Friday, March 16, 2007

Toxic Cosmetics

During the 1940s and 1950s, my father, trained as a hairdresser, conducted endless experiments in our basement to find a cold wave solution that would be non-toxic. Toni and Richard Hudnut had recently marketed cold wave solutions, but those companies were being sued regularly by woman whose scalps were literally burned off by the toxic chemicals in their products. My father’s holy grail was to find a permanent wave with a non-toxic neutralizer. And when he tried to sell the formula he finally found to the major companies, he was stunned to find that they essentially ridiculed his concern over toxicity: they could fend off the lawsuits with their lawyers, they said, and meantime, they were making billions.

This story rushed back to me when I heard on this morning's radio about the toxic chemicals that are pervasive in beauty products to this day, and which many environmental groups believe pose a serious risk to women, developing fetuses, and anyone who uses them regularly. The same ridicule that was once directed at my father is today directed at those who warn of the health effects of these toxic compounds. Since the FDA allows such products to be widely used, most Americans believe they must be safe.

A quick look at some valuable websites will convince you otherwise. Two of the best are:, and Both provide a series of reports and news articles that detail the problem with chemicals like phthalates and 1-4 dioxane. Once the names and effects of these cuddly petroleum products enter your consciousness, they are not likely to be forgotten.

Consider 1-4 dioxane. This cancer-causing chemical, that readily pentrates the skin, contaminates as many as 22% of all cosmetics. One new products test found its presence in "18 of more than two dozen products, including 15 products for babies and children." 1-4 Dioxane is found in 97% of hair relaxers, 82% of hair dyes and bleaches, and 57% of baby soaps, among many others. Nor is this all. Other petroleum-based chemicals are also found in combinations whose effects no one really knows. What is known is that up to one in every five Americans is probably "exposed every day to all of the top seven carcinogenic impurities common to personal care product ingredients — hydroquinone, ethylene dioxide, 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde, nitrosamines, PAHs, and acrylamide." The top contaminant, hydroquinone, is a "potential contaminant" in products used by 94% of women and 69% of men every day. [all quotes from feb. 2007 release: "EWG Research Shows 22 Percent of All Cosmetics May Be Contaminated With Cancer-Causing Impurity"].

Despite these dangers, the FDA does not regulate the use of such products and counts on the manufacturers to police themselves. In light of this, the EWG report suggests that consumers avoid all products containing the chemical "sodium laureth sulfate" [found in almost all dandruff shampoos], and any ingredients using the words ‘PEG,’ ‘xynol,’ ‘ceteareth,’ and ‘oleth.’

As to phthalates, "widely used in industry and commerce…in personal care products (e.g., makeup, shampoo, and soaps), plastics, paints, and some pesticide formulations," you will not find it listed on most products. Recent studies, however, have found it to be particularly dangerous to pregnant women, and subsequently, to their male babies. A University of Rochester study ["Decrease in Anogenital Distance among Male Infants with Prenatal Phthalate Exposure," Shanna Swan et. al., 25 May 2005;] found that its presence in pregnant women was significantly correlated with the incidence of male children born with genital abnormalities such as undescended testes. The ubiquitous phthalates may also be implicated in the increased number of males worldwide with low sperm count.

All of which comes to this: be wary of all cosmetic products except those which have been given a clean bill of health by organizations like And to the extent that you can, be wary of all plastic products used by children. The time may come when the years since the introduction of plastic and the other ingredients of our chemcial age will be seen as a huge industrial experiment on the people of the world, using their own money to assess the extent to which their health can be compromised.

Lawrence DiStasi


  1. Consumers must also be wary of companies that were once independent, but have been overtaken by huge conglomerates. In many cases, the "values" to which they once adhered (e.g. no animal testing, non-toxic ingredients) get overtaken as well. Keep your eye on Tom's of Maine and The Body Shop, to name just two.

  2. Wait, there's good news!

    As reported in the last issue of Organic Bytes, OCA's new expose on carcinogens found in various products misleadingly labeled as "organic" and "natural" is sending shockwaves through the personal care industry. The OCA and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap Company have now filed Cease and Desist letters with the various companies who are labeling their products as “organic,” despite the fact that a number of their products tested positive for the cancer-causing synthetic ingredient 1,4-Dioxane, including Jason’s, Nature's Gate, and Kiss My Face, among others. The OCA is demanding that these companies reformulate their products to remove petrochemicals and 1,4-Dioxane or else remove "organic" label claims from their packaging. Offending companies who do not contractually agree by Earth Day 2008 to clean up their act will be sued by the OCA. To avoid tainted products, OCA recommends that consumers look for the “USDA Organic” seal on body care products and cosmetics. If you don't see the seal, it may not be truly organic. To see a list of body care and home cleaning products tainted with with 1,4-Dioxane, as well as a consumer guide for finding safe personal care products, go here:

    Also beware Burt's Bees, which once was cruelty-free and devoid of carcinogens, but is now owned by Clorox. Yep, the bleach people.