Can you pronounce 4-phenylenediamine? What about triethanolamine? Neither can I. Now, can you say high fructose corn syrup? Chances are you read your food labels carefully to avoid that particular sweetener. You probably also buy organic produce and dairy products. What surprises me is that many consumers pay so much attention to the ingredients that go into their food but so little attention to what goes on their skin, their largest organ. Many of us look at food labels every day, but how many of us look at labels when shopping for personal care products?
About 1,100 ingredients have been banned by the European Union since 2003 (Cosmetics Directive 76/768/EEC). These ingredients were cited as causing or suspected of causing cancer, genetic mutations, birth defects or reproductive harm. The United States has banned fewer than 12, and we have not seriously touched the regulations that govern personal care products and cosmetics since 1938. Despite growing consumer awareness, scientific evidence and international precedence, the Safe Cosmetic Act has met stiff resistance in Congress. Money, political influence via lobbyists and the free reign of large corporations to protect their own activities have effectively prevented the necessary update to depression era laws.
Most consumers believe their government proactively monitors the beauty and personal care product industry. I was afforded no such luxury. My awakening to the dangers of unregulated beauty had a more dramatic tale.
It was not until Earth Day 2009, when I was given another chance at life, that I gained a new perspective on beauty. I awoke from brain surgery to discover that a potentially fatal tumor had been successfully removed. Having learned that environmental toxins may have been the likely culprits, I began devoting myself to leading a healthier lifestyle and starting a line of all-natural skin care products.
My experience showed me the truth behind the lack of regulation in the beauty industry. I too, bought blindly. I believed that the FDA would surely recall any personal care or cosmetic products found or suspected to be toxic. I believed that the government required products be tested for safety in advance of arriving in stores. I believed labels told the entire truth of the product within. Sadly, this could not have been farther from the truth. Except for about a dozen ingredients here in the U.S., the industry is pretty much allowed to put whatever they want in their beauty products. Worse still, subtle marketing campaigns and fancy packaging encourage consumers to buy into a product’s efficacy and safety even though those products might very well be inefficacious and unsafe.
I recently had dinner with a friend who was shocked to find out that U.S. personal care companies will create product formulations to adhere to the European Union safety standards, yet continue to manufacture the same product, but with known toxins included, stateside. Why? Because they can. Because profit margins are higher when products are made outside the E.U. safety standards and, sadly, because consumers in the U.S. will buy these products.
The truth is we have put the fox in charge of the hen house. And, until the government steps in, we as consumers need to be our own watchdogs. We need to learn how to read labels and challenge the use of ingredients in products. The choice is ours to make. We have more power than we give ourselves credit for. A little knowledge on ingredient toxicity and we can use our purchasing power to demand higher quality and healthier products. I now tell consumers, “Chances are if you cannot pronounce it, it is not good for you.” After all, how many syllables are needed in each ingredient of our moisturizers? Using the principle that less is more does not mean that you sacrifice quality, efficacy or your health. Being healthy does not mean that you need to throw out every product you own. Healthy living means that the choice should be yours. Personally, I choose to get my hair highlighted every six months. I know the risks; I make the choice. I also choose to use skin care that is all-natural. My daily facial moisturizer is made of one ingredient (i.e., Organic Squalane). My weekly body scrub has six. And guess what? I can pronounce them all.
A little knowledge can go a long way. We can empower ourselves to make healthier choices; less is definitely more.