Everyone likes to look and smell their best. But what is the real cost of that silky smooth skin and shiny hair? Cosmetics and personal care products contain various combinations of nearly 11,000 chemicals; only 11% of which have been evaluated for their safety. Maybe more concerning is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not set any premarketing standards for testing these products or disclosing the results when problems are detected. With the exception of California—which passed the California Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 (Senate Bill 484)—the production of cosmetics is a self-regulated industry that generates over $50 billion annually. One easy (but inaccurate) way of trying to put consumer’s minds at ease by these companies is by promoting the notion that beauty products are applied externally and therefore have minimal opportunity to impact internal physiology.
Even though personal care products are applied topically, they are absorbed. How much they are absorbed depends upon several factors, such as: are they are applied near an opening (lipstick and eyeliner, for instance, gain entry to the internal body easily); are they applied to a part of the body that is shaved (making for easier absorption); is it a moist or covered area (boosting the amount that penetrates the skin) and how often is it applied or how long does it linger after application (dose). Another important aspect of a cosmetic’s ability to penetrate has to do with fragrance; the simple rule is if you can smell it, it is getting into your body and often into the bloodstream.
Let’s consider the example of phthalates. These chemicals are plasticizing agents that add flexibility and a moisturizing sheen to products like nail polishes/nail hardeners, fragrances, mascara, lotions, shampoos/conditioners and sunscreens. If they appear on labels—not all cosmetics reveal ingredients—they are named for their specific chemical, like DEP, the most commonly used; DBP, used widely in nail polish; and DMP, which is becoming more popular among manufacturers. They are well-known for their ability to cause hormonal imbalance in both people and animals. They have been linked to early onset of puberty in girls, genital malformations in boys born to women exposed during pregnancy, and now there have been several studies linking them to an elevated risk of obesity. Most troubling of all, they aren’t even a necessary ingredient.
Nail products tend to be one of the greatest sources of exposure for women. Although one would not think a product could be absorbed through the nail, DBP is water-soluble, so slight amounts leach out each time the nail is wet. As a result, it can be absorbed by the skin or taken in orally if the leaching takes place during food preparation. In fact, the reason that nail polish becomes brittle and chips over time is due to the loss of DBP, which is used to keep polishes flexible. Rest assured, there are phthalate-free products available now, and consumers have the right to be educated about why avoiding such hormone disruptors is important to their reproductive health.
The simplest way to reduce exposure to phthalates is to buy products that don’t contain them. By doing so, you’re also supporting manufacturers that are making more responsible decisions. If you’d like to check out your favorite brands, as well as get some leads on healthy alternatives, go to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. They have the lowdown on over 69,000 products.
Robert Greene, M.D., FACOG, is a physician at the CNY Fertility Center in central New York and the author of Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy, and Happy Baby, Healthy Mom Pregnancy Journal. You can read Dr. Greene's blog, The Greene Guide, and follow him on Twitter.