By Heather Gehlert, AlterNet.
Author Stacy Malkan reveals the dangerous truth about everyday products we put in our hair and on our skin.
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 unlabeled, in the personal care products that millions of American women, men and children use every day.
AlterNet spoke with Malkan about these toxins and her five-year effort with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to get the beauty industry to remove them from its products.
Heather Gehlert: There are so many environmental issues you could've written a book about. Why cosmetics?
Stacy Malkan: I think cosmetics is 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?
It has something pretty interesting in common with global warming too.
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species with toxic chemicals is a symptom of the same problem (as global warming), which is an economy that's based on outdated technologies of petrochemicals -- petroleum.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 byproducts of oil.
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?
Lead in lipstick was pretty surprising. We (the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics) just released that report last week. Many personal care products have phthalates, which is a plasticizer and hormone disruptor. 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. But, I think overall, the most surprising thing was to know that 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. So it's difficult for consumers to know what we're using.
As a consumer I just want to know what ingredients to avoid, but you say in the book, protecting myself is not as simple as that. Why not?
There are no standards or regulations like there are in, for example, the food industry, where if you buy organic food or food labeled "natural," there's a set of standards and legal definitions that go behind those words. We might like to see those be stronger, but nevertheless, there are meaningful legal definitions. 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. And some of the most toxic products we've found actually had the word "natural" in their name, like natural nail strengtheners that are made with formaldehyde.
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?
That's a good question. 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.
In chapter 2, you say that toxic cosmetics should raise concern for men too, regardless of whether they use any themselves. How so?
Well, men do, first of all, use personal care products. When I ask a group of people what products they've used today, the men will be keeping their hands down and eventually, reluctantly, raising their hands because they're using shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, cologne, lotion...