How much do we really know about the cosmetic products that we use on our skin every day? Test your knowledge about harmful ingredients in our skin care products—you might be surprised!
Myth 1: The government protects us from harmful ingredients in cosmetics and skin care products, so there’s nothing to worry about.
Fact: Health Canada has put together the Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist—a list of chemicals that are prohibited or restricted in skin care products. But while the Hotlist is a positive step, Health Canada admits that it is not exhaustive, and it’s still up to any company to meet the regulations.
Additionally, restricted ingredients are allowed at certain concentrations, even though new research is refuting the assumed notion that “the dose makes the poison.” Some chemicals are shown to have different effects at different concentrations, and some have negative effects in small doses.
Another serious concern often brought up by health and environmental groups is the so-called “cocktail effect.” This means that even if a chemical is thought to be safe on its own, it’s not known how it might interact with other chemicals in the same product, not to mention how it might interact with individual genetics. Truth is, we don’t really know how safe our products are.
Maggie MacDonald, Toxics Program Manager at the Canadian environmental and health group Environmental Defence explains: “People often assume that if a chemical is in consumer products, then it must be safe. But science isn’t stagnant, and as new research demonstrates that certain chemicals are hazardous, there is a lag time before policy change happens.”
Myth 2: Products used on the skin stay on the skin and aren’t absorbed internally.
Fact: It’s tempting to think that unless we ingest a chemical orally, it doesn’t get into our bodies, but that’s simply not true.
Parabens, for instance, are widely used as preservatives in skin care products—commonly propylparaben and methylparaben. They have been shown in studies to penetrate human skin, be absorbed, and have even been measured in human urine. In fact, a 2006 study detected parabens in 96 of the 100 study participants.
Myth 3: The term “vegan” on a label means the product is natural and safe.
Fact: It’s wonderful to see vegan products increasing in the marketplace, but—as with all cosmetics-—we still need to be careful when deciding which vegan products we choose.
A product with a Certified Vegan logo means that the product doesn’t contain animal products or byproducts. It also hasn’t been tested on animals. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s natural, chemical free, or organic.
To choose a safe vegan product, avoid the drug stores and the big box outlets. Instead, ask your favourite health food retailer about natural, nontoxic products that carry a Certified Vegan logo.
Myth 4: If I’m not a woman of child-bearing age, I don’t need to be concerned about hormone disruptors in my products.
Fact: Not so! Gents, listen up—while men may not use as many products as women, they’re still exposed. Although more studies need to be done, preliminary research has linked chemicals such as phthalates to altered male reproductive health such as semen quality and sperm DNA damage, as well as metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and increased waist circumference.
Environmental Defence recently released a new report, The Manscape, which tested the personal care products of five Canadian men. Turns out they contained chemicals that are probable human carcinogens and hormone disruptors.
Plus, as MacDonald notes, “The hormonal system is complex and sensitive in all human beings, at every stage of life. Scientists have described ‘windows of vulnerability’ meaning that at certain periods, such as puberty, or during the first months of life, our hormonal systems are more vulnerable to the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, but that doesn’t mean exposure won’t have an impact outside of those periods.”
These ingredients also harm the environment and wildlife, and have been detected in drinking water and have adverse effects on fish populations. This means that chemicals in personal care products are not a women’s problem—they affect everyone and everything.
Myth 5: Products without these chemicals aren’t effective.
Fact: This is simply not true. Safe products are effective, and the market is so large today that there’s something for everyone and every specialized skin and beauty concern. European countries, for instance, have much stricter regulations than Canada, forcing companies to create effective products without toxins.
Just like any product, you might have to try out a few brands to see which works for you. Simply drop by a well-stocked natural health retailer and speak to their skin care expert for personalized advice.
Myth 6: Ingredient lists tell all.
Fact: In Canada, companies must list the ingredients on product labels. However, that doesn’t mean that the ingredients are all that’s in the product. For example, methenamine and quaternium-15—while found on the ingredient list—release formaldehyde, which is not listed.
Some ingredients, including a group of ingredients called PEGs, can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which is a potential carcinogen. This chemical is on Health Canada’s Hotlist—but the potentially contaminated ingredient names listed on products aren’t.
Furthermore, the ingredient “fragrance” or “parfum” can contain dozens of compounds, ranging from harmless to very toxic—phthalates being the most infamous example of harmful ingredients.
Myth 7: Expensive products must be better.
Fact: Some people assume that quality ingredients must be more expensive, therefore upping a resulting product’s retail price. But cost doesn’t matter—many safe and natural skin care products are very economical, while many chemical-laden products are very pricey.
Rather than relying on price, visit your local health food store, read labels, and choose a safe, natural or organic product.
Myth 8: Things aren’t going to change for the better.
Fact: Here’s the good news: consumers are powerful and can lobby companies and government. In fact, they already are.
Many companies are already changing for the better. There have been numerous recent success stories in mainstream companies, such as the US personal care giant Johnson & Johnson announcing last year that it would remove numerous harmful chemicals in its products by the end of 2015. Johnson & Johnson also announced in 2011 that it would phase out formaldehyde-releasing preservatives in its baby shampoo by the end of this year, after consumer outrage.
Government action, too, can occur, and already has. It was only back in 2006 when ingredient lists started being mandatory on products in Canada. Although there’s much more improvement to be made, it can certainly happen.
MacDonald, too, remains hopeful: “As people become more aware of this issue, businesses are moving to make safer, healthier products … Even big companies are starting to remove chemicals like parabens from their products, in response to consumer demand. Three years ago, you wouldn’t have found ‘paraben free’ on the product labels of items in major chain stores; now that’s getting more common. We have a long way to go, but it’s getting better all the time.”
Dirty Dozen for cosmetics
The David Suzuki Foundation’s Dirty Dozen list of cosmetic ingredients includes:
- BHA and BHT
- Coal tar dyes
- DEA-related ingredients
- Dibutyl phthalate
- Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives
- “Parfum” or “fragrance”
- PEG compounds
- Sodium laureth sulphate
To learn more about these ingredients, and how to avoid them, see “Take Action”, below.
Check out these environmental and health organizations to learn more about chemicals in cosmetics and to find safer product suggestions.
- Campaign for Safe Cosmetics safecosmetics.org
- Environmental Defence environmentaldefence.ca and justbeautiful.ca
- David Suzuki Foundation davidsuzuki.org
- Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Database ewg.org/skindeep