By Emily Bathgate
The love affair between women and their beauty products dates way, way back. From Cleopatra bathing in milk to whiten and soften her skin, to women in 3000BC China staining their fingernails to indicate their social standing. We’ve been cleansing, scrubbing, polishing, moisturising, softening, exfoliating, treating, and masking our skin for a long time.
In 2008, it was found that the average woman uses 12 cosmetic products – equating to 168 unique ingredients – each and every day. Of the products applied to the skin, up to 60% is absorbed, entering our bodies and circulatory systems. Over sixty years of moisturiser use, the average woman will have absorbed approximately 13 kilograms (30 pounds) worth of her moisturisers’ ingredients.
There are over 1,000 synthetic chemicals currently being used commonly in cosmetic products. And, the truth is: scientists know little about the adverse health effects associated with exposure to the chemical cocktails found in cosmetics and other personal care products.
While many argue that the doses of potentially dangerous chemicals found in our cosmetic products are too low to pose a risk to health, emerging research is finding more and more of a link between dangerous accumulative health effects and chemicals at low, previously untested doses.
So, should we be worried? And which ingredients should we be worried about? Here’s just a few to keep an eye out for…
Used in cosmetics as preservatives, studies show that parabens cause endocrine disruption in both animals and tissue cultures. After the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety reviewed parabens and their safety, five parabens were banned in cosmetic products. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Cosmetics Committee followed shortly afterwards. And the Danish government went a step further, banning additional parabens too. But in Australia? None of the parabens used in cosmetics and personal care products have been banned.
Found in many skin lotions, fragrance and nail products, phthalates have been found to cause endocrine disruption, leading to incidences of endometriosis and early puberty onset in women, infertility in men, and reproductive organ defects, but also thyroid abnormalities, and obesity. As such, several phthalates have already been banned from use in cosmetics made in Australia.
An antibacterial and preservative, triclosan is found in soaps, hand washes and sanitisers, antiperspirants, and even toothpaste. Animal studies demonstrate, again, endocrine disruption, but there are also strong concerns regarding the contribution triclosan may be making to the rise in antibiotic resistance.
Formaldehyde acts as a preservative in cosmetic and personal care products, including nail polishes, eyelash glue, and keratin-based hair straightening products. It’s been known to irritate the skin, but also the eyes, nose and respiratory tract, with many allergic. Other products, such as eye shadow, mascara, blush, and shampoos, contain formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (also known as FRPs), designed to release formaldehyde slowly to preserve the products from bacteria. High levels of use and exposure to formaldehyde has been associated with an increased risk of cancer. Some formaldehyde-containing products have been recalled in Australia, and the International Agency of Research on Cancer (IARC) has declared formaldehyde a human carcinogen.
Commonly found in many skin treatment products, including topical acne, dermatitis, psoriasis and eczema treatments, resorcinol is an antiseptic and disinfectant ingredient found to not only irritate the skin, but also to disrupt thyroid function when used over time.
Many of these chemicals, and many more haven’t been used in cosmetic and personal care products long enough for rigorous research to be conducted on the long-term health and safety effects that may come with their use. And only a small number of combinations of the chemical ingredients making up the real-life products on our shelves have been tested so far.
If you’re a health-oriented lady, determined to live a healthier and happier life, you’re probably already working hard on reducing your exposure to the harmful environment and lifestyle-related toxins. Maybe – alongside a diet full of healthy whole foods, adequate rest, and regular movement – it’s time to consider a natural, more healthful approach to shopping for your skincare routine, too.
Fairley, J, 2001, ‘Organic Beauty’, DK Publishing, London.