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Global Warming Effects Inside Our Own Bodies

Cosmetics with a Side of Infertility from the Toronto Star, December 27, 2007
People are applying a toxic stew of chemicals to their bodies daily, author declares, Heather Gehlert of
Carcinogens in cosmetics? Petro­chemicals in perfume? If only this were an urban legend. Unfortu­nately, it’s a toxic reality, and it’s showing up in our bodies.
In 2004, scientists found pesti­cides in the blood of newborn ba­bies. A year later, researchers dis­covered perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, in human breast milk. Today, people are testing posi­tive for a litany of hazardous sub­stances from flame retardants to phthalates to lead. In her new book, Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, Stacy Malkan exposes the toxic chemicals that lurk, often un­labelled, in the personal care prod­ucts millions of women, men and children use every day. AlterNet spoke with Malkan about these toxins and her five‑year Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to get the beauty industry to remove them from its products.

Question: There are so many envi­ronmental issues you could have written a book about, Why cosmet­ics?
Stacy Malkan: I think cosmetics are something that we’re all intimately connected to. They’re products that we use everyday, and so I think it’s a good first place to start asking questions. What kinds of products are we bringing into our homes? What kinds of companies are we giving our money to?

Q: It has something pretty interest­ing in common with global warm­ing, too.
SM: It does. I think of it as global poisoning. I think that the ubiqui­tous contamination of the human species with toxic chemicals is a symptom of the same problem (as global warming), which is an econ­omy that’s based on outdated tech­nologies of petrochemicals ‑ pe­troleum. So many of the products we’re applying to our faces and put­ting in our hair come from oil. They’re by‑products of oil.

Q: Many cosmetic products on the market right now claim they are pure, gentle, clean and healthy. But, as you reveal in this book, they’re far from it. Toxic chemicals in these products are showing up in people. What were some of the most sur­prising toxins you discovered in cosmetics?
SM: Lead in lipstick was pretty sur­prising. We (the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics) just released that re­port. Many personal care products have phthalates, which is a plasti­cizer and hormone disrupter. That’s‑ why we started the cosmet­ics campaign ‑‑ because we know that women have higher levels of phthalates in their bodies, and we thought that cosmetics might be a reason. There’s so much that we don’t know about these products. Many, many chemicals are hiding in fragrance. Companies aren’t re­quired to list the components of fragrance. Products also are contaminated with carcinogens like 1,4 dioxane and neurotoxins like lead that aren’t listed on the label.

Q: I just want to know what ingredi­ents to avoid, but you say protecting myself is not as simple as that. Why not?
SM: There are no standards or reg­ulations like there are in, for ex­ample, the food industry, where if you buy organic food or food labeled “natural,” there’s a set of standards and legal definitions that go behind those words. That’s not the case in the personal care prod­uct industry, where companies of­ten use wards like “organic” and “natural” to market products that are anything but.

Q: Generally spearing, risk assess­ment involves two factors: a hazard and people’s exposure to that haz­ard. Could you explain some of the unique challenges to assessing risks with cosmetics?
SM: Risk assessment is an extreme­ly oversimplified way of pretending we have enough information to know haw much chemicals we can tolerate in our bodies. A risk assess­ment equation will say, “How haz­ardous is a chemical, how much are we exposed to it from this one prod­uct, and. is that hate?” There’s a lot of information left out of that picture: studies that haven’t been done to determine impacts on fe­tuses, the feet that we’re exposed to so many of these chemicals in so many places every day, and the fact there have been no, or very few, studies about chemical mixtures.

Q: Do you think part of the problem with creating awareness around this issue is that the effects are toxins are often not that immedi­ate? People don’t say, “Oh, I’ve been to this toxic site and now I have a rash all over my body.”
SM: Right, and that’s what we hear from the cosmetics companies when they say, “Well, my product is safe if used as directed, and you can’t prove otherwise:” Which is true.

Q: Can you give me an idea of how many chemicals one product can contain?
SM: The average woman in the U .S. according to our survey uses 12 products a day with about 180 chemicals and men use about six products with 80 chemicals com­bined. But it depends on the prod­uct.

Q: What practical advice can you give to people wanting to clean up their cosmetics bags?
SM: My best advice is that simpler is better. Really, fewer ingredients, fewer products. For instance, hair colour and bubble bath are two things that I’ve given up. But there are a lot of good (non‑toxic) prod­ucts out there on the market and I would say start by switching out the ones that you use the most fre­quently like shampoo and deodor­ant that we’re putting by our breast tissue, experiment with different kinds of natural products and just make changes as you can. The onus at this point is on consumers to do our own research.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
SM: It’s really important to recog­nize that the beauty industry is all about profit and bottom‑line thinking. It’s not concerned about our health issues.

*To learn more and take action, visit safecosmetics.org. Go to cosmeticdatabase.org to find out what toxins are in your personal care products.
Heather Gehlert is a managing editor at alternet.org.