Forstater: Hidden chemicals a danger

Forstater recommends students always read the ingredient label.

Toby Forstater

Toby ForstaterThe Campaign for Safe Cosmetics released an ad that claimed the industry has tested only 11 percent of the 10,500 ingredients in personal care products. That’s not a comforting statistic for anyone who conforms to society’s hygiene standards.

According to “Story of Cosmetics” by Annie Leonard, “The average woman uses 12 personal care products and the average man uses six, each with about a dozen or more chemicals and less than 20 percent have been assessed for safety by the industry safety panel.”

Many products commonly used by consumers have chemicals, like phthalates, which enhance fluidity or  “spreadability,” yet induce both reproductive and developmental problems. Some also act as endocrine disruptors, which impacts proper secretion of hormones into the blood.

Petroleum-based 1,4-dioxane, one chemical found in personal care products, is carcinogenic. Carcinogens are chemicals that are particularly cancerous and occur as a byproduct of chemical ingredients in the manufacturing processes. For example, when sodium lauryl sulfate is converted to sodium laureth sulfate, which is linked to infertility, 1,4-dioxane is found, too. It’s found in shampoos, bubble baths and body washes – everyday items that I, for one, generally don’t think twice about using.

Considering the list of potential health threats for so many seemingly harmless products, it’s hard to know if the general populous is really better off than the aristocratic women who painted their faces with lead paint in the 18th century. Eye shadow contains polyethylene, which can result in neurological damage; shampoo contains sodium lauryl, which can cause infertility; polymenthyl is linked to cancer; and deodorant has aluminum zirconium, a hormone disruptor.

The majority of the chemicals in products like these have not been tested. The Food and Drug Administration, which does not regulate cosmetics, has only banned eight of those chemicals.

Skin is strong enough to overcome diamond-sharpened razors, but it easily bruises and cuts. But is skin thick enough to fend off this extra chemical exposure?

Several months ago USA Today reported that 99 percent of apples had chemicals that seeped through pores into flesh, the remaining 1 percent being organic apples. However, we can’t necessarily compare apples to humans.

Chemically, absorption can happen in three ways: by weaving around cell exteriors called intercellular lipid pathways, through cells directly with transcellular permeation and lastly around appendages like hair, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So no matter where you apply a   product, it can be absorbed into your body.

One example of chemicals finding appendage paths next to hair follicles are our shampoos, conditioners and hair relaxers. Several chemicals, most notably the phthalates mentioned earlier, have been studied for links to reproductive defects. There’s also the question of what we inhale, which can be equally toxic.

According to the American Lung Association, some cleaning products like air fresheners can react with high levels of ozone to form formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Chronic respiratory problems, allergic reactions and headaches are associated with inhaling harmful chemicals, and past studies show links between chemicals in cleaning products and asthma, as detailed by the California Air Resources Board in 2005’s “Report to the California Legislature: Indoor Air Pollution in California.”

Most of us have heard the warning to never mix bleach and ammonia – which create a potentially lethal gas when combined– but sometimes even products labeled “green” are not as safe as we expect them to be. Reading the ingredient label, where we can keep an eye out for volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, along with “fragrances” and ingredients listed as flammable, could make all the difference.

In 2003, Ralph Nader released a report called the “Dirty Dozen.” In the report, it was found that talcum powder, also known as baby powder, is carcinogenic and a risk factor for ovarian cancer. Sometimes I feel like everyday items might be poisoning me.

It seems we should also avoid Crest’s tartar control toothpaste, Alberto VO5 conditioner, Clairol Nice ‘n Easy permanent hair coloring, Lysol disinfectant spray, Ortho Weed-B-Gon lawn weed killer and more. All of these products can lead to cancer. As WebMD reported, the rate of cancer diagnoses is expected to rise by more than 75 percent by 2030.

We are able to take matters into our own hands with cleaning by using alternative supplies. Baking soda can make an effective scrubbing product for grimy cleaning, and a mixture of vinegar and water acts as a glass cleaner. It might not smell as clean as Windex, but it seems worth it for the sake of long-term health.

I shouldn’t be too pessimistic, either. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a list for major stores, not the manufacturers, to ban more than 100 ingredients in personal care products.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has taken the first, albeit small, step forward. Set for January, it will ban 10 chemicals found in household cleaners and cosmetics. It is also asking the brands to disclose hidden ingredients, such as those listed as “fragrances.”

Companies like Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Aveeno and Neutrogena, are reducing carcinogens like 1,4- dioxane, parabens, formaldehyde and others in baby and adult products globally.

For those that want more change, activists can sign a letter to retailers by The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which is available online.

“Voluntary action on the part of manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson indicates that some in the cosmetics industry are getting the message that consumers want safer products,” Cindy Luppi, a cofounder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and director at Clean Water Action, said on the campaign’s website. “Only stricter regulation of this $50 billion industry will ensure that all consumers are protected.”

Toby Forstater can be reached at

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