Toxins in Common Beauty Products Are Poisoning the Earth—and You

From plastics to paraben preservatives, these chemicals harm our oceans and our bodies.
(Photo: Image Source/Getty Images)
Jan 9, 2013· 3 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

If you enjoy an invigorating daily exfoliation with soap that contains microbeads, your morning routine may actually be harming wildlife.

The average woman uses between 10 and 15 personal care products, averaging 120 chemicals per day.

The reason? When you rinse those beads down the drain, they end up in local waterways where they collect as microplastics and threaten ocean life. Animals can mistake bits of plastic for food (see TakePart’s Ocean Horror Show), accidentally blocking their digestive tracts. Plastics often carry toxic additives, which can act as hormone disruptors in fish and seabirds.

Luckily for aquatic life, microbeads just got the boot. Unilever, the company that makes Dove soaps, Pond’s cream, and Vaseline, has just announced that it is phasing out plastic microbeads—they will be off the market by 2015.

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“It’s really encouraging that Unilever has decided to remove plastic microbeads. They are among the many plastics that pollute our waters and build up in wildlife,” says Lisa Archer, former director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, who is now a director at Friends of the Earth.

Unfortunately, Archer says, microbeads are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to personal care products causing serious problems for the environment. Americans have famously complex beauty routines using products that can be toxic, and even carcinogenic, to ocean life.

Common fragrances in shampoos and body washes can interfere with the ability of marine animals to naturally remove toxins from their bodies. Researchers at Stanford University found that synthetic fragrances caused irreversible biological damage to California mussels downstream from where synthetic musks were casually being washed down household drains.

Fifty seven percent of all personal care products contain chemicals that act like estrogen, including paraben preservatives, alkylphenols, and estrogenic sunscreen ingredients, according to a 2004 report by the Environmental Working Group. Exposure to even small amounts of extra estrogen can have deadly consequences for the oceans—producing male fish with female sex organs, for example, or rendering entire populations unable to reproduce.

And it’s not just fish that are affected. Studies have found that some cosmetic ingredients like phthalate plasticizers, paraben preservatives, triclosan, and synthetic musks are actually common pollutants in men, women, and children’s bodies.

While a single cosmetic is certainly not enough to give you—or your friend Flipper—cancer, we slather on many products each day, including deodorants, lotions, shampoos, hair conditions, makeup and shaving creams.

The average woman uses between 10 and 15 personal care products, averaging 120 chemicals per day. The average man uses four to five products every day, and most of the chemicals that aren’t absorbed by our skin get washed down the drain.

What’s with all these toxins collecting on our bathroom shelves in bottles of seemingly harmless soap?

The $50 billion personal care product industry is largely unregulated, meaning that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require ingredients in soaps and cosmetics to be approved for safety before going to market. Companies can use any ingredient or raw material in soaps and cosmetics, with the exception of color additives, without FDA review, and the lack of regulation leaves ample room for bad behavior by the industry.

“Most humans born today are born with a body burden of pollution from chemical exposures in the womb. We are being born pre polluted. Nobody gave Bayer or Syngenta the right to pollute me or my children. We inherited a broken chemical policy that doesn’t protect the environment or public health,” says Lisa Archer.

Without a federal law to keep toxics out of our homes, the best defense against contaminants in personal care products is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, which allows consumers to browse more than 78,000 products, choosing those that are free of contaminants, and identifying when to steer clear.

A growing movement is dedicated to putting pressure on retailers too. A report released last month by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics ranked retailers based on their commitment to cosmetic safety.

Whole Foods was awarded nine out of ten “kisses” for the company’s policy of screening products for more than 400 chemicals. On the other side of the spectrum, Macy’s received just one “kiss” because it has no company policy that protects customers from toxins, and offers a scant array of healthy alternatives.

This year, we can expect legislation to be introduced in both the House and the Senate, based on the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, according to Cindy Luppi, the New England Director for Clean Water Action, and steering committee member for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. As for whether it was likely to become law, Luppi was optimistic.

“From our perspective, there is such a ground flow of support for people phasing out chemicals of concern that are linked to chronic epidemics of our time, like learning disabilities, certain cancers, and reproductive disorders,” Luppi told TakePart. “This is an example of an problem that transcends partisan politics—it’s a matter of health and that’s not a Republican or a Democratic issue.”