The Ugly Side of Cosmetics

Stacy Malkan, the face behind the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, is working to expose the truth behind your favourite beauty products.

Stacy Malkan has been campaigning for safer cosmetics since 2002. In her book Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (New Society Publishers, 2007), an exposé about the personal care products we use on a daily basis, Malkan tells the inside story of the U.S.-based Campaign For Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of health and environmental groups working to eliminate toxic chemicals from the products we use, which she helped to found.

The Campaign has had some major successes. Since it first published its “Not to Pretty Report” in 2002, which examined phthalate levels in common cosmetics, many of the leading cosmetic manufacturers have started to eliminate phthalates, a chemical that can cause reproductive and developmental harm; also, its Compact for Safe Cosmetics, a pledge to make products safe and to improve transparency around cosmetic ingredients and their safety, now boasts more than 1,000 signees. (The organization maintains a searchable database of signees here.) But the challenges, especially in the U.S., where regulations are still weak, are formidable.

In Canada, Health Canada maintains a Cosmetic Ingredient “Hotlist”—a list of ingredients that are restricted or prohibited in cosmetics. Furthermore, it requires manufacturers to disclose ingredients to consumers on the product’s packaging. However, consumers—and especially women of childbearing age—need to be vigilant, says Malkan. Research into the safety of common chemicals and regulation of them is still extremely poor.

Green Living interviewed Malkan about the state of the industry.

Green Living: There are stats saying we are putting as using up to 250 chemicals once we have finished all our grooming. Is that possible?

Stacy Malkan: Many of us are using several products a day from these companies. I was a 17-year old make-up diva and was using 20 products a day. I looked them up in the Skin Deep  database and it turned out I was exposing myself to 200 chemicals per day before I had even gotten on the school bus. I think that's fairly typical. We've done surveys that show the average woman uses between 12 to 20 products per day containing about 160 chemicals.

GL: That's a lot of chemicals to have on your skin!

SM: It is. There are also a lot of chemicals mixing together with unknown effects. No one is looking at those combinations. They're not looking at the total exposure and the health effects of repeated exposure to chemicals over time.

GL: Phthalates have been in the news quite a lot lately, particularly around baby products and children's toys.

SM: Scientists have known for 30 years that phthalates are toxic and interfere with the production of testosterone. There are literally hundreds of animal studies that show how phthalate exposure can cause birth defects of the penis, testicular tumours and infertility. So, there's been concern for a long time but we are just getting around to doing something about it in the USA. California has banned phthalates from children's toys and several others states are looking at banning them as well.

GL: It's ironic that we are buying these products thinking we are doing the best for our babies.

SM: The last place we should find toxic chemicals is in baby shampoo. The beauty industry has a lot to cleaning up to do and it should start with baby products.

GL: Does price make a difference? Is it safer to avoid cheaper products?

SM: The irony is that some of the most expensive products are not any safer to use than those cheap products. You're buying the packaging and the marketing. People were upset when they figured this out. But the high end brands use the same basic set of ingredients as the lower end brands. We recently tested one of the highest end brands of lipstick, but it also had lead in it. A company representative said, at point, "Lead is only a problem for children." Lead is highly toxic to children but where do they think children come from?

GL: So we need to include mothers into the mix as well.

SM: That's critically important when it comes to cosmetics. We often think about the children and get mad about toxins in baby shampoo, but women of child-bearing age are exposed to these chemicals day in and day out. A developing fetus is the most vulnerable of all to the health effects of phthalates and other toxic chemicals. One study from the University of Rochester shows that pregnant women with higher levels of phthalates in their bodies had baby boys with changes in their genitals, which scientists described as “feminization of males.”

GL: How did we get to this point where we have such a huge industry that is largely unsupervised and self-policing?

SM: The beauty industry has lobbied long and hard to keep unregulated. They've been using the same basic recipe of cheap, synthetic petrochemicals for many years that make cheap, effective products. So there is great resistance to changing, even though the science is emerging almost on a daily basis showing the health harm associated with some of the chemicals commonly used in cosmetics.

GL: If this was any other industry people would be up in arms. It's it because it caters to women?

SM: There are some elements of misogyny to this issue. There is also an outdated belief that what we out on our skin doesn't get into our bodies. People are always surprised to discover there is no safety testing for cosmetics and companies are allowed to use almost any chemical in their personal care products without testing them for safety. People are always mad when they find out about that but there just hasn't been a lot of awareness with the public.

GL: Is any headway being made around changing the industry and educating the public?

SM: The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is making headway and I see reasons for great hope. I think the industry is changing. We've already seen some major changes, for example, new laws are coming out to ban chemicals. The smart companies are the ones who are looking ahead and paying attention to this issue.

GL: Do you think we will see a growth in the natural products industry?

SM: We are seeing a lot of natural product companies who are innovating truly safe products that don't rely on petrochemicals. The standards are getting higher all the time and that will raise the safety bar in the industry. I see very positive signs.

GL: Aside from educating ourselves, what else can the consumer do?

SM: Vote with your dollar. Choose to give your money to companies making a positive difference rather than those using chemicals. There are some good resources out there to help you find better choices, such as the Skin Deep database.

But we can't just shop our way out of the problem. We need to have the government involved in setting standards and putting regulations in place to protect our health. It's important to get involved politically.

GL: What kind of cosmetics do you use?

SM: I still use lots of cosmetics. But I did cut out some products like bubble bath and hair dye. I stopped colouring my hair. That was a bit of a challenge. I've banned products from all the leading beauty companies and switched to natural products. It's not easy to do.

GL: How you do stop from being overwhelmed at the enormity of this problem?

SM: Just by taking it one step at a time and reducing the chemical exposure wherever you can.