmless, there are no studies investigating the impact of decades of use, much less the cumulative effect that combining different agents may have on the human body. For example, Virginia Tech researchers found that triclosan, an antibacterial agent found in many skincare products, reacts with the chlorine in tap water to form chloroform, which the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer both consider a probable carcinogen.

In stark contrast to the European Union (EU), which operates according to the precautionary principle, banning chemicals whose safety is disputed or unknown and only approving those that have undergone extensive testing (guilty until proven innocent), the US leaves it to the beauty industry to police itself (a broad interpretation of “innocent until proven guilty” that leaves companies plenty of wiggle room to do no policing whatsoever). While the EU has banned more than 1,300 chemicals and restricted 256 more, the Food and Drug Administration currently prohibits or limits just 11 substances—including the above-mentioned chloroform. In fact, less than 20 percent of all chemicals in cosmetics have been assessed for safety by the industry’s safety panel, according to an EWG assessment. (For an in-depth look at the problem, see The Story of Cosmetics, a 20-minute online movie detailing the how and why of the toxins in personal care products.)

Long-term effects of chemical build-up

Although some chemicals are too large to pass the skin barrier and enter the bloodstream, many others seep right through. “Our skin absorbs up to 60 percent of what we put on it,” Sara Gottfried, MD, author of the New York Times bestselling books The Hormone Cure and The Hormone Reset Diet, writes on her blog, adding that “even if a chemical isn’t so harmful that it affects us right away, some bioaccumulate (meaning they become concentrated in the body over time) therefore taking their toll over time.” She notes that many toxic ingredients aren’t added because they’ll increase functionality or user experience; rather they are added to skincare products because they’re widely available and, compared to many of their natural counterparts, cost very little.

Another alarming aspect is the impact chemicals may have on developing fetuses. EWG reported in 2005 that it screened for more than 400 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies born in the US the previous fall. Of the 287 toxins found in the blood, 217 were neurotoxins, and 208 are known to damage growth development or cause birth defects. Not all toxins originate with skincare products, of course, but the numbers speak to the ubiquity of chemicals in the modern world.

What drives profits doesn’t always profit you

That companies have been known to put profits before safety is nothing new. Recently, in fact, Johnson & Johnson was found liable in a case that alleges the company’s talc-containing products contributed to the development of ovarian cancer in three women. Jurors saw evidence that the company was aware of decades of published research linking talc to ovarian cancer. Rather than warn consumers, however, it opted to increase its marketing among minority groups. Corporate documents also revealed that Johnson & Johnson viewed the evidence as little more than potentially negative publicity that could be handled via a PR campaign and encouraged outside experts to counter the claims. The papers quoted an executive—reacting after the company managed to keep talc off the National Toxicology Program’s carcinogenic list—as saying, “We, the talc industry, dodged a bullet…based entirely over the confusion of the definition issue…Time to come up with more confusion!”

Cosmetics: The last unregulated frontier in consumer products

So, while some companies will do the right thing, others will not. Which is why Senators Dianne Feinstein and Susan Collins in April 2015 co-sponsored the Personal Care Products Safety Act, which would require the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate the millions of skincare and cosmetic products sold annually—a badly needed (if limited) update to the most recent bill addressing consumer safety, which dates to 1938. “Cosmetics are sort of the last unregulated area of consumer products law,” Scott Faber, EWG’s vice president of government affairs, was quoted in response to the bill’s introduction. “I can't overstate how little law is now on the books. The FDA virtually has no power to regulate the products we use every day.” Theresa Eisenman, a press officer at the FDA agrees, telling Allure magazine, “Cosmetic recalls are voluntary actions taken by manufacturers or distributors. The FDA can ask a company to recall a product. However, it's ultimately their decision.”

Passage of the bill—which as of the writing of this article, more than two years after its introduction, has yet to be voted on—would require that the FDA evaluate the safety of a minimum of five products per year, give it the authority to recall unsafe products, and require manufacturers to register annually with the agency and provide it with information on the ingredients used in their personal care products. Currently, the FDA does not require all ingredients be listed on the label, a dangerous loophole when it comes to harmful substances in personal care items. Manufacturers have the option of simply not listing them.

So that’s how we got here. What’s next?

Unfortunately, finding safe personal care products still takes effort. This list of the top toxic ingredients to avoid in beauty products can help you find safer products until regulation becomes more consumer-friendly.

In the meantime, look for the MADE SAFE™ label, which provides assurance that a product contains no harmful ingredients. We’re a proud MADE SAFE™ brand, and one dedicated to helping make the beauty industry healthy again. Visit the MADE SAFE™ website for a list of other safe brands and products.

Clean beauty retailers are also popping up more and more. Our personal favorite is Follain.

We also follow these clean bloggers for product recommendations:

  • Gurl Gone Green
  • This Organic Girl
  • Bare Beauty Blog

And here’s a list of brands that have earned our trust:

Makeup

  • W3ll People
  • RMS Beauty
  • Vapour
  • Kjaer Wiess

Baby

  • Zoe Organics
  • Pleni Naturals

Cleaning

  • Pure Laundry
  • Meliora