5 Ugly Truths You May Not Know About the Beauty Industry

Beauty parlor sign photo

Photo credit: runran

The $500 billion beauty industry is no stranger to the art of obfuscation. The sole purpose of cosmetics and personal-care products, after all, is to correct, conceal, and camouflage. So does it come as a surprise to anyone that there are a few sticking points certain parties would rather see glossed over?

Peel away the glitz and glamor, says Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, and you'll expose the toxic truths lurking beneath the beauty industry's seedy underbelly. Here, Malkan shares five of the biggies that the major beauty purveyors would rather keep under wraps.

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1. Many skincare products contain chemicals toxic to the skin

Spilled nail polish photo

Photo credit: luc.viatour

A mind-boggling array of products contain chemicals that sensitize skin and trigger skin problems such as rashes, redness, acne, and other symptoms of contact dermatitis, says Malkan, who notes that doctors often misdiagnose these problems as eczema and prescribe drugs such as steroids or immunosuppressants. Then, of course, there are the toxic chemicals that are known or suspected causes of long-term health effects such as asthma, infertility, learning disabilities, and cancer—ingredients that companies persist in including despite the fact that they "already know how to make great products without these hazardous chemicals," she says.

2. Companies that donate to breast-cancer research still use carcinogens in their products

Estee Lauder pink collection photo
Photo credit: Estée Lauder

Every October, we're barraged with a cavalcade of pink-ribbon products promoting breast-cancer awareness and research. The biting irony: Many of them may actually be contributing to the same disease they purport to seek a cure for.

Cosmetics companies, including Estée Lauder, Revlon, and Avon, are some of the worst offenders, touting rosy-hued wares that include known reproductive toxins, hormone-disrupting chemicals, and carcinogens. In fact, as part of the Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrance Association trade group, the companies opposed a California bill that would require cosmetics firms to disclose their use of chemicals linked to cancer or birth defects.

"They say it's 'just a little bit' of carcinogens in any given product," says Malkan, "but these carcinogenic exposures are adding up, and these companies are part of the problem. The beauty industry is a huge customer of the chemical industry. When these companies decide to be true pink-ribbon leaders, and true champions for women's health, they will refuse to buy carcinogens from the chemical companies and they will demand and develop safer green chemistry technologies."

An ounce of prevention
In 2007, the Silent Spring Institute and Susan B. Komen for the Cure released a scientific review identifying 216 chemicals that cause breast cancer in animals, many of which are commonly found in our homes. Some of the most widespread mammary gland carcinogens include 1,4-dioxane (found in detergents, shampoos, and soaps), perfluorooctanoic acid (used to manufacture Teflon), vinyl chloride (used to make PVC), and atrazine (a herbicide banned in Europe but widely used in the United States).

"The public health impacts of reducing exposures would be profound even if the true relative risks are modest," the researchers wrote. "If even a small percentage is due to preventable environmental factors, modifying these factors would spare thousands of women."

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