I'll Have My Cosmetics with a Side of Infertility, Please

Carcinogens in cosmetics? Petrochemicals in perfume? If only this were an urban legend. Unfortunately, it's a toxic reality, and it's showing up in our bodies.

In 2004, scientists found pesticides in the blood of newborn babies. A year later, researchers discovered perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, in human breast milk. Today, people are testing positive for a litany of hazardous substances from flame retardants to phthalates to lead.

In her new book, Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, Stacy Malkan exposes the toxic chemicals that lurk, often unlabeled, in the personal care products that millions of American women, men and children use every day.

AlterNet spoke with Malkan about these toxins and her five-year effort with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to get the beauty industry to remove them from its products.

Heather Gehlert: There are so many environmental issues you could've written a book about. Why cosmetics?

Stacy Malkan: I think cosmetics is something that we're all intimately connected to. They're products that we use every day, and so I think it's a good first place to start asking questions. What kinds of products are we bringing into our homes? What kinds of companies are we giving our money to?

It has something pretty interesting in common with global warming too.

It does. I think of it as global poisoning. I think that the ubiquitous contamination of the human species with toxic chemicals is a symptom of the same problem (as global warming), which is an economy that's based on outdated technologies of petrochemicals -- petroleum. So many of the products we're applying to our faces and putting in our hair come from oil. They're byproducts of oil.

Many cosmetic products on the market right now claim they are pure, gentle, clean and healthy. But, as you reveal in this book, they're far from it. Toxic chemicals in these products are showing up in people. What were some of the most surprising toxins you discovered in cosmetics?

Lead in lipstick was pretty surprising. We (the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics) just released that report last week. Many personal care products have phthalates, which is a plasticizer and hormone disruptor. That's why we started the cosmetics campaign -- because we know that women have higher levels of phthalates in their bodies, and we thought that cosmetics might be a reason. But, I think overall, the most surprising thing was to know that there's so much that we don't know about these products. Many, many chemicals are hiding in fragrance. Companies aren't required to list the components of fragrance. Products also are contaminated with carcinogens like 1,4 dioxane and neurotoxins like lead that aren't listed on the label. So it's difficult for consumers to know what we're using.

As a consumer I just want to know what ingredients to avoid, but you say in the book, protecting myself is not as simple as that. Why not?

There are no standards or regulations like there are in, for example, the food industry, where if you buy organic food or food labeled "natural," there's a set of standards and legal definitions that go behind those words. We might like to see those be stronger, but nevertheless, there are meaningful legal definitions. That's not the case in the personal care product industry, where companies often use words like "organic" and "natural" to market products that are anything but. And some of the most toxic products we've found actually had the word "natural" in their name, like natural nail strengtheners that are made with formaldehyde.

Generally speaking, risk assessment involves two factors: a hazard and people's exposure to that hazard. Could you explain some of the unique challenges to assessing risks with cosmetics?

That's a good question. Risk assessment is an extremely oversimplified way of pretending we have enough information to know how much chemicals we can tolerate in our bodies. A risk assessment equation will say, "How hazardous is a chemical, how much are we exposed to it from this one product, and is that harmful?" There's a lot of information left out of that picture: studies that haven't been done to determine impacts on fetuses, the fact that we're exposed to so many of these chemicals in so many places every day, and the fact there have been no -- or very few -- studies about chemical mixtures.

In chapter 2, you say that toxic cosmetics should raise concern for men too, regardless of whether they use any themselves. How so?

Well, men do, first of all, use personal care products. When I ask a group of people what products they've used today, the men will be keeping their hands down and eventually, reluctantly, raising their hands because they're using shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, cologne, lotion.

So it's not just a makeup problem.

No, it's not just a makeup problem. It's all products. And we know that some chemicals in these products are particularly problematic for men. We're all exposed to phthalates, and phthalates interfere with the production of testosterone, and they're linked to health effects like lower sperm counts, birth defects of the penis, testicular tumors.

You've had to struggle with some scary health problems. Tell us about that.

Like many of us, I've had bizarre health problems that nobody can explain: benign lumps in my breasts and thyroid, which is quite common among young women to have thyroid problems. And then also infertility, which is something that's becoming an increasingly common experience for people. And so many of us have heard from our doctors, "Well, we don't know why; we can't tell you why." But I think that's an interesting disconnect that we're looking at how to treat disease, but we're not looking at how to prevent disease.

You admit in the book that you used to be addicted to makeup and so-called personal care products. Do you think that could be related to the health issues you've had?

Well, who knows, and we can never say what caused what and so that's why risk assessment is not a useful tool to -- how do I want to say this -- that's why, in my opinion, we need to get rid of toxins wherever we possibly can in makeup, shampoo and lipstick is obviously a place where they don't need to be. But, yes, I did use a lot of cosmetic products -- 200 chemicals a day just in those products. And I also grew up in a very industrialized neighborhood near one of the largest incinerators in Massachusetts, near oil refineries. And we really didn't talk about these issues at all.

Do you think part of the problem with creating awareness around this issue is that the effects from toxins are often not that immediate? People don't say, Oh, I've been to this toxic site and now I have a rash all over my body.

