Coming clean: The dirty side of the beauty industry

It started with the birth of our son. There was something about that delicate newborn skin, fresh out of the womb, that made me especially attuned to the products I was choosing. I started buying only baby products that were marketed as being organic and natural; products that would be safe and gentle on his delicate skin (or so I thought).

And then I recently came across this Time article about the dangerous chemicals found in many personal care products. It references the now infamous lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson by the family of a woman whose death by ovarian cancer was linked to her daily use of Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder and bath products.

According to the article, companies in the US are allowed to put ingredients in their personal care products (including chemicals with known links to health problems) with no required safety testing and without having to disclose all of the ingredients.

This notion isn’t exactly new to me; I think by now most of us are aware that there might be some less-than-desirable ingredients lurking in our favourite lipstick or deodorant. But I guess I just figured it can’t be THAT bad; the products found on our store shelves have obviously been deemed safe for use, right?

Well, unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case. After I started doing some research (and actually reading the labels of the products I’d been buying) I got a major wake-up call when I realized that the baby products I’d been using on my son – the same ones that were marketed as being “natural” and “organic” – contained just as many harmful ingredients as the next product.

Turns out, most of the claims on product labels, including “natural,” “organic”, and “hypoallergenic,” are ultimately just marketing buzzwords. What we expect in a natural product may not exactly match the manufacturer’s use of the term.  And problems like this are just the tip of the iceberg.

The clean beauty movement

While there doesn’t seem to be an official definition for the term “clean beauty” – and I’m by no means an expert – a product is generally considered “clean” if it’s been formulated without any toxic ingredients. The clean beauty movement embraces both natural and lab-made ingredients, with an emphasis on safety over source. Harmful ingredients, such as parabens, sulfates, phthalates, and synthetic fragrances, don’t make the cut.

Why should we be concerned about the ingredients in our personal care products?

The skin is our largest organ, and by some accounts, it absorbs as much as 60% of what we put on it. Many medications are delivered through the skin (the nicotine patch and certain contraceptive patches, for example). The active ingredients in these medications are absorbed directly into the bloodstream. Now consider how many products we put on our skin every day. I know I use at least 20 different products, from shampoo to mascara, every single morning. It’s scary to think that some of the ingredients in these products could be harmful to my health without me realizing it.  

No regulation

The problem is that beauty industry is almost completely unregulated. The FDA is the agency that oversees cosmetics, fragrance, and personal care products; but it’s regulatory oversight is actually pretty limited. As laid out in Adina Grigore’s book, Skin Cleanse, (which I highly recommend, by the way):

  • No product or ingredient requires FDA approval before it’s put on the market, with the exception of color additives
  • The FDA doesn’t oversee the safety testing of an ingredient or product, it only “advises” manufacturers to conduct their own testing
  • The FDA doesn’t register or licence cosmetics companies before they open and begin selling products
  • The FDA cannot recall a product that’s unsafe for personal use. It can “request” that a product be recalled but the company has to voluntarily issue the recall

You can see the FDA’s Cosmetics Laws and Regulations here.

What does this mean? The FDA doesn’t test personal care products before they hit the market and they don’t require companies to provide safety data about their products. No one is monitoring which ingredients cosmetics companies are putting in our products. Therefore, companies are allowed to use almost any ingredient in their products (ingredients that are often cheap, mass-produced, and sometimes unsafe), without any oversight.

The safety testing that is being done is almost exclusively by the companies themselves, and it’s focused on short-term reactions such as rashes. No one knows the long-term effects of many of the chemicals used in our personal care products. Moreover, the FDA has little to no ability to pull harmful products off the market, even after they’ve been deemed to be unsafe.

There are some organizations, like the Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, that have been doing research that’s shown that thousands of chemicals that haven’t been banned in the US (but have been banned in other countries) are unsafe. They have statistics linking many common skincare and cosmetics chemicals to hormone disruption in animals in the wild, low sperm count and infertility in men, respiratory illnesses like asthma, and cancer.

The European Union has banned over 1,300 chemicals from cosmetics. Some of these chemicals are known or suspected to cause things like cancer, genetic mutations, and birth defects. In contrast, the US FDA has banned 11. Canadian cosmetics regulations are better – the Canadian government has a Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist with hundreds of chemicals restricted from use in cosmetics – but there’s still room for improvement.

Why is nothing being done about it?

Why are companies continuing to use harmful ingredients – or at least ingredients that haven’t been proven to be safe – and why is nothing being done about it?

Unfortunately, like many other things, it appears that a lot of it comes down to money. Certain ingredients are cheaper than others and they can extend the shelf life of a product for years. Also, recalling and reformulating products would be a lot of work, not to mention extremely expensive. It’s not as if cosmetics companies are intentionally poisoning us, but it does seem like they might be turning a blind eye in the name of a profit.

Another problem is that it’s up to the regulatory agencies to prove that something is bad. So instead of the manufacturers having to prove something is safe, it’s the other way around. This allows for a lot of harmful things making it into the market. No More Dirty Looks, by Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt, is another book I highly recommend for more information on this topic.

What does this mean?

Without regulatory safeguards, the responsibility falls on us, the consumers. And as a mother, this responsibility is weighing heavily on me. We want to make the best choices possible when it comes to our children, especially when it comes to their health. We all worry about what our children eat, drink, wear, and breathe, so why should it be any different when it comes to the products we put on our children’s skin?

Knowledge is power

This newfound knowledge about the “dirty” side of the beauty industry has sparked an awareness in me and I know I’ve only just scratched the surface. I’ve already found some cleaner alternatives to the baby products I’d been using in the past (which I’ll share in a future post), and when it comes to my own beauty regimen, I’m on a mission to replace my tried-and-true favourites with cleaner options. I’ve always enjoyed trying new beauty products and experimenting with makeup, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the clean beauty industry has to offer.

As I embark on this journey into the world of clean beauty, I’m going to document my findings here. I hope you’ll follow along!

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