LTE: BC Students For Safer Cosmetics

When was the last time that you looked at the ingredients on your shampoo bottle? If you have recently, it probably didn’t mean much to you. With words like “methylisothiazolinone,” “dmdm hydantoin,” and “cocamidopropyl betaine,” it’s not easy to figure out what exactly you’re scrubbing into your hair. The fact of the matter is that too many of us assume that our personal care products are safe to use, simply because they’re sold in a store that we frequent. After all, shouldn’t we be able to assume that anything we buy from CVS, Target, or Shaw’s is safe? Shouldn’t someone be regulating the products that are put on those shelves? The answer is yes, we should be able to assume that. But unfortunately, the reality is that we absolutely cannot assume that.
By federal law, the ingredients in cosmetics are not required to be Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved before going on the market. The term “cosmetics” refers to a number of products, such as shampoos, conditioners, body washes, lotions, mascaras, eyeliners, and nail polishes. This means that a company can use ingredients that are suspected of numerous health concerns in their products, and they aren’t required to put a warning on their labels. It is perfectly legal for a company to distribute makeup that contains lead and arsenic, chemicals that are widely known to cause death. Additionally, the company isn’t required to put lead and arsenic in the ingredients list, because they are simply “byproducts” and were not added intentionally. Companies are not even required to add warning labels to their products when their products contain ingredients that can cause toxic effects.

A desperate need exists for the U.S. government to take action against this industry. Regulation needs to be significantly stricter in order to protect the health and safety of U.S. citizens. California is the only state to attempt counteracting this-the California Safe Cosmetics Program (CSCP) requires companies to submit a list of all products that contain ingredients that may cause cancer, birth defects, or damage to the reproductive system. The CSCP then compiled a searchable online database of these products, and strongly encourages consumers to make educated decisions when it comes to their personal care products. However, since the FDA has yet to set the necessary regulations on cosmetic products, it is necessary for the average consumer to be educated and aware of the ingredients in their personal care products.

Two of the most common and most harmful chemicals that are frequently found in shampoos, body washes, and lotions are fragrance and parabens. Fragrance is a particularly scary term because it represents an undisclosed mixture of up to 200 chemicals; it could include ingredients that cause cancer and birth defects, and you would never know. One of the chemicals most commonly found in fragrance is phthalates. A recent Harvard study showed an association between exposure to phthalates and lowered sperm count in college-age males. Other chemicals found in fragrance are galaxolide and tonalide, which increase the growth of breast cancer cells. Neurotoxins have also been found in fragrance. Parabens are found more clearly on ingredient lists. The most harmful ones are propylparaben and butylparaben, followed closely by methylparaben and ethylparaben. Parabens have been linked in multiple studies to breast cancer. Additionally, parabens have been shown to mimic the hormone estrogen, which allows it to alter gene expression in your reproductive system, and lead to egg and sperm damage. This is especially scary, because reproductive harm has the potential to be passed on to your children, or even your grandchildren.

Being aware of the ingredients in your personal care products is very important. Luckily, being informed is becoming much easier. In addition to the California Safe Cosmetics Program online database, there is also the Environmental Working Group’s online database. Both of these websites allow you to understand the potential hazards of the ingredients in your products, as well as helping you to find products that don’t contain harmful ingredients.

By being informed about what ingredients to avoid, you can choose personal care products that aren’t a danger to your health. Avoiding products that contain fragrance and parabens is crucial, as well as checking the specific ingredients in your products of choice at one or both of the online cosmetic databases. It is too easy to assume that a product is safe or to be too lazy to find new shampoos, conditioners, body washes, etc., but by going slowly and trying to do something simple, such as replacing one product each month, leading a healthier life can be easy! Whole Foods is a great place to start; their 365 Everyday Value brand has great shampoos, conditioners, body washes, and lotions that are free of harmful chemicals. Lush is another great store with many all-natural, chemical free cosmetics. Both of these stores still have products that contain parabens, fragrance, and much more, so it’s important to always check the ingredients before buying anything.

Taylor Stiegler
A&S ’14

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The Heights is the independent student newspaper of Boston College.