The beauty industry has a dirty secret – the moisturiser we put on our faces, the eyeshadow we wear, and the shampoos, conditioners, and hair styling products we lather into our hair and scalps, as well as the deodorants, body sprays, soaps, gels, mascara, lip balms, blushes, and bronzers we use – all contain an unfathomable number of harmful chemical additives. Many skincare users are unaware of the extent the chemicals in skincare that are being used, and the deleterious effects they can cause to one’s mental, and physical wellbeing.
These chemicals are in both “organic” and standard beauty products. They are permitted to be in them because the industry is largely unregulated in many countries, and import/export laws are not stringent. Overseas labelling and manufacturing laws vary widely, with some governments allowing a toxic chemical to be used, specifically, and other countries lacking oversight of any chemicals that are used in an entirety of beauty products available therein. This means that your moisturiser containing toxic chemicals could be made in the US or China, and banned in the UK, is still sold in Australia or Canada. Tracking the lethal additives in so many products from so many places can get extremely confusing.
Though the Australian government regulates all ingredients in skincare and beauty products, including those which are labelled, “natural,” under the Industrial Chemicals (Notifications and Assessment) Act of 1989 (ICNA Act), companies are still able to put many industrial chemicals in skincare simply by registering their business with the NICNAS. Some of these chemicals have conditions upon which they can be used, but many exemptions for the use of health-damaging ingredients are issued. This means that even in countries with a “regulated” beauty industry, there is no ban on toxins put in the products one likely uses every day.
Unsuspecting women and men apply these products with chemicals in skincare to their faces, skin, hair, and bodies never imagining that the chemicals within them were once used to remove grease from auto parts, help to keep concrete from setting too quickly, as surfactants in paints and inks, or to chemically prevent weeds from growing. They are dumbfounded when they find out these chemicals cause breast cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, psoriasis, asthma, miscarriage, developmental delays in their children, and organ damage.
Scientific research suggests that one in every eight ingredients in over 82,000 cosmetics sold in the US contains an industrial chemical.
Additional additives in cosmetics include a wide range of carcinogens (cancer causing agents), pesticides, herbicides, reproductive toxins, hormone disruptors, chemically-based polymers, plasticisers, lead and other heavy metals, and even arsenic, otherwise known as rat poisoning.
A personal care product use survey of more than 2,300 people, conducted by EWG and a coalition of public interest and environmental health organisations, showed that the average adult uses 9 personal care products daily, containing 126 unique chemical ingredients.
A long history of suffering for beauty with chemicals in skincare
The enhancement of physical beauty using cosmetics has been practiced for at least 6,000 years. Red mineral pigments were used to augment the body in African cultures possibly as far back as 100,000 years in human history. Some of these practices were beneficial, such as utilising clay masks which were naturally mineralised and pure, but others indicate a legacy of supporting our vanity at the expense of our health.
Suffering for beauty dates back to many ancient cultures, including the Egyptians. Their exaggerated eye makeup was made of malachite, a green ore of copper, or galena, otherwise known as lead sulphide. The famous ‘kohl’ eye was derived from mixing a paste made of soot, fat, and metal: usually lead, antimony, or copper. This exposure to toxins from the cosmetics they used caused pink eye, and the absorption of these toxins into the ocular skin over time caused irritability, insomnia, and mental illness.  
Jumping forward several thousand years, in the 1920s many cultures, including African Americans and the Japanese resorted to skin bleaching, using caustic chemicals such as hydroquinone, which suppressed the production of melanin in the skin, and during the first and second World Wars, petroleum and alcohol were added to most cosmetics.
During the 1960s and into the 21st century, retailers have added chemicals to skincare with everything from eye shadow to concealer, moisturisers, anti-ageing products, and more.
Today, the beauty industry is a burgeoning global market, expected to grow to $675 billion by the year 2020. Sadly, much of this profit is taken without consideration for the health implications caused by numerous chemically-filled products, though there is ample scientific research to discern quite dire ramifications for their use.
