Not Just A Cosmetic Problem

Sarah Seltzer

The effect that toxic chemicals in makeup have on their youngest buyers - teens who may be less discriminating about the products they use - is particularly worrisome.

Imagine a group of young teenage
girls wandering the tempting aisles of their local Walgreen’s or CVS,
holding up lipstick tubes and nail-polish bottles for examination. It’s
a vintage American scene and hardly alarming, given our beauty-focused
culture. But while these girls are deciding whether to take a risk with
forest-green toenails, sparkly lips or purple eyelids, they may be unknowingly
exposing themselves to harmful chemicals. In fact, they probably are. 

Several years since the European
Union took initial steps to seriously restrict the dangerous chemical
content of cosmetics, America lags behind. Environmentalists and scientists
argue that the FDA has neither the resources nor the inclination to
police the billion-dollar behemoth that is the cosmetics industry. 

And while chemicals are unsafe
for all, the effect that toxic cosmetics can have on their youngest
buyers – teens who may be less discriminating about the products they
use – is particularly worrisome.  

This past September, the Environmental
Working Group studied a sample group of teen women. The results they found were alarming (emphasis mine). 

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    Environmental Working Group
    (EWG) detected 16 chemicals from 4 chemical families – phthalates,
    triclosan, parabens, and musks – in blood and urine samples from 20
    teen girls aged 14-19
    . Studies link these chemicals to potential
    health effects including cancer and hormone disruption. These results
    … indicate that young women are widely exposed to this common class
    of cosmetic preservatives, with 2 parabens, methylparaben and propylparaben,
    detected in every single girl tested. 

As Mia Davis wrote in
2007 for RH Reality

the first group of chemicals in the above list, phthalates, can be extremely
damaging to the male reproductive system – and the damage can begin
in utero. While phthalates do not accrue in the body and are most dangerous
during pregnancy, says Stacy Malkan of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics,
"we are continually exposed to them. You’re going to find them in
most people." 

Parabens, on the other hand, mimic the activity
of estrogen and have been linked to female-specific disorders including
breast cancer. While individual products may have low amounts of parabens,
they are found in many products.  When Malkan was researching
her book on the cosmetic industry, Not
Just a Pretty Face
she looked at all the products she used as a teenager.
"There was makeup, face cream, skin lotion, hair products, perm, hair
gel, and hair spray. A lot of them have the same chemicals, like parabens.
There were two dozen exposures to parabens in my morning routine."

These two chemical groups don’t
even touch on the "lead in lipstick" controversy. Consumer advocate
group The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found
small amounts of lead in lipsticks over a year ago
. Malkan says that even trace amounts
of lead are dangerous, as lead builds up in the body
over time: "If a teenage girl is wearing lipstick with lead in it
every day, those exposures could add up and stay with her." Although the FDA was quick
to swat down the swelling internet rumors

about dangerous lead content in popular lipsticks, they have yet to
release public information about their own testing, and are coming under fire for their lack of action on the matter.  

Finally, nail
polish may be one of the most toxic products of all. A number of campaigns
have arisen in the past few years to protect salon workers from the
chemicals, which have potentially ugly ramifications for reproductive
health and are linked to birth defects. (RH
Reality Check covered this issue here). "If you have a toxic environment,
it’s worst for the workers, but it’s not ideal for anyone," says
Malkan. With a
boom in manicures as an easy and cheap way for women to feel good
, repeated and prolonged exposure has
become more common. 

So all of the products listed
above are far from safe. And in adolescence, when hormones are fluctuating,
the reproductive system is developing, the scientists who conducted
the study said that that sensitivity to these chemicals may in fact
increase. "We’re certainly concerned about teens in particular because
during adolescence they’re going through a lot of radical changes
to their physiology," says Dr. Rebecca Sutton, the staff scientist
for EWG who authored the report. "All these changes are guided by
hormones, so if we’ve gone hormonally active ingredients in personal
care products entering their bodies, there’s a higher risk." 

Furthermore, the doctors at
the Environmental Working Group found that their teen study participants
used an average of 17 (yep, 17) personal care products a day – this
was 5 more products than the average woman uses, again increasing their

Think about the way teenagers
behave – experimentation makes up a big part of their lives, no matter
how risk-prone their personalities. They are trying on different images
and traits before settling into adulthood. Furthermore, young teenage
girls are beginning to take a vigorous interest in their looks in order
to conform to the newly-noticed (and horribly oppressive) beauty standard.
And so, as the results above indicate, young women will spend more time
and attention on their toilettes and makeovers than they may when they’re

In a column for truthdig that
also got reprinted
in Alternet
last week, Democracy Now’s
Amy Goodman sees hope for this issue in the European Union. As mentioned
above, the EU’s
regulation and disclosure policies

are more stringent and transparent, respectively. Therefore, the substances
they’ve banned provide the insight on product safety that that we
can’t find at home. And yes, they’ve banned both phthalates and
parabens among other chemicals. One of the reasons Goodman cites for
this difference in government policy is that Europeans collectively
shoulder the burden of health insurance. Therefore they see regulation
as a money-saver down the line and good policy; disease prevention will
keep health costs lower for all.  

So what to do? Sutton says
that parents and teens should not buy based on brands or labels, because
toxic chemicals can vary from product to product. She recommends using
the Skin
database which
lists nearly every imaginable makeup product on a scale of toxicity
from 1-10, including natural products.  The EWG also has a printable their pocket-size
shopping guide

(pdf) to take along to the makeup counter or drug store. "Some good
basic advice is to use fewer products," she says. "And parents can
be good role models by using fewer products themselves." 

But on a wider scale, it’s
also important to get involved in lobbying the government and FDA to
start regulating these ingredients. Sutton recommends checking out the Campaign for Safe
or an
activist group that is active in some local safe cosmetics campaigns-including
lobbying the California government-called Teens
for Safe Cosmetics
The beauty industry will not go down without a fight, Sutton and other
activists warn. "It’s a powerful industry," she says. "The government
by its silence is somewhat complicit in the situation." 

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