When it comes to what we put in our bodies, the food industry must follow strict guidelines with regards to ingredient labeling. When it comes to what we put on our bodies it’s a completely different story. In contrast, we know very little about the ingredients of cosmetics and personal care products manufactured by an industry that’s virtually regulation free and allowed to police itself. 

So why should this matter? Because the skin is the body’s largest organ and an excellent drug delivery system. Anything we put on our skin has a high propensity for ending up in the blood stream through absorption.  

Absence of Oversight 

The average American woman uses approximately 12 personal care products a day that contain 168 different chemicals. While men don’t use as many different products, they’re still exposing themselves to about 85 industrial chemicals per day. Because of this, the word cosmetics as it is used here will refer not only to makeup, but also shampoos, lotions, soaps, colognes, deodorants, hair care products, and anything else we put on our bodies.  

About 13,000 different chemicals are used in cosmetics, but only about 10% have ever been tested for safety.

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the authority to regulate harmful chemicals in cosmetics, it almost never does, nor does it require cosmetic manufacturers to use any specific tests to demonstrate the safety of cosmetics or their ingredients.

All that exists is an ethical responsibility for manufacturers to police themselves and ensure the safety of their products. Because of this, thousands of cosmetic products come to market every year without any type of independent testing or approval whatsoever. It’s only after a cosmetic product has been deemed harmful, adulterated, or misbranded that the FDA can take regulatory action — but by that time, it’s already affected millions of people. Until then, a product or ingredient is automatically considered GRAS or generally regarded as safe by the FDA. This seems to be putting the cart before the horse in a very dangerous way. Even so, the agency’s own guidelines state:

Under the law, cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA premarket approval, with the exception of color additives…However, FDA can pursue enforcement action against products on the market that are not in compliance with the law…” but “neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients…” and “…the law also does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information with FDA.”

The relatively simple regulations that do exist for cosmetic manufacturers require that they list all ingredients, beginning with the highest content ingredient and ending with the least. However, they only have to list the ingredients that make up 1% or more of the product. After those ingredients, the rest can follow in any order, and they’re not required to list the ingredient percentages anyway. An additional problem is that your product may not contain enough of the effective ingredient for it to perform the way you’re expecting, but you’ll have no way of knowing before you buy. 

Long-Term Liabilities 

Because of the lack of testing and full ingredient disclosure on labels, consumers waste billions of dollars every year on cosmetics that don’t work. Far worse are the toxins their bodies are accumulating over a lifetime from the products that do. When the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested the blood and urine of teenagers (who, on average use about 17 cosmetic products per day) they found 16 different chemicals known to disrupt hormonal balance, including parabens and phthalates. The biggest concern is the cumulative, long-term consequences from exposure to these chemicals over a lifetime. In regard to that risk, EWG Vice President of Government Affairs, Scott Farber, stated “We can’t know for sure because they haven’t been subjected to any kind of review by a third party.”  

What we do know, however, is cause for alarm. A research study of 31,000 women found 111 man-made chemicals in blood and urine samples, including phthalates and a host of other endocrine disruptors including industrial coolants, pesticides, and combustion byproducts. Women with higher levels were six times more likely to be menopausal and found to experience menopause up to four years earlier than non-exposed women.   

In another lab analysis, EWG discovered 37 nail polishes made by 22 different companies contained dibutyl phthalate (DBP), a chemical that increases flexibility and shine, known to cause lifelong reproductive impairments and birth defects in animals, particularly males, leading to damage of the testes, prostate gland, penis, epididymis and seminal vesicles. In a small test sample performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), DBP was found in the bodies of all 289 people tested, with the highest levels in women of childbearing age.

Heavy Metal Matters

Heavy metals are some of the most powerful neurotoxins in existence and play a significant role in many neurodegenerative diseases. In fact, there are no safe levels of heavy metals like mercury and aluminum in the body and yet, they are abundant in cosmetics.

In a report titled, Heavy Metal Hazard: The Health Risks of Hidden Heavy Metals in Face Makeup by independent consumer agency, Environmental Defense, 49 different makeup items were tested including foundations, concealers, powders, blushes, mascaras, eyeliners, eye shadows, lipsticks, and lip glosses. Results showed the following percentage of products contained heavy metals: lead (96%), beryllium (90%), thallium (61%), cadmium (51%) and arsenic (20%). A 2013 study at the School of Public Health of the University of California, Berkley tested 32 lipsticks and lip glosses and found lead in 24 of them, including other toxic heavy metals like cadmium, aluminum, and nickel.

One can argue the percentage is small, but if you count the number of days in a lifetime you’ve worn lipstick and then consider that these products have moisturizers designed to penetrate the skin, it becomes a real concern.

Back in 2007, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics did its own study that revealed similar results for heavy metals, and the FDA followed its own research in 2010. Believe it or not, the FDA actually has an acceptable level of lead in candy, and the levels in lipsticks can be 10 times higher than that!

