By Jody McCutcheon
Going to extremes for beauty is nothing new: the ancient Greeks valued blonde hair, so women would lighten theirs with plant extracts…and arsenic! During the rein of Elizabeth I and beyond, pale complexions were considered so sexy, men and women alike would powder themselves with thick layers of pulverized bone, talc…and lead, leading to–surprise– lead poisoning, which often made the teeth turn black or fall out (as Elizabeth’s did), or killed the fashion victim outright.
But have we come a long way from that? Far from it. We live in an age of silicon implants, plastic surgery, hair, nail and eyelash extensions and myriad high tech ‘treatments’ involving anything from chemical formulations to lasers and radiofrequency. The point has come where we must be more aware of the potential dangers of our beauty habits, and ask ourselves what we’re willing to sacrifice in our attempts to restore what age has stolen.
Here’s a list of what we think are some of the most toxic beauty treatments most of us do. Of course, you may not have done them all. But admit it–if you haven’t tried one of these, you’ve at least thought about doing it!
1. Tooth Whitening
Like skin whitening, cosmetic tooth whitening is an ancient practice. A solution of urine and goat milk did the trick for the Romans. Everyone wants a bright smile, no matter the cost. Nowadays, whiteners commonly employ hydrogen peroxide to penetrate the porous tooth enamel and bleach the stain deposits in the dentin. Moderate application isn’t a problem; the real trouble starts with what’s known as bleachorexia.
With age, adult teeth darken as mineral structure changes. Add in stains from everyday wear-and-tear, and the fact that the effects of a single whitening treatment might not last a week, and it’s almost understandable how some people could get addicted to bleaching—especially quick-fix whitening strips. But whiten too much and excess bleach can erode the tooth’s protective enamel. Once it’s damaged, the tooth is extremely vulnerable to stains, and will in fact turn yellow. The teeth also become more brittle and sensitive.
If the whitening gel has too strong a concentration of hydrogen peroxide and comes into extended contact with the gums, it can cause burning of the soft tissue and irreversible gum recession, exposing and sensitising the tooth’s root. Ingestion of hydrogen peroxide can burn the throat and GI tract.
Worse yet, concern exists about the potentially carcinogenic nature of hydrogen peroxide(1). Over-the-counter peroxides potentially produce free radicals, which can interact with DNA and ultimately cause cancer. But these claims remain unsubstantiated. The long-term effects of bleaching agents like peroxide aren’t known. In the meantime, moderate use is optimal.
2. Getting Gel Manicures
More aesthetic enhancer than youth-restorer, gel manicures nonetheless deserve scrutiny in this discussion, especially considering a recent New York University Department of Dermatology study suggesting they increase the risk of skin cancer. Each coat of gel polish—up to three per session—is dried under ultraviolet light for as long as three minutes.
UV drying machines aren’t regulated, so consumers have no idea how much UV exposure they’re receiving during treatment. Long-term UV exposure can age the skin and increase cancer risks, although evidence is, as usual, conflicting. A 2009 study found that two middle-aged women with no family history of cancer and minimal sunlight exposure developed hand tumours after exposure to UV light in gel manicures(2). Based on this study, opponents compare the inherent UV risk of gel manicures to that associated with tanning bed treatments.
Going the other way, a recent study appearing in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology suggests you could get a gel manicure weekly for 250 years and still only have a low risk for skin cancer(3). Industry people insist UV exposure from gel manicures falls well within acceptable levels, and is in fact equivalent to a day of exposure to fluorescent light. The final word rests with the Skin Cancer Foundation, which has declared that although the cancer risk from gel manicure UV exposure “is very low, it is not insignificant”(4).
Gel manicure products are also far from organic. In fact, they contain formaldehyde, phthalates, acetone, toluene, methacrylates and other volatile compounds which have been associated with diseases ranging from asthma to cancer. The fumes from these chemicals are also a serious hazard, and over time, they will destroy your nails due to the scraping and soaking in polish remover that’s required to remove the product. Gel manicures are best done in moderation, with hands covered in strong SPF protection. Providers using LED lights instead of UV lights minimize UV exposure, as LED lights dry the gel treatment more quickly.
3. Hair Dyeing
The practice of hair dying goes back to ancient Egypt, when extracts from plants like henna were used. Today, about a third of women over 18 and ten percent of men over 40 seek to change things colourwise, or simply eliminate those sinister signifiers of age, grey hairs. Permanent dyes—there are also semi-permanent and temporary dyes—contain over 5000 chemicals(5), including toxins with disconcerting names that combine unpronounceable words and numbers, like 4-chloro-m-phenylenediamine, 2,4-toluenediamine and 2-nitro-p-phenylenediamine. These have been associated with cancer in animal testing.
