In her new book, Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, American author 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.
Talking about her book in a recent interview, Malkan holds the cosmetic industry guilty of global poisoning. It is a process analogous global warming, she contends.
"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species with toxic chemicals is a symptom of the same problem (as global warming), which is an economy that's based on outdated technologies of petrochemicals -- petroleum.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," she said.
The average woman in the U.S. according to her team's 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.
Her team was indeed surprised that many chemicals were hiding fragrance, Malkan said in the interview.
"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," she noted.
Malkan also regrets that 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.
Companies often use words like "organic" and "natural" to market products that are anything but. And some of the most toxic products her team found actually had the word "natural" in their name, like natural nail strengtheners that are made with formaldehyde.
In her book she also says that that toxic cosmetics should raise concern for men too, regardless of whether they use any themselves. For they too use a lot of personal care products, like shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, cologne and lotion.
So it's not just a makeup problem, she stresses and points out, "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."
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.
Anyway after Europe banned phthalates, Malkan's campaign focused on that and succeeded in pressurizing many 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," Stacy Malkan said with some satisfaction.
And what is her advice in general on the issue of cosmetics? Fewer ingredients, fewer products, please. 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 consumers should do their own research to find out what is best for them.
"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," she warns.