The truth about the beauty industry sure isn’t pretty
High cheekbones, long neck, plump lips, glossy hair, no cellulite, eternal youth. These idealistic standards are what Naomi Wolf calls “the beauty myth,” the societal force that keeps women and girls vulnerable, insecure and preoccupied. And it does.
Women use an average of a dozen personal-care products a day and men use about six. Female teenagers tend to use even more. But makeup and tanning creams and teeth-whitening strips and age-defying lotions aren’t only about the outside appearance. We’re putting more and more chemical compounds into our bodies through personal-care products, with incomplete knowledge of the effect of these synthetic materials on our health, and, for pregnant women, the health of their unborn babies.
Meanwhile, chronic illness and disease in the United States is on the rise, affecting almost half of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As the use of synthetic chemicals increased after World War II, so did infertility, birth defects, testicular cancer and learning disabilities. Breast cancer used to be relegated to post-menopausal women. Now women in their 20s are afflicted.
As science tries to get a handle on the situation and figure out what direct link, if any, exists between industrial chemicals and the chronic illnesses that plague us, the beauty industry conveniently uses this uncertainty to excuse its continued use of toxic chemicals. This industry is the least regulated under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an agency that essentially looks the other way as companies go about their business, leaving the American public to cross our fingers and hope that when it comes to consumer safety, the $250 billion global personal-care products industry tells us the truth.
During a recent interview in Berkeley, Stacy Malkan, author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, and co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, talked about her participation in an event in San Francisco with Teens for Safe Cosmetics, a group of teenagers from Marin County, which has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in the nation.
The young women gave free manicures using water-based nail polish. Last year, the group held an event called Project Prom and wore formal dresses and tiaras with combat boots to “combat” all the toxic makeup teenagers wear for prom night.
“The most exciting part of this work is seeing young people learning about science, and organizing and lobbying and learning that they have the power to make change,” said Malkan, who obsessed over cosmetics as a teenager, exposing herself to more than 200 chemicals a day before getting on the school bus in the town of Lynn, Mass., where she grew up.
Malkan has spent the last several years working to reduce the prevalence of toxins in our lives, including those found in makeup.
“We need to take an objective look at the beauty industry and what they’re telling us,” Malkan said. “We trust and believe in our beauty products. But billions of dollars go into marketing to make us feel like we have to have these products in order to be whole.”
Women, and increasingly girls, are routinely held up against unattainable images of outer beauty, and we’ll paint, starve and disfigure ourselves trying to get there. Forget having a strong sense of self. No, we must feel continually compelled to change into something different.
Back in the late 1800s, skin whitening was a widespread face-altering practice done by African-American women hoping to escape the psychological binds left over from slavery. Lightening creams continue to be big sellers today among both African-American and Asian women. Many of the creams contain hydroquinone, an animal carcinogen that is toxic to the brain, immune system and reproductive system. The European Union banned hydroquinone, but the United States has not.
Last fall, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics commissioned an independent laboratory to test red lipsticks for lead, a neurotoxin that accumulates in the body. Exposure can cause learning, language and behavioral problems; seizures and brain damage; lowered IQ; anemia; kidney damage; and it has been linked to infertility, miscarriage and delays in the onset of puberty in girls. Pregnant women and children are more vulnerable, along with unborn babies, as lead crosses the placenta and enters the fetal brain.
Sixty-one percent of 33 brand-name lipsticks tested contained detectable levels of lead, though none of the offending products listed it on the label. (Following this report, the FDA decided to conduct its own test, but the results are not yet available.)
Although federal law requires that cosmetics sold to consumers declare ingredients on the label, the cosmetic companies didn’t do anything wrong; lead is actually a byproduct introduced through the use of other commonly used cosmetic materials, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
This summer, Teens for Safe Cosmetics unleashed themselves in the halls of the State Capitol in Sacramento. Three determined young women marched up to their Assembly representative’s office with one thing on their mind: the passage of Senate Bill 1712, which would have required companies to make lipstick with the lowest possible amount of lead. The bill had already passed the Senate, and the teenagers believed it would sail through to the governor’s desk. How could it not?
Seventeen-year-old Erin Schrode was one of the young women at the Capitol that day. She’s the spokeswoman for Teens for Safe Cosmetics, and was unexpectedly called up to testify before the Assembly during a hearing on the bill.
“I looked those people right in the eyes and told them that this is one step they could take to protect the future generation,” Schrode said.
A few days after her visit, S.B. 1712 failed by one vote in the Assembly Health Committee. The industry had come out in full force to oppose the legislation. Proctor & Gamble sent lobbyists, along with Estée Lauder. Even Johnson & Johnson—a company that doesn’t sell lipstick—made its presence known. This pack mentality protects the industry, although it may frustrate the rest of us.
In terms of safety, here’s the problem: Cosmetics, unlike food and pharmaceuticals, aren’t subject to FDA pre-market approval. The cosmetics industry polices itself. Additionally, cosmetic manufacturers aren’t required to file data on ingredients or report cosmetic-related injuries to the federal government.
Congress doesn’t authorize the FDA to require recalls of cosmetics, although the agency may request them. From January 2001 to May 2008, the industry recalled 49 cosmetic products, according to Linda Katz, director of the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors.
Products with untested ingredients must print the following label: “Warning—The safety of this product has not been determined.”
But the rules of the game may be changing, especially if California has anything to say about the matter.
In March, the Organic Consumers Association released a report that found almost 50 percent of personal-care products labeled “organic” or “natural” contained 1,4-dioxane, the byproduct of a petrochemical process called ethoxylation. Dioxane is a known animal carcinogen and a probable human carcinogen, according to the EPA.
Following this report, California Attorney General Jerry Brown filed a lawsuit against manufacturers who failed to provide a warning about 1,4-dioxane in their products, as required by the state’s Proposition 65: The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act.
Then there’s Senate Bill 484, the California Safe Cosmetics Act. With the passage of the legislation in 2005, California became the first state in the nation to regulate toxic ingredients in cosmetics. The state also established the California Environmental Contaminant Biomonitoring Program to collect information about toxins and require companies to disclose information about any ingredients identified as causing cancer or birth defects.
While disclosure may not seem like much—companies remain allowed to sell products containing ingredients that haven’t been tested for safety—the information obtained will eventually be posted online, available to the public.
“It’s a revolutionary step in the obvious direction,” Malkan said. “…But the real story is that we have the power to choose what companies we buy from and what we put on our bodies.”