Alarmingly, correlations between permanent hair dye chemicals and human cancer rates also exist. But back up for a moment to 1979, when the hair-care industry removed many other nasty-sounding agents, such as diaminotoulene and diaminoanisole, to improve the safety of hair dyes. Studies show that women who used pre-1980 hair dyes suffer a 30% higher risk of contracting non-Hodgkins lymphoma(6). Other reports suggest hair-dye users may be two to four times more likely than non-users of contracting non-Hodgkins lymphoma and multiple myeloma(7), while the risk for those who dye more than nine times a year goes up 60%(8).
More recently, scientists at Leeds-based Green Chemicals have warned that permanent dye chemicals called secondary amines may stay on your hair and in your skin for weeks, even years, after the dye job. There, they can react with tobacco and exhaust fumes to create chemicals known as N-nitrosamines, which are so carcinogenic they’ve been banned as cosmetic ingredients(9). These findings come with a caveat, though, as Green Chemicals is about to release its own “ultra-safe” line of hair dyes. We all know the fine line that can separate scientific validity and corporate propaganda.
Just as troubling is the danger of hair dyes to male hairdressers and barbers. A meta-analysis of 42 studies showed male hairdressers were at a higher risk for bladder cancer, esp. those who’d worked with dyes for ten-years plus(10). In 2010, the European Commission banned 22 dyes whose ingredients exposed long-term consumers to bladder cancer risks.
4. Using Botox
Is there anything more absurd than injecting fatal poison into one’s face for vanity’s sake? Since the early 1990s, injections of botulinum toxin—which also causes botulism—have been used in the prevention of facial wrinkles, paralysing the muscles responsible for frown lines, especially in the forehead. Botox has been declared safe due to the extremely low doses used medicinally(12), and its popularity has been boosted by celebrities who use it, such as Kylie Minogue.
Yet as Kylie, Nicole Kidman et al know,Botox can distort the natural look of the face, and side effects range from less serious (drooping eyelid, uneven smile) to more serious (headaches, flu-like symptoms, blurred vision) to potentially fatal (dysphagia, aspiration pneumonia), though these cases are extremely rare. The botulinum toxin sometimes migrates from the injection site to other areas of the body, affecting those muscles. In this way, it can paralyse respiratory muscles, leading to difficulty breathing, while also crippling the ability to swallow (dysphagia). This dangerous combination of muscle failures can lead to food and liquids entering the respiratory tract and lungs, which can cause aspiration pneumonia or even death-by-rock-star (choking on one’s own vomit).
The number of adverse reactions to Botox is relatively small compared to the number of surgeries performed overall, but it is quite a bit greater than zero. According to US Food and Drug Administration data, between 1997 and 2006, a reported 180 Americans experienced Botox-related aspiration, dysphagia and/or pneumonia, with 87 hospitalisations and 16 deaths. This is probably a conservative estimate, as FDA data only include voluntary reports, which account for about 10 percent of actual cases(13).
The Botox subculture has culminated in “filler parties” or “pumping parties” in the US and UK, in which people get together for an evening of facial injections. The scary thing is, anyone can administer them. No medical training necessary. New Royal College of Surgeons guidelines suggest otherwise, and also that the treatment be done in a licensed facility providing resuscitation equipment in case of emergency. The guidelines also suggest psychiatric consults for patients seeking cosmetic surgeries (14). Studies have yet to be done on the long-term neurological and physiological effects of Botox injections.
5. Fake Tanning
All of us are aware that too much sun can cause skin cancer, so those in search of a bronzed glow often turn to ‘fake bakes’ otherwise known as tanning creams and sprays. Unfortunately, research now shows that their key ingredient, DHA (dihydroxyacetone) may be toxic.
DHA reacts with amino acids in dead skin cells to produce the brown ‘suntan’ colour. It is also this compound that gives fake bakes their characteristic – often described as biscuity – smell. Recently, a American medical experts reported that tests on live animal cells had shown the chemical could cause DNA damage, which is linked to cancer. DHA is present in not only tanning creams and mousses, but spray tans as well.
There are three main types of spray tan: the manual turbine spray, an ‘airbrush’ held by the beautician; a closed compartment in which three rows of nozzles spray a product on to the entire body, and the open booth that contains two vertical rows of nozzles. The customer stands and turns around to allow the other side of the body to be sprayed.
These techniques give a faster, more even result – but they also increase the risk of absorbing DHA through inhalation and by contact with mucous membranes in the eyes and mouth. In an interview for the Daily Mail, Dr Rey Panettieri, a toxicologist and lung specialist at the University of Pennsylvania urged caution, saying: ‘The lungs have a huge surface area and these compounds could get into the bloodstream and promote the development of cancers.
‘[Regular inhalation] could potentially lead to cancer or the worsening of asthma or other lung disease.’
Throughout human history, we’ve always wanted to look better, longer, and have gone to extremes to do it. Today, through moderation, education and substitution, we can work at minimising potential sacrifices while purifying the beautification process and perhaps curbing some of those ruthless, uncompromising vanity impulses.
But ultimately, ain’t nothing more beautiful than accepting the gradual, inexorable advance of age with grace and dignity.