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Cosmetics with a side of infertility

Catherine McDiarmid-Watt | Sunday, December 30, 2007 | 0 comments

People are applying a toxic stew of chemicals to their bodies daily, author declares

Carcinogens in cosmetics? Petrochemicals in perfume? If only this were an urban legend. Unfortunately, it's a toxic reality, and it's showing up in our bodies.

In 2004, scientists found pesticides in the blood of newborn babies. A year later, researchers discovered perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, in human breast milk. Today, people are testing positive for a litany of hazardous substances from flame retardants to phthalates to lead.

In her new book, Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, Stacy Malkan exposes the toxic chemicals that lurk, often unlabelled, in the personal care products millions of women, men and children use every day.

AlterNet spoke with Malkan about these toxins and her five-year Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to get the beauty industry to remove them from its products.

Question: There are so many environmental issues you could have written a book about. Why cosmetics?

Stacy Malkan: I think cosmetics are something that we're all intimately connected to. They're products that we use every day, and so I think it's a good first place to start asking questions. What kinds of products are we bringing into our homes? What kinds of companies are we giving our money to?

Q: It has something pretty interesting in common with global warming, too.

SM: It does. I think of it as global poisoning. 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species with toxic chemicals is a symptom of the same problem (as global warming), which is an economy that's based on outdated technologies of petrochemicals – petroleum.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 by-products of oil.

Q: Many cosmetic products on the market right now claim they are pure, gentle, clean and healthy. But, as you reveal in this book, they're far from it. Toxic chemicals in these products are showing up in people. What were some of the most surprising toxins you discovered in cosmetics?

SM: Lead in lipstick was pretty surprising. We (the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics) just released that report. Many personal care products have phthalates, which is a plasticizer and hormone disrupter. That's why we started the cosmetics campaign – because we know that women have higher levels of phthalates in their bodies, and we thought that cosmetics might be a reason. There's so much that we don't know about these products. Many, many chemicals are hiding in fragrance. 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.

Q: I just want to know what ingredients to avoid, but you say protecting myself is not as simple as that. Why not?

SM: There are no standards or regulations like there are in, for example, the food industry, where if you buy organic food or food labelled "natural," there's a set of standards and legal definitions that go behind those words. That's not the case in the personal care product industry, where companies often use words like "organic" and "natural" to market products that are anything but.

Q: Generally speaking, risk assessment involves two factors: a hazard and people's exposure to that hazard. Could you explain some of the unique challenges to assessing risks with cosmetics?

SM: Risk assessment is an extremely oversimplified way of pretending we have enough information to know how much chemicals we can tolerate in our bodies. A risk assessment equation will say, "How hazardous is a chemical, how much are we exposed to it from this one product, and is that harmful?" There's a lot of information left out of that picture: studies that haven't been done to determine impacts on fetuses, the fact that we're exposed to so many of these chemicals in so many places every day, and the fact there have been no, or very few, studies about chemical mixtures.

Q: Do you think part of the problem with creating awareness around this issue is that the effects from toxins are often not that immediate? People don't say, "Oh, I've been to this toxic site and now I have a rash all over my body."

SM: Right, and that's what we hear from the cosmetics companies when they say, "Well, my product is safe if used as directed, and you can't prove otherwise." Which is true.

Q: Can you give me an idea of how many chemicals one product can contain?

SM: The average woman in the U.S. according to our 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.

Q: What practical advice can you give to people wanting to clean up their cosmetics bags?

SM: My best advice is that simpler is better. Really, fewer ingredients, fewer products. For instance, hair colour and bubble bath are two things that I've given up. But there are a lot of good (non-toxic) products out there on the market. and I would say start by switching out the ones that you use the most frequently like shampoo and deodorant that we're putting by our breast tissue, experiment with different kinds of natural products and just make changes as you can. The onus at this point is on consumers to do our own research.

Q: Anything else you'd like to add?

SM: It's really important to recognize that the beauty industry is all about profit and bottom-line thinking. It's not concerned about our health issues.

To learn more and take action, visit Go to to find out what toxins are in your personal care products.


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About Catherine: I am mom to three grown sons, two grandchildren and two rescue dogs. After years of raising my boys as a single mom, I remarried a wonderful man who had never had a child of his own. Unexpectedly, I found myself pregnant at 49!
Sadly we lost that precious baby at 8 weeks, and decided to try again. Five more losses, turned down for donor egg, foster care and adoption due to my age and losses - we have accepted that there will be no more babies in our house.

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