Saturday, December 20, 2008

Shampoo: the Beauty Industry’s Dirty Little Secret

With regard to shampoo, the qualities expected by today’s consumer exceed the basic function of cleansing, as there are products for every texture, color, and length of hair. With so many products available on the market, there must be chemical differences to make each one unique, which is where the problem lies. What is actually in these products that are rubbed into our scalps and skin daily and what affects do they have on our bodies?

In the United States, chemicals are being dumped into the products that we use daily with the intent of cleansing ourselves, while in reality these products are disturbing our bodies’ natural pH balance and introducing compounds whose effects on the human body are deleterious, still unknown, or not fully understood. The cosmetic industry has fought resolutely throughout the past several decades to avoid strict regulation by the FDA and we, the consumers, are suffering as a consequence. The FDA does not require safety testing of cosmetic products before their introduction to the public and does not have firm rules for the cosmetic labeling process (Schapiro 2007). Without stringent controls in place, the cosmetic industry is allowed to ignore the potential deleterious effects of cosmetic ingredients. Some companies knowingly use carcinogens or developmental toxins and continue to use them because there have not been specific complaints related to their products. Other companies use chemicals that are untested and could possibly have harmful effects but nobody knows whether or not they do.

The potentially harmful chemicals that are used in cosmetics enter the body in large amounts as base ingredients, seeping in directly through the skin, going straight to the bloodstream, and accumulating, rather than being digested and filtered like trace contaminants in water or food (Skin Deep 2008). One chilling fact is that more than one-third of all personal care products contain at least one ingredient linked to cancer (EWG 2007). These possible carcinogens have the potential to spread throughout the body and accumulate significantly, especially when they are rubbed on the skin and lathered into the scalp on a daily basis. Currently the problem with the cosmetic industry is not the ingredients in shampoo that are labeled. Obviously, if there was an ingredient listed on a product’s label that has been shown to be unsafe, it would send up a red flag and no one would purchase it. The problem actually lies within the ingredients, such as phthalates and 1,4 dioxane, that are not included on the labels due to loopholes.

Independent studies found that more than 70% of health and beauty products tested, such as shampoos, contain chemicals called phthalates. Phthalates are used in cosmetic products as alcohol denaturants, film formers, plasticizers, solvents, and fragrance ingredients. These phthalates are classified as “fragrances” on the label or are part of trade secret formulas, both of which are exempt from federal labeling requirements and are not required to specifically be included on the ingredient labels. The problem with leaving phthalates off the labels is that consumers buy these products not knowing what they are spraying, brushing, or rubbing on their bodies, which can be harmful. These phthalates are known to cause problems with the kidneys, liver, lungs, and blood clotting, but the main concern is underdevelopment of the male reproductive tract (Aggregate 2002). A study that was conducted testing 136 women and their sons between the ages of 2 and 36 months found that the mothers’ increased urinary concentrations of phthalate metabolites and subsequent prenatal phthalate exposure were correlated with decreased anogenital distance and impaired testicular function in the boys after birth (Swan 2005). These lab results indicate that a significant percentage of cosmetics companies may be hiding phthalates on store shelves within the containers of their products, with no warning for pregnant or potentially pregnant women who might want to avoid purchasing products that contain chemicals linked to birth defects.

Another problem with labeling is with contaminants. Many companies have attempted to reformulate shampoo so it does not contain sodium lauryl sulfate, the chemical that causes shampoos and soaps to have a lathering effect, which also potentially damages the lipid layer of the skin and has associated health risks (Malkan 2007). This chemical is too harsh for hair and strips away the natural oils in hair over time, leaving hair frizzy and dull with split ends and breakage (Schulman 2007). In the process of chemically removing this harsh foaming cleanser, it is converted to sodium laureth sulfate in some shampoos. This change looks better on the ingredients labels, but one thing that is overlooked is the fact that this process of converting the lauryl to laureth produces a byproduct called 1,4 dioxane, which is a petrochemical linked to cancer (Malkan 2007).

All of this information can certainly be overwhelming and people may not know how to go about making changes for a healthier lifestyle. There are a few solutions that can be combined to change the face of beauty products in today’s market. Ideally, companies should publicly pledge to voluntarily remove phthalates, sulfates, and other potentially unsafe chemicals from their products, manufacturers should clearly label all phthalate-containing products on the container that can be read easily before purchase, and manufacturers should test cosmetics ingredients and final products thoroughly, only marketing products that meet rigid safety standards, just as is the case with food products (Houlihan 2002). But honestly, without strict regulation none of this is ensured to happen because it requires research and change, both of which cost money. Therefore, the next step is for the federal government to set strict safety standards for personal care products, which would call for a change in the way the cosmetic industry does business; companies would have to reformulate their products to exclude ingredients that could potentially be harmful to people, whether it be because they have been found to be detrimental or because there is no toxicity data available for them. Consumers could also live a healthier lifestyle by doing their part. When reading the labels on beauty products, people cannot even pronounce half the words, let alone know what these ingredients do and how they affect the human body. Researching specific products, finding manufacturers than can be trusted who follow reputable standards, and decreasing the number of products that are used are key steps in reducing the risk of encountering harmful chemicals in beauty products. When choosing shampoos it is important to remember that the consumers are the ones who drive the market, and without their support and purchases, companies and products mean nothing. Demanding better quality means getting better quality because the industry wants what you want — customer satisfaction.

Some people may be wary of the claims of toxicity and danger in personal care products, stating that the levels of the chemicals are not high enough to experience problems or that the hazardous claims are just false. But when looking at the larger picture, what harm could be done in being cautious? Why use chemicals that may be associated with some risk when it is not necessary? In my opinion, it is worth taking the European approach to cosmetic safety, banning ingredients that have ever been shown to have deleterious effects on the body, even if it is just for peace of mind (Shapiro 2007). There is a reason why people still use the phrase “it’s better to be safe than sorry”.

Watch the video clip above of Stacy Malkan, the author of
"Not Just a Pretty Face", on News 7 discussing the harmful
effects of common beauty products.


"Aggregate Exposures to Phthalates in Humans". Health Care Without Harm. July 2002

Environmental Working Group, “Skin Deep”.

Environmental Working Group. 2007.

Houlihan, Jane; Brody Charlotte; Schwan, Bryony. "Not Too Pretty: Phthalates, Beauty Products & the FDA". July 2002

Malkan, Stacy, "Not Just a Pretty Face". Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, July 2007.

Schapiro, Mark. "Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power". White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2007.

Schulman, Audrey. "The No 'Poo Do". The Boston Pheonix. May 25, 2007.

Swan, Shanna H., "Decrease in Anogenital Distance among Male Infants with Prenatal Phthalate Exposure". Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 113, Number 8, August 2005
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