Sodium lauryl sulfate is an effective degreaser used to clean oil stains from the floor of my mechanic's repair shop; what's it doing in my toothpaste and my daughter's bubble bath? And, why is the long-known carcinogen nitrosamine, banned in Canada and the European Union, still a common ingredient in my mascara, concealer, sunless tanning lotion and baby shampoo?
The simple answer is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration still doesn't bother to regulate anything it dismisses as cosmetics -- any products used topically -- despite the growing science showing how easily poisons and pollutants can be absorbed through the skin. Since the 1930s, the only thing the FDA regulates is the accuracy of the labeling on cosmetics.
As long as manufacturers list in gory detail the witches' brew of industrial chemicals, heavy metals, and toxic substances they blend into your eye cream or face wash, they are free to dump whatever they want into your epidermis.
As consumers, we are left to defend ourselves armed only with unintelligible ingredient labels and confusing news reports about what parts per billion of something can cause cancer or Alzheimer's. Americans are taking their bodies on a magical mystery tour full of chemicals and heavy metal toxins by way of basic grooming habits.
Just a little Googling reveals that every day we are exposed through personal care products to more than 10,000 nasty chemicals banned elsewhere in the world. Everything from lip balm to hand lotion is filled with stuff we wouldn't dream of putting in our stomachs. Instead, we eagerly spread it over the largest organ of the body -- ensuring effective absorption and exposure to a daily dose of illness-inducing and cancer-causing garbage. The american medicine cabinet has become a virtual love canal of hidden industrial waste that wouldn't be allowed anywhere else.
For example, the Environmental Protection Agency requires workers to wear protective gloves, clothing, and goggles when handling chemicals like Diazolidinyl Urea and Propylene Glycol when they manufacture your favorite antiperspirant. The EPA warns workers against skin contact with these chemicals because they are known to cause brain, liver, and kidney abnormalities -- in concentrations lower than those found in off-the-shelf stick deodorants. By contrast, you are not even given a fair warning by the deodorant industry as it encourages you to apply these very same poisons to your naked underarms every morning.
Okay, so according to Washington it's every woman for herself, but ever try to read the ingredients of your shampoo? I mean the ingredients that are actually listed? Good luck even pronouncing isobutylparaben. And if "fragrance" is involved you'll never actually get the straight story. Fragrance is protected as a trade secret and up to 200 suspect ingredients can be buried in there with no call-out.
In a recent Congressional hearing the head of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Stephen Sundlof, waved the white flag when he said, "The law as it is currently written allows virtually anything to be incorporated into a cosmetic." This lack of oversight means that consumers actually know very little about what makes up their make-up. And there is little rigor to the enforcement of existing policies: only nine out of tens of thousands of chemicals have been banned in the U.S., compared to 11,000 so far in the E.U.. Even more alarming is the fact that only 11 percent of ingredients used by Americans in personal care products have even been reviewed for safety -- by anyone.
So, what have the Europeans and Canadians figured out that we have not? For one, their governments don't rely on a voluntary reporting system to monitor product safety. Incidents -- from adverse reactions to longitudinal health surveys -- are made public by law. Under decades-old U.S. law, cosmetics companies are not required to publicly submit information on the safety of their products so, surprise, they don't. And the toothless FDA relies almost solely on the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), the industry's self-policing safety panel, for its product safety data. European regulators do their own safety research and reporting.
While the poets may consider your body a wonderland, the truth is it's more likely a wasteland of built-up toxins that would earn perpetrators federal jail time if they dumped it into any canal other than the alimentary.
What we need is a green movement for the human body. Improving consumer protections against "body dumping" must start with the FDA. Fortunately, even with a regulation-averse Congress, much of the FDA's powers are interpreted internally. There are numerous administrative steps the FDA can take without Congress butting in -- if it so motivated by public alarm. You can contact your regional FDA office and make some noise. Several good organizations under the banner of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics -- including the Environmental Working Group and Health Care Without Harm -- have been banging the drum in Washington, but they need our help to be effective.
It seems our city sewers have more protections than we do. As a creative alternative, perhaps we could declare ourselves micro-dumps and ask for protections under the EPA. Or we might seek relief from broader protections granted to us under the Occupational Safety and Health Organization (OSHA). Hazmat-clad technicians could scan our ditty bags for offending lipstick and hand creams.
One has to wonder if all this would be different if men wore makeup and a tad more product in their hair.
Estelle Hayes is a Silicon Valley journalist and blogger.