The Story of Cosmetics: Myths & Facts

Goodlifer: The Story of Cosmetics

Would you fly an airline that only inspects 20% of their planes? Probably not. But did you know that less than 20% of all chemicals in cosmetics have been assessed for safety? The average U.S. woman uses 12 personal care products every day (men use 6, on average), each of them contains a dozen or more chemicals. Without the proper testing procedures in place, there is simply no way of knowing what this daily exposure does to our systems.

In anticipation of soon-to-be-introduced Congressional legislation to regulate personal care products—The Story of Stuff Project recently released The Story of Cosmetics, a 7-minute animated movie. Hosted by Annie Leonard, creator of viral video hit The Story of Stuff (viewed over 10 million times so far), as well as The Story of Cap & Trade (which was released online in December 2009 and has garnered over 600,000 views) and The Story of Bottled Water (one of the most viral films on the internet the week of its March 20th, 2010 release, it has over 700,000 views to date).

Major loopholes in U.S. federal law allow the $50 billion beauty industry to put nearly any chemical into personal care products, even chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects, with no required safety assessment and inadequate labeling requirements—making cosmetics among the least-regulated consumer products on the market. How scary is that?

These days, even babies are being born pre-polluted.

These days, even babies are being born pre-polluted.

There has been growing public concern about carcinogens and endocrine disruptors in personal care and other common consumer products. In May, the President’s Cancer Panel sounded the alarm about the health risks of the understudied and largely unregulated toxic chemicals used by millions of Americans in their daily lives. Yet, few mainstream media outlets will even go near the topic. Why, you wonder? Have you counted the number of cosmetics ads in any token glossy magazine lately? The collective persuading power possessed by the big personal care and cosmetics companies is tremendous.

"Toxins In, Toxins Out"—there is no way around it.

“Toxins In, Toxins Out”—there is no way around it.

“The beauty industry needs a makeover. For the first time in 70 years, we will have a real chance to pass national legislation that would eliminate chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects from the products women, men and children put on their bodies on a daily basis,” said Stacy Malkan, spokesperson for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

The Story of Cosmetics companion website will serve as an interactive launch pad for information and action steps for consumers. The site provides viewers with opportunities to learn more about forthcoming safe cosmetics legislation, safer products, and how to get involved with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

The personal care product industry is still working from a 1950s mindset when people were totally swept up in dreams of “better living through chemistry”. In all that excitement, they forgot to worry about human health impacts.

The personal care product industry is still working from a 1950s mindset when people were totally swept up in dreams of “better living through chemistry”. In all that excitement, they forgot to worry about human health impacts.

“We need common-sense laws based on the precautionary principle,” said Annie Leonard, the Director of The Story of Stuff Project. “That means that when we’re dealing with hazardous chemicals, just err on the side of caution. Let’s not debate how much lead should be allowed in lipstick—just get toxic chemicals out of our products!”

So, let’s bust some myths, shall we?

MYTH VS. FACT

Myth: If products are for sale at a supermarket, drugstore, or department store cosmetics counter, they must be safe.
Fact: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no authority to require companies to assess ingredients or products for safety. FDA does not review or approve the vast majority of cosmetic products or ingredients before they go on the market. The agency conducts pre-market reviews only for certain color additives and active ingredients in cosmetics classified as over-the-counter drugs.

Myth: The cosmetics industry effectively polices itself, making sure all ingredients meet a strict standard of safety.
Fact: In its more than 30-year history, the industry’s safety panel (the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, or CIR) has assessed fewer than 20 percent of cosmetics ingredients and found only a handful of ingredients or chemical groups to be unsafe. Its recommendations are not binding on companies.

Once you start learning about the toxics in many common personal care products, your bathroom can easily start feeling like a mine field.

Once you start learning about the toxics in many common personal care products, your bathroom can easily start feeling like a mine field.

Myth: The government prohibits dangerous chemicals in personal care products, and companies wouldn’t risk using them.
Fact: Cosmetics companies may use any ingredient or raw material, except for color additives and a few prohibited substances (such as vinyl chloride and cow parts), without government review or approval.
• More than 500 products sold in the U.S. contain ingredients banned in cosmetics in Japan, Canada or the European Union.
• Nearly 100 products contain ingredients considered unsafe by the International Fragrance Association.
• A wide range of nanomaterials whose safety is in question may be common in personal care products.
• 22% of all personal care products may be contaminated with the cancer-causing impurity 1,4-dioxane, including many children’s products.
• 60% of sunscreens contain the potential hormone disruptor oxybenzone that readily penetrates the skin and contaminates the bodies of 97% of Americans.
• 61% of tested lipstick brands contain residues of lead.

