Sunday, October 28, 2007

Dangerous Cosmetics

Two things happened this weekend. First, a friend of mine told me some terrible news about a family member recently diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and then mentioned that this year seemed to be quite an anomaly where various people in his extended family were diagnosed. When I commented that we live in a toxic world, he, the always-ready-to-defend-big business hate monger, implied that the toxins around us aren't having an impact, it's just that we're living longer. Arguments with a Bush-lover and climate change denier are fruitless so I didn't pursue it. Of course he is wrong. Then, another friend mentioned that he heard that various brands of lipsticks have lead in them. Which got me thinking and googling.

Considering how many things I put on my face and body every day, and as I get older and much uglier, I wear more makeup than ever, and then have to clean my face more thoroughly and frequently than ever. And of course I get more zits than ever because of all of that.

When I add it up, these are the chemicals I put on my body every day: deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, hair creme or mousse, body soap, face soap, face moisturizer, makeup that may include foundation or powder, eye liner, mascara, blush, face toner, eye makup remover. Some people also use shaving cream (which turns out to be particularly full of bad stuff) but I don't only because soap seems to work fine for me. Then, on occasion, I could add to that list: lipstick, eye shadow, bath salts or bubbles or gel, hemorrhoid cream. Scary.

So I found this website:, an organization that has rated thousands of products based on their ingredients list. (They do other things but this is the one I'm most interested in.) It is FASCINATING.

Also, if the item isn't listed in their database (ie none of the Clinique makeup), if you log in and enter the ingredients from the packaging it will give you a rating based on the input. It's a lot of typing of long chemical words, so you must have time and patience. What it does is look through the database of ingredients and what is known about them, and supply a report. The reports are qualified by the fact that it is rare to know what percentage of each ingredient is in the product, which would be the determining factor of how insidious a bad ingredient would be in the real world.

Of course the quantities of the bad stuff in the cosmetics are really really low so the reports must be read with some thinking, not just looking at the rating on its own. For example, one thing that popped up is that many products use the term "fragrance" in their ingredient list, which tends to give those items a much worse rating because they haven't disclosed what the fragrance is that they are using, so the assumption is that it is bad. That is the grain of salt to take this with, but if you read the reports and not just the ratings, you can judge for yourself which products you might want to avoid. For me, I looked for the ones that are known, from lab tests, to contain ingredients that cause cancer. I don't care so much if something is badly rated because it has a skin irritant, I would have figured out if it irritated my skin. The other weird thing I noticed is that citric acid comes up quite negative. Who would have thought?

They also have a very good section on sunscreen, which I have personally found to vary widely - I've been burned using a brand name spf 30 and had great success with CVS brand spf 30 - and the ratings actually prove this out - the brand name was rated much worse. And, the sunscreen that Marc's dermatologist INSISTED he use, turns out to be rated quite well.

The good part is that there are plenty of products out there that are low in toxins. Finding them, however, is not so easy. To print out the pages of the well-rated products is cumbersome, and Max's i-touch didn't get a wifi connection in the store so I couldn't match up the products they were selling with what is on the list. Plus, some of them are ridiculously expensive. The most frustrating thing is that I don't know if they will work well - ie will the 0-rated dandruff shampoo really get rid of dandruff? I don't know, and I wish there was a way to find out. The site has a place for user ratings of the products but it is unused.

I went to Whole Foods today to replace the Suave shampoo (really bad rating) and the Neutrogena face cleanser that I use daily, and they have a pretty good selection of stuff, but one of the shampoos that I bought turned out to be just as bad as what I already had. I suspect that there will be a lot of buying and returning in my future.

I would be very interested in hearing what other people have found out about this issue, and other un-biased resources about rating cosmetic products, with user reviews about how well the products actually work.

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