We all want to be healthy; we want be good to the environment and ourselves. Yet in our ever more health conscious society, a surprising the number of people cover themselves with unhealthful toxins every day. Of course, you'd never do that. Would you?
Most likely, you do. You may not know it, but an astonishing number of personal care products are full of unhealthy chemicals, including proven carcinogens. The brands of highest concern include, but definitely aren't limited to, Chanel, Banana Boat, Revlon, Clairol and Gillette. But there are alternatives. Over 500 brands, including Burt's Bees and the Body Shop, have signed a pledge to replace harmful or dangerous ingredients with more healthful alternatives.
This sort of voluntary action is needed because little is being done in America to regulate the cosmetics industry. The Marin-based youth coalition Teens for Safe Cosmetics (TSC), which recently held a prom-themed protest against unsafe products, says that the European Union has already banned more than a thousand chemicals from cosmetics due to health concerns, while the United States has only deemed nine ingredients potentially damaging enough to ban them. Right now, one in three of our personal-care products includes possible carcinogens, and only 11 percent of the more than 10,500 chemicals used in them have been tested for safety.
Last fall, the California legislature passed SB 1379, which requires cosmetic companies to provide a list of potentially damaging ingredients to the Department of Health Services for review. But while the state program is still getting up to speed, the Environmental Working Group, a team of experts who investigate and expose health and environmental threats, is acting. They have posted ingredient lists and "safety scores" for most brands of cosmetics on their website at www.ewg.org. Among the top things they warn against are mercury, thimerosal, lead acetate, formaldehyde, toluene and petroleum distillates.
Conjuring up images of dead frogs and scalpels, formaldehyde is not exactly reminiscent of lovely scented bathroom products. But in addition to being a preservative, formaldehyde also functions as a disinfectant and a germicide, and can therefore be found in commercial soaps, deodorants and shampoos, among other things. Not only is formaldehyde a suspected carcinogen, it may also trigger asthma and damage DNA.
Two other pervasive ingredients are sodium laureth and sodium laurel sulfate, which TSC avers can "alter skin structure, allowing other chemicals to penetrate deep into the skin increasing the amount of other chemicals that reach the bloodstream." Both compounds are found in just about all types of makeup as well as many other products. And, as a short-hand, anything that lists "fragrance" as an ingredient may be using that as a façade for harmful ingredients. But label scanning won't always protect you; companies are known to leave off some ingredients or disguise them by only printing their Latin names.
One new alternative to conventional cosmetic chemistry is mineral makeup, which uses naturally occurring minerals as the basis for the products. Not only is mineral makeup free of toxic chemicals, it provides protection from the sun and can even include customized levels of moisturization or oil control.
With conventional makeup, says Tara Voight, owner of the Always Pampered salon in Novato, "women are trying to cover up instead of work with their skin." Instead, she advocates using mineral makeup, which doesn't clog pores and can be customized to complement your skin.
Voight, who has been working in the skincare business for 14 years, is such a believer in the benefits of mineral makeup that she has developed her own line. She says creating high-quality mineral makeup is just a matter of practice, and her long-term goal for her line is to "make one better than the rest."
The cost of these products is greater than their drugstore counterparts, with blush and powders ranging from $25 to $45 and lipsticks and eye shadows somewhere between $20 and $25.
For Voight, assisting her clients in making the changeover is a source of satisfaction. "It's great to see people out of their ugly eye shadow and into something better," she smiles. And it is not only an aesthetic improvement, Voight says, "it makes them feel better too."
Is feeling and looking better worth the extra effort? It would certainly seem that way. According to TSC, breast cancer rates are rising rapidly and "sperm counts among men throughout the industrialized world" have already fallen by 50 percent in only 50 years. To reverse these ominous trends, they suggest you "demand your stores stock your favorite safe products, contact manufacturers directly and urge them to replace hazardous ingredients with safe alternatives, or write your state and local officials urging them to support and initiate safe cosmetics legislation."
Or we could just allow the great cosmetic chemical cover-up to continue.
Always Pampered, 818 Grant Ave., Novato. 415.899.8445. To learn more about Teens for Safe Cosmetics, go to www.teens4sc.org.