Chemicals in skincare and beauty products – the scientific research
This trend of applying chemicals to the skin, which are then absorbed into the blood, accumulate in the body and exert toxic effects on various organs continues. Numerous studies point to chemicals which are present in amounts which can harm human health. Some researchers argue that a woman puts at least 186 different chemicals on her body every day. These include:
Heavy Metals – The use of lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, nickel and aluminium in skincare products is common. These heavy metals can bind to important minerals in the body such as calcium and iron causing them to leech out, or chelate. This chelation can cause many harmful health issues, and result in symptoms such as headaches, constipation, exhaustion, and muscle or joint pain. Without being addressed, mineral chelation can contribute to many diseases ranging from neurodegenerative disease to cancer.
Phthalates – These are part of a group of chemicals the beauty industry uses to increase the softness of their products. You can find them in everything from skin creams to hairspray, though, and they are often not disclosed on packaging since they are included in proprietary or ‘secret’ formulations. Phthalates are an endocrine disruptor, as well as being a scientifically documented reason for increased breast cancer risk.
Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) / Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES) – These chemicals are found in a whopping 90 percent of all personal care and cleaning products though they are a known eye, skin, and airway irritant.
Parabens – While parabens prevent the growth of bacteria, mould, and yeast in skin care products, they have also been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.
Toluene – This is a petrochemical derived from petroleum or coal tar. It appears on labels listed as benzene, toluol, phenylmethane, methylbenzene. This chemical is a solvent able to dissolve paint and paint thinner. It negatively affects the respiratory system, can cause nausea and irritate the skin.
Synthetic Colours Derived from Petroleum and Coal Tar – Chemical colour additives such as D&C Red 27 or FD&C Blue 1 can cause ADHD in children, and are known carcinogens. The European Union has banned the use of these chemical colours, but they are still used in many countries’ products, including those sold in the U.S.
Benzophenone – This chemical is used in personal care products such as lip balm and nail polish to protect them from UV light. It can cause cancer, adds to developmental and reproductive toxicity, organ system toxicity, irritation, ecotoxicity, and is a known endocrine disruptor.
Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) – These chemicals are used as preservatives in a variety of personal care products. They are endocrine disrupting, are toxic to the internal organs, can cause reproductive and developmental health issues, and can also increase the risk of cancer.
Diethanolamine (DEA) and Triethanolamine (TEA) – These two chemicals are part of a broader collection of ethanolamines—a chemical group comprised of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and alcohols. They cause organ toxicity and have been linked to cancerous tumours on the liver.
Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) and Methylchloroisothiazolinone (CMIT) – These chemicals are very hard on the lungs, are allergens, and neurotoxic.
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) – This is a group of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil and gasoline. One of the more common PAHs is naphthalene. It is linked to breast and other cancers.
There are literally thousands more chemicals in hundreds of thousands of products, some disclosed openly though they are known cancer-causing agents, skin irritants, endocrine disruptors, and more, and others are hidden behind corporate laws that protect beauty companies from revealing the full recipe for their goods.
Though ancient cultures may have been unaware that they were using toxic additives to augment their beauty that were health-harming, modern research conducted in double-blind, peer-reviewed scientific experiments reveal that the average person is awash in synthetic chemicals. With so many products containing chemicals in skincare on the global market, it is difficult to discern which are toxic and which are not. These industrial chemicals simply should not be present in skin, beauty, and personal care products. Without more stringent regulatory practices it is incumbent upon the user of these products to educate themselves and to seek cleaner, more health-supporting alternatives.
Moreover, “Her looks could kill,” is no longer a slang phrase of praise, but a metaphor for the dearth of synthetic chemical adjuvants which are making skin care and beauty products deadly. Fortunately, companies like griffin+row have assessed the damage the beauty industry has made, and instead of waiting for federal regulations to become more stringent, are offering their own solutions to this epidemic health concern.
References and Sources:
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