Ultimate Offenders 

Cosmetics contain many toxic ingredients; however, this is just a very short list of the worst of the worst.

Parabens: An additive used to prevent the growth of bacteria in products. Originally an industrial solvent, it mimics estrogen in the body which creates hormonal imbalance and cancer concerns, as parabens are found in virtually all breast tumors. Among other problems, evidence clearly shows that parabens enter the body through skin absorption and they cause DNA damage to sperm cells. Parabens are found in shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers, sexual lubricants, makeup, toothpaste, shaving gel, and sunscreens. Look for any ingredient with “paraben” as the suffix.

Phthalates: Acting as plasticizers, phthalates keep nail polish from becoming brittle and are found in virtually every product that contains synthetic fragrance. If an ingredient label simply lists “fragrance,” it’s from phthalates. Known endocrine disruptors, they have anti-androgenic effects (work to block male sex hormones), affect male sexual development of the fetus, and have been linked to “less male-typical play behavior in boys.” They’ve also been linked to ADHD, thyroid dysfunction, decreased motor/mental development in children, and breast cancer. Interestingly, the breast milk of American women has shown levels of fragrance toxins five times higher than that of German or Danish women. It’s found in makeup, hairspray, nail polish, deodorant, laundry detergent, cologne, perfume, and any product that contains fragrance. Look for the suffix “phthalate,” as well as the abbreviations DBP, DEP, BzBP, or any word beginning in “phth.”  

UV Filters: Chemicals like benzophenone and oxybenzone are commonly used for their ability to block out ultraviolet rays from the sun, however, they’re powerful endocrine disruptors and have been found to disrupt thyroid production. Octyl-methoxycinnamate, has powerful estrogenic effects making it a cancer risk, particularly because UV blocking chemicals are designed to be absorbed into the skin. To top it all off, research shows they’re not even effective against the development of melanoma. (Stick with a broad-brim hat and sunglasses, instead.) UV filters are found in all sunscreens and any product that contains UV protection, which includes a broad range of foundations. Other common names include para-amino benzoic acid (PABA), 3 benzylidene camphor (3-BC), and 4 methyl-benzylidene camphor (4-BC). 

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate: Sometimes listed as sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLS, SLES), this industrial degreaser is used to make products foamy and lather nicely. It’s often contaminated with measurable amounts of carcinogen, ethylene oxide, a chemical added to make other chemicals less harsh. During the process, a highly toxic byproduct, 1,4-dioxane is created but never appears on labels because it’s not an actual ingredient. Among other dangers, ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane are known to damage the nervous system. The EWG found that 1,4-dioxane exists in nearly 50% of all cosmetic products. It’s commonly found in liquid soap, bubble bath, body wash, hair relaxers, facial cleansers, toothpaste, and anything that foams. Sometimes listed as sodium laureth sulfate, you should also look for PEG compounds and chemical names using xynol, ceteareth, oleth or eth.

Formaldehyde: Some cosmetics are formulated to react with water in their containers to produce measurable amounts of formaldehyde, which acts as a preservative. The problem is that formaldehyde is a potent toxin and allergen, and the World Health Organization, the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer consider it carcinogenic. Banned in Europe, formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasing agents are found most commonly in hair dye, eyelash adhesive, shampoo, and hair straighteners. Look for DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, and quaternium-15. 

Answers & Alternatives 

In 2015 with the assistance of the EWG, the Personal Care Products Safety Act was introduced in Congress to create more FDA oversight of the cosmetics industry and by extension, safer products.

The bill would require cosmetic companies to register with the FDA and submit cosmetic statements that include specific percentages of each ingredient for every product.

Company registration fees would be based on annual gross sales and restricted to funding cosmetic safety activities only. If there is reasonable evidence a cosmetic may be harmful, its distribution may be discontinued by a suspension of the ingredient statement or even suspending the company’s registration. The FDA would also be required to review at least five cosmetic ingredients per year and establish conditions for their safe usage, such as limiting an ingredient’s percentage or requiring a warning label on the product. A cosmetic could not be sold if it contains an ingredient that is not safe under the recommended conditions of use, or not safe in the amount present in the cosmetic. Manufacturers would also be required to report any adverse health events associated with their products to the FDA.   

Unfortunately, no action has been taken on the legislation since preliminary committee hearings in 2016. Getting cosmetic manufacturers to support more regulation isn’t going to be easy. In the meantime, the EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics Database is a good source you can use to evaluate the ingredients of your cosmetics, as well as new lines of healthy and organic products you might want to consider trying.  

When it comes to natural beauty that provides a vibrant, healthy glow and skin tone, nothing you put on your body will ever be as effective as what you put in your body. So, let your beauty regimen begin with an organic diet based on whole foods, lots of water, and exercise. Then, by choosing better products, you’ll be accenting your health, as well as your beauty.    

For more health and inspirational insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit Behiveofhealing.com to sign up for the monthly newsletter or check out his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN here. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Twitter at Behiveofhealing.

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