Our preoccupation with beauty is a fascination that the cosmetic industry has parlayed into a 28 billion dollar a year industry. They offer products that claim to deliver youthful skin and luxurious hair, yet they fail to mention the scores of potential irritants, carcinogens, neurotoxins, and hormone disrupters used to manufacture these products. Without knowing it, many men and women are exposing themselves to more than 200 synthetic chemicals each and every day.
While most of us assume that we are protected by government regulation, the truth is that cosmetics are not required to gain pre-market approval before they are sold to consumers.
This issue is of great concern to environmental journalist and author Kim Erickson. She’s the author of several books, including Living Lessons and an Eluxe favourite, Drop Dead Gorgeous, which exposes the dangers of many of the products currently available and the cosmetic industry’s lies and glaring omissions.
Here, she tells Eluxe about nail bars, WalMart, and sheds light on why she’s devoted much of her life to informing consumers of the dangers of cosmetics.
Why do you think so little regulation exists in the area of cosmetic ingredients in the USA?
Much of the problem lies in the fact that cosmetics and skin care products have historically been regarded as “harmless”because the skin was always thought of as an impermeable barrier that prevented the absorption of chemicals applied to it. This belief is still held by many members of the United States Congress, which oversees the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Because Congress puts little importance on the potential danger found in cosmetics and personal care products, the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors is both underfunded and understaffed. What’s more, the agency’s powers are limited. For example, although the FDA now acknowledges the fact that chemicals can be absorbed by the skin and strongly urges safety testing before a product is made available to consumers, it can’t force manufacturers to comply. The FDA can only take action regarding the safety of a product after a problem develops from its use. Even then, the FDA isn’t automatically permitted to require the manufacturer to recall the product. Recalls of defective or hazardous products are left to the discretion of the cosmetic company.
Some in Congress are trying to strengthen the FDA’s regulatory powers over cosmetics. Last year, the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2013 was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. The bill would establish a safety standard that provides a reasonable certainty of no harm from exposure to a cosmetic or an ingredient in a cosmetic and that protects the public from any known or anticipated adverse health effects associated with the cosmetic or ingredient. It would also minimize the use of animal testing. Unfortunately, it has little chance of becoming law.
While most companies do voluntarily test their products for safety (defined as causing an immediate adverse reaction), it has been pressure from advocacy groups and consumers that have forced many companies to remove potentially dangerous ingredients like parabens and phthalates from their products. As consumers become more concerned about what they are putting on their bodies, this trend will likely continue.
What spurred your passion to inform the public about the dangers of chemicals in cosmetics?
When I was pregnant with my daughter in the early 80’s, we lived downstream from a pulp and paper mill. At the time, no one was aware of the dangers posed by the waste products this type of plant produced. My daughter, as well as the other children born in the area, suffered a variety of health problems. For my daughter, that meant a compromised immune system and behavioral issues. Other children were diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and even hearing loss. Unfortunately, few doctors realized the dangers posed by the dioxins created during manufacturing at this plant so it was virtually impossible to get a comprehensive diagnosis. Instead, I began to look at what was in the products we used at home on a daily basis. As I began to research the health effects of the various chemicals in our soaps and shampoos, I became increasingly concerned and felt compelled to share what I had discovered with others.
People always say ‘read the label’ to know what’s in products you buy, but what do you recommend to people who do read labels but don’t have a clue about what half the lengthy list of chemicals are?
It’s extremely difficult to decipher the alphabet soup of chemicals on many cosmetic labels. Making matters worse, there’s nothing on a label to tell you if it contains a phthalate or a formaldehyde-releasing chemical. Unless you have a degree in chemistry, a good motto to go by is “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t buy it.”
What are your thoughts on the latest craze for children’s nail bars?
Nail bars and salons geared for little girls expose children to an array of harmful chemicals in the polishes and polish removers, many of which are known hormone disruptors. These chemicals are particularly harmful to a child’s developing body. It also sends a message about beauty to very young children that you need to “adorn” yourself to be attractive and accepted.
What’s the most positive thing you do for the environment in your daily life?
I buy organically-grown produce and grass-fed or organic meat whenever possible. Not only does this promote sustainability and a better eco-system, it also benefits the health of our family.
What’s your own personal biggest eco ‘sin’?
I hate to admit it but I’m prone to grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge as I head out to the gym. I really should get a BPA-free reusable bottle for my workouts.
Which ingredients in cosmetics do you avoid the most and why?
Formaldehyde releasing chemicals like dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin, quaternium-15, imidazolidinyl urea, and diazolidinyl urea. These chemicals are often used as preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products, especially nail products, shampoos, body washes, and color cosmetics. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and irritant that is restricted in personal care products in the EU. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case in the U.S. But, since low levels of formaldehyde can cause health concerns—at levels as low as 250 parts per million, and even lower levels in sensitized individuals like myself—the slow release of even small amounts of formaldehyde are cause for concern.
What are you proudest of so far in your career?
Overall, I’m just happy that I’ve been able to play a role in helping people live healthier lives. But if I had to pick a single project I was proudest of, it would likely be a book that I co-authored with Mark Shigihara in 2010 called Living Lessons. Mark was a pharmacist who was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Most people with this type of advanced cancer survive for only a few months. The book documented his journey through four remarkable years of integrative treatment, including both cutting-edge and holistic treatments and adopting a less toxic way of living. Although Mark recently lost his nearly five year battle, he left a legacy of courage and hope for those facing any type of cancer.
Where do you see the American cosmetics industry going in the next five years?
While it’s unlikely that federal legislation will pass strengthening cosmetic regulation, the continuing pressure being put on cosmetic manufacturers by groups such as the Safe Cosmetics Action Network and the Environmental Working Group will likely result in safer products on store shelves. Retailers like Wal-Mart are requiring that manufacturers either disclose or eliminate certain harmful chemicals found in cosmetics, personal care products, and household cleaners. In January 2015, the retailer will require that suppliers post online a list of ingredients in items they sell at the company’s stores. By 2016, Wal-Mart will begin to publicly report on suppliers’ progress in meeting the new chemical restrictions. Suppliers that don’t remove certain potentially harmful chemicals from their products will be required to label packages with a warning.
Consumer advocates predict that manufacturers seeking to avoid negative publicity will remove, rather than report, suspect ingredients.This bold move by one of the country’s leading retailers may encourage other large-chain retailers to follow suit. State lawmakers, especially those in California, will undoubtedly continue to strengthen their stance against toxic chemical in everyday products, including cosmetics. Together, these steps at the market and legislative levels will significantly improve the safety of cosmetics and personal care products over the next five years.
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