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Estelle Hayes Headshot

Your Personal Grooming Products Could Be Making You Sick

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We all have our morning routines. My daily regimen includes an assortment of personal care products, including shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, lotion, a little bit of makeup; about a dozen products a day, which is exactly the national average for women in the U.S. In the process, women like me are exposed to more than 160 chemicals (men about half that), most of which would be considered unnecessary but "safe," however, many others are well known toxins, carcinogens and pollutants.

Typical ingredients include things like bacteria-killing nanosilvers; 1,4 Dioxane (known cancer causing substance found in 22 percent of personal care and children's products); Mercury and cow placenta (icky for sure, and chock-filled with hormones that can spark premature breast development in toddler girls) -- the kind of substances that would earn you serious prison time if you dumped them into a local stream.

The cosmetics industry argues that these nasty substances are used sparingly -- usually as preservatives or antifungal agents -- in sufficiently small doses they don't think they cause us harm. And they say they have tests to prove it. Although they aren't legally required by the Food and Drug Administration to test their products, every year the cosmetics industry kills millions of animals in the process of testing their wares for skin irritancy, eye tissue damage and general toxicity (cheaper to kill animals than deal with pesky lawsuits from unhappy consumers). Apparently, once they dial the parts per billion of the poisons just right and the animals don't die from its application, they figure that product is now safe for humans to use.

But here's the catch: even if you buy that disturbing logic, the cosmetics cartel is talking about toxic levels in any one product. Trouble is, we don't just use or wear only one thing; most of us follow personal care and beauty regimens that include at least that average dozen products giving us multiple repeat doses of offending substances every day. Multiply that times 365 days, multiply it again, by say 10 years, and the chronic and cumulative toxic exposure to our bodies is clearly troubling.

The cosmetics industry must think we can't do the math. They are wrong.

Let's use siloxanes as an example.

Lipstick, one of the little daily touches we add to make ourselves look and feel polished, contains a caustic cocktail of scary chemicals including an unsavory suite of substances known as siloxanes, which have been hard-line linked to cancer, uterine tumors and other types of damage to the female reproductive system. And, these are resistive substances, meaning they linger in the environment -- including you -- for a long time. The trifecta of D4, D5 and D6 siloxanes are routinely found in such everyday items as lipstick, body lotions, hair-care products, soaps, cookware and home cleaning products.

According to an analysis of the Environmental Working Group's database of ingredients in over 41,000 personal care products, D4 and D5 are in more than one out of every seven products. And taken together, the many individually-identified poisons we spray, pat and lather on us results in new toxic concoctions never actually tested by anyone in combination.

The beauty industry knows we use an average of 12 products a day, meaning they know we are over-exposed to potentially dangerous levels of toxins in the aggregate. And they know that they only test these toxins in isolated trials -- they could never possibly test for every combination of toxins used in tens of thousands of products in very different personal routines by millions of Americans every day.

Does anyone really know what happens when our many personal care products intersect and interact to produce an unholy union of septic substances? Can any scientist really explain what Frankenstein compound is created when you mix endocrine disruptors like phthalates (from your body lotion) with antifungal preservatives like Methylparaben (from your blush) with toluene (from nail polish) and add a dash of Stearalkonium Chloride (from hairspray)?

A green movement for the human body starts with the math that really matters to the cosmetics industry: the $10 billion we spend every year on their products. Nothing will scare these companies straight like the prospect of our voting against them with our pocketbooks.

Start by replacing one of your personal care products with a nontoxic or even less toxic counterpart each month and by year's end you will have made a significant difference in your levels of exposure. Increasingly, nail polish companies are making it easier to find your perfect color in a "three-free" formulation. This means manufacturers have removed known carcinogens toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DHB) and formaldehyde from their recipes. Of course, this latest trend came after years of pressure by consumers who demanded a safer product. Much of the public outcry began in Europe, where products face more rigorous and transparent testing and are held to a higher standard of safety.

Until the FDA takes cosmetics seriously, you're on your own. The best strategy may be to look for the phrase European Union Cosmetics Directive Compliant on any of your daily-use products. That seems to be the gold standard today and perhaps another reason why healthcare is so much cheaper in Europe.