Toxic Talk and Labels

Secrets the Beauty Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know

+ Pamela Friedman

The old “corporations are evil” plot can get tiring when we hear it over and over again. In fact, we believe many businesses do their best to create products that are effective and safe for consumers. Unfortunately, in the beauty industry, the desire for lower costs and higher profits can often translate into some disturbing practices that could be putting you and your loved ones in danger.

According to Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, the beauty industry, as a whole, is doing things that make it easier to line their pockets with profits-things they hope you won’t figure out.

For example, there’s that thing we’ve been talking about a lot in this blog-using potentially dangerous ingredients that can not only trigger skin problems like allergies, irritations, dermatitis, and redness, but that have shown in some studies to be connected with cancer, infertility, developmental problems, and asthma. Stacy says the time for forgiving this practice has passed, as “they already know how to make great products without these hazardous chemicals.” The proof is in the many brands we’ve recommended throughout this blog that do that very thing.

Then we have that seemingly innocent, but maybe not-so-much practice of promoting pink products during Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October) that actually have ingredients in them linked with breast cancer! “They say it’s just a ‘little bit’ of carcinogens in any given product,” says Malkan, “but these carcinogenic exposures are adding up, and these companies are part of the problem.” By the way, if you’re thinking about purchasing a pink product in the hopes of donating to breast-cancer research, be sure to read the label first.

Where is our protector-the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-in all of this? Strictly hands off. As we’ve mentioned in other posts, the FDA doesn’t require companies to prove their products are safe before selling them. Malkan says such lack of oversight not only puts the public in danger, but encourages a lack of innovation, as companies rely on age-old technologies and toxic formulations they’ve used for decades.

Perhaps worst of all is the fact that some of the dangerous ingredients we’ve warned you to avoid-like 1,4 dioxane, formaldehyde, estrogens, and fragrance ingredients-are usually not listed on the label. Why? Because the ingredient is either part of a “proprietary” blend (as in fragrances), or a by-product of manufacturing (though beauty companies know it’s in there). You can go a long way toward protecting yourself by reading labels, but because of these hidden chemicals you may still be inadvertently exposing yourself and your loved ones to ingredients linked with reproductive abnormalities and cancer. (Check your products against the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database, and avoid ingredients that can create 1,4 dioxane or other dangerous by-products like urea, quarternium-15, PEG compounds, and sodium laureth sulfate.)

Change, however, is underway. As more people learn about the realities of the industry, more are choosing to support those companies who have already turned toward more natural, organic formulas. “It’s important to consider which companies we can trust,” Malkan says. Most likely, they will not be the mainstream companies, but those on the fringes of the market. Already, more than 1,000 companies have pledged to remove known and suspected chemicals from their products, but Avon, Revlon, Esteé Lauder, L’Oréal, Mary Kay, and Proctor and Gamble, are not among them. What’s interesting is that many of these larger companies have developed their own “green” product lines that use fewer chemicals and more natural ingredients, but that hasn’t motivated them to make similar changes in their standard lines.

In the meantime, though we can speak loudly through our purchase choices, Stacy advocates pushing public policy toward new regulation. “”People get used to formulas, and for most products there are no obvious short-term health effects,” says U.C. Berkeley’s Michael Wilson (as quoted in Not Just a Pretty Face, p 140). “If a company has a product that is working, it’s going to be really difficult to move them off that product on arguments around toxicity unless you do it through regulation.”

Are you surprised to learn of these secrets in the beauty industry? How are you making changes?

Photo courtesy Shadow Cat via

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