Would you believe the average person uses up to 15 different cosmetic products a day? It's shocking, when you consider how easy it is to simply drink plenty of water, get a full night's rest, and of course embrace the natural appearance you were born with. Why, I might occasionally apply a little raw coconut oil or press a fresh organic beet against my lips, but otherwise I—
Okay FINE. Right now I'm wearing moisturizer, skin primer, foundation, undereye concealer, eyeliner, bronzer, blush, eyebrow powder, blush, setting power, and lip stain -- and that was just to make myself look halfway human for school drop-off. (At 39, I find that my morning ablutions are less about glamour, and more about not appearing quite as seemingly flu-ridden as I looked when I first got out of bed.)
I use a ridiculous amount of different cosmetics products on a regular basis, from skincare items to makeup to fragrance. This is why I thought it would be interesting to tackle the issue of whether or not all these different salves, powders, and snake oils are bad for me or the environment.
And by "interesting" I mean "completely terrifying." Here are a few facts I discovered almost immediately:
- According to the Environmental Working Group, 89 percent of 10,500 ingredients used in personal care products have not been evaluated for safety by the FDA
- In fact, the US federal government doesn’t require any health studies or pre-market testing on personal care products
- As a result, many cosmetics are thought to contain carcinogens, reproductive toxins, and other chemicals that may pose health risks
- Up to 60% of what we put on our skin gets absorbed into the bloodstream
It gets worse: the list of toxic additives present in many cosmetics is jaw-droppingly huge. U.S. researchers report that one in eight of the 82,000 ingredients used in personal care products are industrial chemicals. Harmful ingredients in your makeup drawer that should be avoided at all costs include (but are certainly not limited to): Butyl acetate, Butylated hydroxytoluene, Coal tar, Cocamide DEA/lauramide DEA, Diazolidinyl urea, Ethyl acetate, Formaldehyde, Parabens (methyl, ethyl, propyl and butyl), Petrolatum, Phthalates, Propylene glycol, Siloxanes, Sodium laureth/sodium laurel sulfate, Talc, Toluene, Triclosan, and Triethanolamine.
Here's where I want to just bury my head in the sand and whine defensively that if I'm applying poison to my skin on a daily basis, am I really hurting anyone other than myself? I mean, it's not like I go outside and dump endocrine disrupters, reproductive toxicants, and neurotoxins directly into the EARTH, right?
Well, no … but also yes.
Every time I take a shower or bath, I'm washing all those toxins into the water system. Nanoparticles used in sunscreens and cosmetics (found in leading brands like Clinique, Clarins, L’Oréal, Revlon, The Body Shop, Max Factor, and Lancôme Paris) may have incredibly harmful effects on bacteria and a certain type of beneficial soil microbe. Mercury from some cosmetics sold illegally in the U.S. (primarily skin lightening products) can enter the environment in waste water, and may be transformed there into methylmercury, an even more toxic compound.
It's also believed that chemicals that are commonly used in sunscreen can activate a virus and which threatens coral. Sunscreen! THE STUFF WE ALL USE AT THE DAMN BEACH.
Oh, and as if this all isn't bad enough, there's the small matter of the carbon footprint created by the cosmetics companies, an industry that's projected to reach $265 billion by 2017. We're talking energy and water consumption, emissions to the environment, packaging waste, and more.
So what's a beauty product junkie to do in the face of all this depressing news? There's certainly no easy answer, because sifting through the marketing jargon to determine a product's eco-status is harder than you'd think. The FDA doesn't review or regulate this stuff, so words like "natural" or "hypoallergenic" are essentially meaningless.
Thankfully, some organizations have made the process as pain-free as possible. The Environmental Working Group has a Skin Deep online database, where you can instantly check the safety of over 78,000 personal care products. The Compact for Safe Cosmetics has a useful FAQ titled "What Should I Buy?" And there's an iPhone app called "Think Dirty" that allows you to scan the bar code of a cosmetics or personal care product (in the store, before you buy it!), and rates it across three different categories: Carcinogenicity, Developmental & Reproductive Toxicity, and Allergies & Immunotoxicities.
I'll be honest: it was always easier for me to believe that only paranoid tree-hugging types really cared about chemicals in cosmetics. I sort of thought that once you focused on this stuff, it was a slippery slope to morphing into Julianne Moore in Safe, claiming violent sensitivities to every synthetic substance on the planet.
I don't feel that way any more. I'm not quite ready to throw out my existing makeup stash, but I will absolutely be checking labels from here on out. Just like every other environmental effort, even the smallest change has the potential to add up to a big difference.
Do you check makeup labels and avoid certain chemicals?