My story begins on a plane. All I did was ask the woman next to me for some lotion. Eyes wide, she looked at me like I'd asked for rat poison. She told me she did not use lotion anymore and launched into a long synopsis of the book that informed her decision: Toxic Beauty, Samuel Epstein's frightening glimpse into the cosmetics and personal-care products industries.
My flight mate informed me that most if not all of the cosmetics and hygienic products that I used were bad for my health in one way or another. Then she dropped a bomb: cancer. That was more than enough to get my attention. "The book changed my life," she said while massaging grapeseed oil into her hands, as I scribbled toxic beauty on my boarding pass.
As my friends can tell you, the only room I usually make for a recommendation in my long list of books to read is at the very end. But this one quickly moved to the front. And now it is my turn to say, "This book changed my life"—including the way I shop, the products I use, my health, my beliefs about responsible living, and my views on makeup.
Toxic Beauty's central premise is that most of the cosmetic and personal care products (e.g., shampoo, lotion, and toothpaste) contain hazardous chemical ingredients, and that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the federal regulatory agency that should be responsible for monitoring such ingredients, is recklessly negligent.
As Epstein, professor emeritus of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, notes, we assume that our products are safe because we believe the FDA would not allow unsafe products on the market. Not true. The law, says Epstein, "does not require cosmetics or personal-care products and their ingredients to be approved as safe before they are marketed and sold." All that's required is that ingredients that constitute over 1 percent of the product be labeled.
If you have looked at the back of any of your hygienic products, chances are you can't pronounce half of the ingredients. The identity of ingredients is purposely masked and distorted, says Epstein; even if you knew what the ingredients were, you wouldn't know what they do.
Not only are ingredient lists deceptive, words and phrases plastered to the front of bottles and tubes like "fragrance free," "all natural," "hypoallergenic," and even "organic" are often arbitrary as well—there are no requirements a product must meet to earn such labels. The truth of those words and phrases is solely dependent on the integrity of the company.
Lead in your lipstick
According to Epstein, "most brand-name lipsticks sold in the U.S. contain detectable levels of lead … of thirty-three brands of lipstick sent to an independent laboratory for analysis, 61 percent contain lead." Those levels are higher than what the FDA allows in candy, which is .1 parts per million. Lead is not an ingredient; it is a contaminant, a substance created during the manufacturing process.
Frequent and prolonged use of hair dyes, particularly black and dark brown dyes, which contain high amounts of ethylene oxide (the carcinogenic culprit), have been associated with significant risks for a range of cancers, including acute and chronic leukemia, multiple myeloma, Hodgkin's lymphoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and bladder and breast cancers.
And talc powder, the common ingredient in baby powder and powder cosmetics, is a well-documented carcinogen and has been strongly linked to ovarian cancer. Women who use products containing talcum powder (which is in some sanitary pads and tampons) near their genitals have a threefold risk of ovarian cancer. Despite such clear evidence, the FDA continues to do nothing to warn consumers.
From toothpaste to deodorant, soap, hairspray, lotion, and nail polish, Epstein says, any beauty or personal care product you name is probably detrimental to your health.
The good news is that safe alternatives are available. The bad news is that they are usually harder to find and more expensive. Some reasonably priced and safe items are out there (I recommend Dr. Bronner's line of soaps and lotions and Physicians Formula's line of cosmetics). But I hear you about the higher costs. Besides not having the money, you also probably feel like you don't have the time to research safe products, because you probably don't have time for exercise, solitude, and that book you've been meaning to read. In short, you barely have time for yourself. You have bigger fish to fry than finding a safe product to combat crow's feet.
Moreover, what does our use of makeup and other beauty products say about our cultural values? Researching and reconsidering the products I use have made me ask whether I actually need certain beauty products. Most of them aren't necessary in order to survive or thrive. If cosmetics have negative effects on our health, the health of the children we bear and breast-feed, the environment, and the people who manufacture them, perhaps the right response is to not wear makeup—or to at least ask why we do (Is it to help with insecurity? To attract men? To appear professional in work settings?), and whether beauty products are the best means to meet those felt needs.
Voting with Our Dollars
The flaws of the cosmetics and personal care industries are symptomatic of larger, more overwhelming problems—ethical issues stemming from our over-consumption. There are so many serious moral issues concerning the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the energy and resources we use, and the people worldwide we indirectly exploit so that we can maintain our standard of living. In short, we are destroying the planet for ourselves and for future generations, the world that God calls us to steward well.
So why should we, as Christians, care about the cosmetics and personal care industries when there are so many other social justice issues that need attention? Because we can exercise considerable control over what we put on your skin, and it is as simple as changing the products we use. As consumers, we vote with every dollar we spend and with every dollar we don't spend. When we collectively change our spending patterns, we can bring about enormous change.
Stephanie Krzywonos is an editor in suburban Chicago. You can e-mail her at Stephanie.Krzywonos[at]gmail.com. For more information about safe beauty products, visit cosmeticsdatabase.com, organicconsumers.org, safecosmetics.org,thenakedtruthproject.org, or lesstoxicguide.ca.