Right, and that's what we hear from the cosmetics companies when they say, "Well, my product is safe if used as directed, and you can't prove otherwise." Which is true. We can't say that use of X product led to X disease because we're talking about long-term diseases with contributing factors. Doctors usually can't tell us why we got cancer, because it could be due to multiple factors in our pasts. We also know that exposures during critical windows of development -- babies in the womb, even teenagers -- can lead to later-life diseases.

Can you give me an idea of how many chemicals one product can contain? Earlier you said you were exposed to 200 chemicals a day during your youth, but that's not all from one product.

No, I used about 20 products a day. The average woman in the U.S. according to our survey uses 12 products a day with about 180 chemicals. And men use about six products with 80 chemicals combined. But it depends on the product. Some products have dozens of chemicals -- fragrances can have dozens or even hundreds of chemicals that aren't listed on the label. And even fragrance-free products can have a masking fragrance.

Talk a little about the history of the cosmetics industry. When did it come about and why is it so unregulated?

The cosmetics industry has fought really hard to keep itself unregulated for the last 30 years. It was first regulated under the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act of 1938. That is a 350-page law with about 1.5 pages that address cosmetics. But it didn't give the FDA the power to require testing (cosmetic) products before they go on the market. The FDA can't require follow-up health monitoring; they can't even recall products. Basically, the FDA has to prove in court that a product is harmful before it can take action. There were several attempts to regulate the industry over the years, and the most well-known was in the 1970s with Thomas Eagleton, a senator from Missouri. He proposed that cosmetics should be regulated more like drugs, where there's a rigorous testing protocol that has to happen before products go on the market, but that was shot down and co-opted. What the industry has done is propose voluntary regulations every time a regulatory threat arises. And so the system that we have now is an industry-sponsored and run panel called the Cosmetics Ingredients Review Board, which is in charge of determining the safety of ingredients in cosmetics. We found lots of problems with that panel. They rushed through ingredients quickly, they hadn't looked at most of the ingredients or actually used these products and, most of the time, they find things to be safe. Even when they do make recommendations to restrict or eliminate ingredients, the industry is free to ignore them and sometimes does.

You say in the book that some companies have different formulations of the same products. Some, with harmful toxins removed, go to Europe, and others, with toxins, go to the U.S. Why is that?

Well, it's outrageous, but Europe has much better health protection laws, and they really take a precautionary approach. The European Union has banned 1,100 chemicals from cosmetics that are thought to cause cancer or reproductive harm, and so they take a precautionary approach by saying, "We know these chemicals are hazardous." Nobody argues about that. Instead of arguing about at what level are they safe in products, we need to take them out of the products and figure out how to make products without them. The United States, on the other hand, says, "We need to be able to prove that an ingredient in this product causes harm before we're going to do anything about it. Consequently, there are lots of known toxins in consumer products. It's not just cosmetics. Another example is formaldehyde in kitchen cabinets -- perfectly legal in the United States. You can buy kitchen cabinets, and they're wafting the carcinogen formaldehyde into your kitchen. You can't sell those cabinets in Europe, in Japan, even in China.

Is it really expensive for companies to reformulate their products to remove toxic chemicals?

It's not expensive to reformulate; many companies have already done it because they had to do it if they want to sell in the European market.

When did you begin working on cosmetic issues? How has the industry changed since then? What's the future outlook?

Well, we started the cosmetics campaign in 2002, when we were concerned about phthalates and found out they were in the majority of cosmetic products. At that time, we started to contact companies to try to have a dialogue with them about the chemicals they were using. ... Overall, I would say the mainstream companies have been incredibly resistant to any kind of change, but we have seen a big change in some products in the last few years. Because Europe banned phthalates, we were able to use that to pressure companies to remove phthalates from some U.S. products, particularly nail products. So we've seen a major shift in the formulation of nail products in the last few years because of the campaign (formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalates have been removed from most nail products). So, it's possible that companies can change. They are changing, but not enough and not fast enough.

One thing that struck me about this book is that it's not just a story about cosmetic hazards. It's a story about activism. What was the thinking behind that?

Well, activism is fun, first of all. I think it's the best job in the world. And the inspiring stories from so many people from moms to former models who are speaking out, to the teenagers who have lobbied in Sacramento to get bills passed and now realize they have a political voice that they want to keep using, to nurses who have come together to pressure companies to pass protective policies. I think that's all so positive, and I think that people are coming together in ways that we haven't before.

What practical advice can you give to people wanting to clean up their cosmetics bags?

My best advice is that simpler is better. Really, fewer ingredients, fewer products. For instance, hair color and bubble bath are two things that I've given up. But there are a lot good (nontoxic) products out there on the market, and I would say start by switching out the ones that you use the most frequently like shampoo and deodorant that we're putting by our breast tissue, experiment with different kinds of natural products and just make changes as you can. You can also use the skin deep database to research your products. ... The onus at this point is on consumers to do our own research.

Anything else you'd like to add?

I think it's really important, especially for women in this culture, to recognize that the beauty industry is all about profit and bottom-line thinking. It's not concerned about our health issues. It is not concerned with telling the truth about its products.

To learn more and take action, visit safecosmetics.org. To find out what toxins are in your personal care products, go to www.cosmeticdatabase.org. And to buy the book, check out notjustaprettyface.org.


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