Myth: Cosmetic ingredients are applied to the skin and rarely get into the body. When they do, levels are too low to matter.
Fact: People are exposed by breathing in sprays and powders, swallowing chemicals on the lips or hands or absorbing them through the skin. Studies find evidence of health risks. Biomonitoring studies have found cosmetics ingredients—like phthalate plasticizers, paraben preservatives, the pesticide triclosan, synthetic musks, and sunscreens—inside the bodily fluids of men, women, children and even the cord blood of newborn babies. Many of these chemicals are potential hormone disruptors that may increase cancer risk. Products commonly contain penetration enhancers to drive ingredients deeper into the skin. Studies find health problems in people exposed to common fragrance and sunscreen ingredients, including elevated risk for sperm damage, feminization of the male reproductive system, and low birth weight in girls.

Good news is that green chemists are developing substances that are designed to be safe and non-toxic in the first place. European governments have required the removal of many toxic chemicals and companies have figured out how to comply.

Good news is that green chemists are developing substances that are designed to be safe and non-toxic in the first place. European governments have required the removal of many toxic chemicals and companies have figured out how to comply.

Myth: Products made for children or bearing claims like “hypoallergenic” are safer choices.
Fact: Most cosmetic marketing claims are unregulated, and companies are rarely if ever required to back them up, even for children’s products. A company can use a claim like “hypoallergenic” or “natural” “to mean anything or nothing at all,” and while “[m]ost of the terms have considerable market value in promoting cosmetic products to consumers,… dermatologists say they have very little medical meaning.” An investigation of more than 1,700 children’s body care products found that 81 percent of those marked “gentle” or “hypoallergenic” contained allergens or skin and eye irritants.

Myth: FDA would promptly recall any product that injures people.
Fact: FDA has no authority to require recalls of harmful cosmetics. Furthermore, manufacturers are not required to report cosmetics-related injuries to the agency. FDA relies on companies to report injuries voluntarily.

Since 1938, the FDA has banned just 8 out of over 12,000 ingredients used in cosmetics. They don’t even require that all of the ingredients be listed on the label. It's time for a change.

Since 1938, the FDA has banned just 8 out of over 12,000 ingredients used in cosmetics. They don’t even require that all of the ingredients be listed on the label. It’s time for a change.

Myth: Consumers can read ingredient labels and avoid products with hazardous chemicals.
Fact: Federal law allows companies to leave many chemicals off labels, including nanomaterials, contaminants, and components of fragrance. Fragrance may include any of 3,163 different chemicals, none of which are required to be listed on labels. Fragrance tests reveal an average of 14 hidden compounds per formulation, including potential hormone disruptors and diethyl phthalate, a compound linked to sperm damage.

Myth: Cosmetics safety is a concern for women only.
Fact: Surveys show that on average, women use 12 products containing 168 ingredients every day, men use 6 products with 85 ingredients, and children are exposed to an average of 61 ingredients daily. The large majority of these chemicals have not been assessed for safety by the industry-funded CIR safety panel.

So, now that we have cleared up some common misconceptions and watched The Story of Cosmetics, how about we all go clean out or bathroom cabinets? Use GoodGuide to look up products that you are unsure about, shop from trusted sources like Futurenatural, and only buy what you know to be safe and natural.

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
2 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. I don’t know how that figure of only 20% of raw materials have been tested is arrived at.

    I do know that I have extensive safety data on the raw materials I use when formulating cosmetics.

    I think most of the things you describe as myths are facts, and most of the facts are actually myths.

  2. Colin, thank you for providing a different point of view. It’s important to the dialog. I agree that The Story of Cosmetics makes some generalizations that are more about shock value than accurate information. This is the source notation for the 20% figure (provided by The Story of Stuff Project): “As of January 2010, the Cosmetics Ingredients Review (CIR) panel – the industry funded panel that is charged with assessing the safety of ingredients in cosmetics – assessed 1,594 cosmetic ingredients for safety, out of the 12,500 ingredients that FDA estimates are used in cosmetics. This is based on an Environmental Working Group assessment of chemical review lists published by CIR. The companies say they do a lot of their own testing, but these studies typically look for short-term health effects such as swelling and rashes, and do not consider the long-term effects of cumulative daily exposures to cosmetic chemicals.”

    We can talk about facts and myths for a long time I am sure, but what is important, in my opinion, is that we are starting to talk about the safety of cosmetics and personal care products. What we should do is reward companies that do assess the safety of their raw materials, not promote fear. But sometimes it takes something like this video to open people’s eyes to the issues surrounding the topic. Once there is a general awareness, the discussion will hopefully continue and we can come to some important conclusions that do serve our common goal of making personal care products and cosmetics safer.

    I enjoyed reading your blog post about this topic as well: http://colinsbeautypages.co.uk/story-of-cosmetics-how-we-can-really-make-cosmetics-safe/

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