Makeup, lotion and other personal care products are often touted as an essential element of “self-care.” However, some of these products contain toxins that are detrimental to our health.
To illustrate, said Gail Carlson, assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College, most lipsticks (nearly 61 percent, according to a 2007 study from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics) not only have lead in them, but also other preservatives that have been found to be carcinogenic in mice and rats.
“Our regulatory system is so weak,” Carlson said. “The [Food and Drug Administration] can’t even regulate cosmetics. We lack really strong chemical safety laws that will actually protect consumers, so you end up with stuff on the shelves that aren’t safe. It’s up to you to figure out what is and isn’t safe and what safer alternatives might be.”
Knowing what ingredients to look out for on labels can help you choose between products that could be toxic to you and those that are safer for your health. In fact, when it comes to personal care items, it’s actually easier to discern whether they are toxic or not compared to other household items that might contain toxins.
“Personal cosmetics have ingredient disclosures on them, [which] is not true of household cleaners,” Patrick MacRoy, Deputy Director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, said.
One issue when it comes to personal care products, though, is the catchall term “fragrance,” which appears in perfumes, colognes and other cosmetic products. Companies consider “fragrances” a part of their intellectual property and are not legally required to disclose their contents.
“Wherever it says fragrance, you’re getting a chemical cocktail that includes phthalates but also other chemicals,” said Michael Belliveau, Executive Director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center in Portland.
Preservatives in makeup, lotions, shampoo and other products can also be an issue. preservatives that prevent products from getting moldy or going bad over time, including quaternary ammonium compounds, or “quats,” which can be listed as benzalkonium chloride, alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride or distearyldimonium chloride, among other names. Research has shown that these chemicals can irritate the skin, lungs or even impact reproductive health.
Parabens are another commonly listed ingredient in personal care products that have been shown to have negative health impacts.
“Parabens [are] hormone disrupting,” Belliveau said. “They will be listed on the ingredients in personal care products. They’re pretty easy to avoid, [but] they’re still widely used.”
Moreover, Belliveau said women and girls are more exposed to such toxic chemicals because of their heavier use of personal care products.
Belliveau said that Women’s Voices for the Earth have great resources for navigating the toxins present in personal care products. The Environmental Working Group also has a database of verified personal care products that are free of any of the chemicals the preeminent consumer protection group considers “unacceptable” due to their link to health issues in scientific studies.
However, there is an economic justice issue when it comes to being able to choose personal care products without such toxins because they are generally more expensive.
“If you can afford the $50 cosmetic, someone else can’t,” Carlson said.
The experts agreed that the long-term solutions to personal care products containing harmful chemicals will be advocacy for change in regulations and policies surrounding consumer chemical safety.