The ugly side of beauty

The cosmetics industry is worth billions; everyone wants to look younger,firmer, more attractive. But at what cost to their health, and to the environment? In the first of a two-part series, Rachel England looks at the controversy surrounding cosmetic chemicals and the organics propaganda

When you got ready this morning, chances are you used at least one cosmetic. Figures suggest that’s it’s more likely that you used at least five (if you’re a man), or maybe even 12 (if you’re a woman). A quick poll around the office reveals it’s likely even higher still. But before using those cosmetics, did you stop to examine the ingredients list? Do those products even have ingredients lists?

Certainly, cosmetics products released onto the market are subject to strict controls issued by controlling bodies (the EU Cosmetics Directive, Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control, etc), and prolific internet myths – like the story that lipstick contains deadly amounts of lead – are exactly that: myths. However, consumer groups, environmentalists and scientists alike are growing increasingly concerned about the cumulative effects of chemicals like endocrine disruptors and toxic substances like phthalates, which are prevalent in cosmetics.

Phthalates are plasticisers, used to add texture and lustre to cosmetics (but are also prolific in things like adhesives, toys and medical products), and are a big source of controversy. In 2002, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in partnership with Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) published a comprehensive report entitled ‘Not Too Pretty: Phthalates, Beauty Products & the FDA’. The report revealed that women of childbearing age receive far greater exposure to dibutyl phtlatae (DBP), in some cases up to 20 times that of the population average. The highest exposures were well above the federal safety standard.

Dr Lynne Frostick, Professor of Physical Geography at the University of Hull, gave a talk about these concerns at the Society of Cosmetic Scientists’ Inaugural Lecture. “The important thing to realise”, she says, “is that each individual product on its own is not going to do anything critical. But it’s about diffuse pollution; how these products are used by individuals is not controllable, and it’s the cumulative effect – how the chemicals build up, how they work together – that is the worry. We just don’t know enough about the effects.”

The ugly side of beautyIndeed, what is known does not paint an attractive picture. ‘Not Too Pretty’ illustrates the potential damage phthalates can have on reproductive organs, with animal tests indicating testicular atrophy, ectopic testes and reduced sperm count. There have even been links noted between phthalates and cancer. This is by no means indicative of a causal relationship, of course, but research of this nature was enough to cause the Danish government to ban toys containing phthalates in 1998, and following an EWG report in 2000, make up company Urban Decay reformulated its entire nail polish range, removing DBP and publically calling on other companies to also “eliminate this dangerous chemical from their formulas”.

But it’s not just our bodies that are affected by this potential pollutant; the environment is also under threat. Phthalates have been found in jellyfish as deep as 3,000 feet below sea level, and traces of personal care products have been found in fish in US waterways: ‘We found the highest concentrations and frequencies of compounds in the fish livers’, states research by Baylor University, before noting that both fish and human livers metabolise xenobiotics in the same manner. Furthermore, research conducted by Tobias Porsbring of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg, has demonstrated that chemicals assumed to be non-toxic in isolation can pose an environmental risk when combined with other chemicals, affecting algae along coasts and the balance of the ocean’s delicate ecosystem. Similarly, nanotechnology – the science used to shrink chemical particles to 100 nanometers wide (roughly 1/100,000 the thickness of a sheet of paper) – has caused a stir. Nanoparticles are able to penetrate the skin faster and more deeply than regular chemicals, but campaigners claim that the environmental and health impacts of these ‘penetration enhancers’ are unknown, which is grounds for caution.

The presence of these chemicals in fish only serves to exacerbate the problem, says Frostick: “In addition to these chemicals being used in cosmetic form, they’re in the water, and there’s a danger that – because they accumulate in fats – they’re building up in the food chain too, and we’re just not aware of the critical potential problems this will incur.”