We'd like to think that we make the right choices when it comes to our health. We'd like to trust that personal product labels are well-founded ("dermatologist tested", "hypoallergenic", etc.), and that famous endorsements carry weight. Being from France, I always thought that big brands and big prices meant value in skincare. Although many would agree that corporations don’t have our best interest at heart, most of us believe that we are at least getting the truth on the products we buy.
Surprise! We're not.
The cosmetic industry is dominated by only a few companies, which represent a billion-dollar business. Beauty ads claim to reverse aging telling you that your skin can renew in just 5 days. Of course, few miracle creams are ever based on any real science. As much as ads try to sell us the idea that their products can reverse aging lines and transform the skin, those claims are never tested by any legitimate organization. In the United States, the FDA regulates drugs before they can be put on the market. Since cosmetics are not supposed to “cure a disease or transform the body’s structure or function” (which classifies as a drug according to the FDA), they escape regulation. But that doesn’t stop popular brands from using language that makes their product sound like downright medicine.
"When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is… "
It's not just the false claims you have to watch out for. Just take a look at the list of ingredients in your cosmetic products. Most of us will be hard put to understand just half of those. First, there are many different names for the same exact thing. Second, there are loopholes which allow certain chemicals to be present without being listed. For example, the term "fragrance" is used for a number of chemical compounds (all included in the "Transparency List" from the International Fragrance Association). One of them, styrene, has just been cited last year by the National Academy of Sciences (in conjunction with the National Toxicology Program and other government agencies), to be a cancer-causing agent. You can see the report here.
There is a long list of chemicals to be avoided in hygiene and household products. By now, I think (I hope) that a lot of us are aware of the main ones. Phtalates have been linked to reproductive problems. Various chemicals ("DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, and quaternium-15") are designed to release formaldehyde in reaction with water. Yes, you know, what we use to embalm the dead! And occasionally like to paint our nails with (most nail polish does contain formaldehyde).
Parabens have been shown to be hormone disruptors, as well as Triclosan. Oh, and... ironically, retinyl palmitate (or retinoic acid), often used for anti-aging creams and present in one-fourth of all sunscreens, has been found to increase the risk of skin cancer when exposed to the sun!
OK. I'm not going to go on, because this is just as exhausting for you as it is for me. I'm tired of trying to figure out what's in my body lotion, toothpaste and hand soap. I save energy by just going for the natural stuff and not bottles full of nasty contaminants.
Because they are just that. Not only do they contaminate our body, most of them end up in our air and water supply. The environment is clearly not part of the cosmetic industry's agenda. The new problem of plastic "microbeads," (tiny particles from exfoliants and toothpastes which go down the drain soaking all types of toxic waste on their way to the ocean) for instance, shows the pervasive impact these chemicals can have, even affecting wildlife. (Articles here and here).
Again, my point is not to invoke terror. Simply to start paying attention to what we buy, and especially what we apply to our body. The air we breathe, the water we drink, and the creams we use are all crucial to our health. Pollution is indeed hard to avoid; but if you'd like to steer clear of it at least in your personal hygiene, either go natural (not that the "natural" label is always 100% valid either, but... let's not get into that now), or check the Environmental Working Group's SkinDeep database for the safety of brand name beauty products.