Are Beauty Products the Enemy?

Makeup and beauty products are a part of our lives from a very young age. Many women remember watching female family members putting on makeup and getting ready for an ordinary day or a night out. It is something little girls feel is a rite of passage into adulthood. As children we play with fake makeup. We usually start with painting our nails, and then we are allowed, slowly, to use more and more makeup. As boys grow older they too begin to use beauty products like scented body wash, body spray and cologne.

Many people remember their first school dance. It is an event full of excitement and nervousness. We will be dancing with friends. We may even get to dance with one or many of our crushes. Pre-teen and teenage girls tend to get ready with friends. Together they help one another put on makeup, do hair and nails and pick the perfect outfit and jewelry. Lindsey Stephen, 26, who identifies as trans and prefers the use of plural pronouns such as they/them, was one such young person who remembers getting ready for a dance with their friends. They remember their first dance, but not for positive reasons. “Let’s put it this way: it didn’t go too well,” they said.

For their first dance in middle school, they put on makeup like their other friends. They had every intention of looking beautiful. Lindsey’s body, on the other hand, had larger concerns. “My eyes began to swell shut, to the point where I could not see. Besides looking terrible it was also really, really painful. There was no way I was going to the dance like that.”

Over the years they learned that they would have allergic reactions to many different products, “I’m allergic to all kinds of soaps, shampoos, lotions. You name it. I tend to have bad reactions to fragrances. We buy fragrance-free everything.” Lindsey has to be careful in choosing soaps, shampoos and other daily beauty products. They particularly have to be careful when it comes to makeup.

Over the past few years the media have made us more and more aware of the chemicals found in our daily products. Some of these chemicals are possibly carcinogenic. Others are believed to be hazardous to your health. But it seems that the majority of what’s on the shelves is potentially unsafe. There are “natural” and “organic” options, but they are not always healthy either. The “Campaign for Safe Cosmetics” has a list of 34 potentially toxic chemicals found across a variety of beauty products.

What “beauty products” does that entail? Many may think makeup is the only culprit. The truth is that everything we put on our bodies has the potential to harbor these dangerous substances. They are found in soaps, shampoos, conditioners, lotions, body wash, perfumes/colognes, scrubs and exfoliates, face masks, sunscreens, skin lighteners, hair dyes and all makeup products for both men and women.

You may feel that because you are just putting these products on the outside of your body that it’s not a big deal. The truth is that the skin is the body’s largest organ. Whatever you put on your skin makes it into the body through dermal absorption, which is why it’s important to know what you’re putting on it.

     Arielle Sorenson, 25, has learned that she has to be careful with the products she buys. She has found that her skin is sensitive, including her hair and scalp. She recently bought facial cleansers and lotions that are gentle for sensitive skin and that have fewer chemicals. After using them she found that her skin doesn’t dry out as much or break out. She has also found that she must be careful with her shampoo. “When I get shampoo and conditioner that doesn’t have sulfates and parabens, my scalp doesn’t dry out and get super flaky. It’s not dandruff, though, and dandruff shampoos only make it worse.” Arielle gets a monthly beauty bag that comes with a variety of beauty products in travel sizes. She doesn’t regularly buy any beauty products, but when she does she tries to get healthier options that are still within her budget.

     So if what we put on our skin is so important, why aren’t these supposed toxins kept out of our products? The truth is that the FDA does not have the authority to approve most products or ingredients before they hit store shelves. Cosmetics companies can use any ingredients in their products without the government reviewing them.

     In comparison, the European Union has banned more than 1,000 ingredients from its cosmetics. The FDA has declared only 11 ingredients to be unsafe. The FDA cannot even force a company to recall a problem product. It counts on the cosmetics companies to voluntarily report injuries. The FDA can only ask a company to recall a product and help to make that recall effective. Cosmetics companies can use any ingredient they choose except the few that are not allowed due to regulations. Not all beauty products are dangerous, but it is the consumers’ responsibility to educate themselves.

     Endocrine disruptors, such as phthalates and parabens, are chemicals that alter hormones. The Endocrine Society says that evidence ties endocrine disruptors to our biggest public health risks: diabetes and obesity. Although the FDA claims that it has no information proving that phthalates and parabens are harmful to consumers, Dr. Heather Patisaul, associated with the Endocrine Society, says that even low doses of endocrine disruptors can cause “significant concern” for long-term exposure.

A study that was a collaboration between UC Berkeley and Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas in California found that even a short break from chemical-laden products can make a difference. After only a three-day trial of using lower chemical products, the participants had lower levels of the endocrine disrupters. This is important as the FDA feels that there is little definitive data about the effects of phthalates, parabens, and other chemicals on the human body. The study proves that these chemicals are being stored in our body and come from the products that we use.

It is important to be aware of what you are putting in or on your body. The good news is that the paraben levels seem to drop rather quickly after you stop using products that contain them. So when you decide to change products, you will not have to wait long to flush your system of these chemicals.