This media asset was adapted from Earth Island Institute's New Leaders Initiative.
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© 2011 WGBH Educational Foundation. All Rights Reserved.
Adapted from Earth Island Institute's New Leaders Initiative.
People use many different cosmetics, or personal care products, to take care of their bodies and enhance the way they look and smell. We use products such as shampoo, soap, toothpaste, lotion, deodorant, makeup, hair gel, and nail polish on a daily basis. But how often do we think about the ingredients in these products? The chemicals that they contain can be absorbed through the skin as well as be inhaled or ingested. Through the use of body care products, the average person is exposed to over 100 different chemicals each day, some of which may be harmful.
There are a number of common cosmetics ingredients that may be linked to health problems such as cancer, birth defects, reproductive issues, and learning disabilities. For example, formaldehyde is known to cause allergic skin reactions in some people and is a probable human carcinogen, but it is used as a preservative in products such as shampoo, liquid body soap, nail polish, and hair gel. Many products contain phthalates, which are a family of chemicals that may cause developmental and reproductive problems. Phthalates are plasticizers—they are used to make products more resilient and flexible—and they are found in a wide variety of products including adhesives, packaging, toys, paints, and upholstery, as well as body care products. Phthalates help make fragrances last longer, prevent nail polish from chipping, and make hairspray less stiff. However, phthalates may disrupt hormone systems and cause birth defects. Other common ingredients and contaminants of concern include 1,4-dioxane, parabens, hydroquinone, lead, and other heavy metals.
The cosmetics industry does not deny that some of the chemicals in their products are known to be harmful, but they claim that the levels found in cosmetics are too low to be of significance. However, people use body care products routinely, often use more than one product a day, and are also exposed to toxins from other sources, which means that their cumulative exposure to toxic chemicals may be significant after all.
Recognizing the potential health effects of toxic chemicals in cosmetics, the European Union has already banned over 1,000 chemicals from use. The United States has banned only about 10 chemicals. Cosmetics companies have had to reformulate their products that are sold in Europe, but many choose not to sell the safer versions in the U.S. Companies may have many reasons for wanting to continue to use chemicals that are banned in other countries: increased cost, changes in the quality of their product, and decreased shelf-life for their products, for example. However, many companies have pledged to voluntarily reformulate products to EU standards. In 2010, the Safe Cosmetics Act was introduced. This bill would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to make sure personal care products are safe. Until this or a similar bill is passed, it is up to consumers to minimize their exposure to toxic ingredients by choosing products made with fewer chemical ingredients or simply using fewer products.
- Do you think consumers should be concerned about low levels of toxic chemicals in cosmetics?
- How do you think a person's health risk from toxic chemicals is related to how often he or she uses a product or how many different products are used?
- Why do you think a company would continue to use carcinogenic substances in its products?
- Choose a personal care product (such as lipstick, shampoo, or sunscreen) and compare the ingredients from several different brands. Which ones have chemicals that are potentially dangerous?