The cosmetics industry is big business. In fact, the U.S. is the largest cosmetics market in the world, with a total revenue that exceeds more than $53 billion a year. That’s a lot of money being spent daily on ways to look and feel better about ourselves.
As outrageous as these figures seem, the desire to improve one’s appearance is hardly new. In ancient Greece, women painted their faces with a combination of white lead and chalk.
In the 15th century, northern European women painfully plucked their hairline to give the illusion of a higher forehead. They also used (unknowingly) several poisonous substances to paint their faces, including lead to create the illusion of pale skin, mercuric sulfide to redden their lips and belladonna (a deadly nightshade) to make their eyes shine.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, women wore rib-breaking corsets to create a tiny waist. Similarly, Chinese women had their feet bound as infants to ensure a small and dainty foot.
Sounds Horrific, Doesn’t It?
Makes you wonder what history will say about us in 200 years when they recount our use of known carcinogens to cover our gray hair. Or how we inject botulism toxin into our face to prevent wrinkles or how our obsession with a youthful appearance leads us time and again to toxic chemicals that we happily slather on our skin.
Seems prehistoric, doesn’t it? Not only is it current practice, but there doesn’t seem to be an end in site. Our culture is, quite literally, dying to be beautiful.
In the late 1950s, Clairol launched their groundbreaking ad campaign that asked the iconic question, “Does she…or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.”
While the ad was clearly referencing the use of hair dye to create the perfect color and cover up grays, research tells us that the question could also be asked this way: Does she or doesn’t she? Only her oncologist knows for sure.
According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 5,000 different chemicals are used in hair dye products. Some of the chemicals are known to be carcinogenic in animals,1-2 while others convert to carcinogens within the body.
All of these chemicals penetrate the skin on the scalp and enter the bloodstream. They are filtered out through the kidneys into the urine and bladder, where they can still be detected. The lining of the bladder, where urine is stored before it is released, is a very sensitive mucous membrane. It’s likely that regularly exposing this membrane to the carcinogens in hair dye leads to cell damage that eventually could develop into cancer.
The connection between hair dyes and cancer began to be studied in earnest when large population studies showed that hairdressers had one of the highest rates of breast cancer of any profession.3 Additional research has shown that hairdressers are not the only ones at risk…and breast cancer isn’t the only cancer.
A study published in 2008 looked at more than 10,000 women from the International Lymphoma Epidemiology Consortium 1988-2003. Of the 10,000 women, 4,461 had non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and 5,799 did not. Researchers found that women who started using hair dye prior to 1980 had a 30 percent greater risk of having NHL than those who either didn’t use hair dye or used dye after 1980.4
A similar study published in 2004 found that the use of hair color increased the risk for acute leukemia.5 Researchers looked at more than 1,300 men and women, 769 of whom had adult acute leukemia, while 623 did not. They found that “long duration of permanent dye use may have a larger impact on the risk of adult acute leukemia and other hematopoietic cancers [blood-related] than prior epidemiologic data suggest.”5 Long-duration was defined as 15 years or more and up to six times a year.
Finally, studies have also shown a connection between bladder cancer and hair dye. A large study published in 2001 in the International Journal of Cancer showed that women who used permanent hair dye at least once a month were twice as likely to develop bladder cancer as those who did not. And those women who regularly used hair dye for at least 15 years had triple the risk.6
A similar study published in the February 2004 issue of the same journal compared 459 people in New Hampshire who had bladder cancer to 665 people who did not. They found that while men who used hair dyes had a lower rate of bladder cancer than those who didn’t, the opposite was true for women. Those who used any type of hair dye (rinse, semi-permanent or permanent) had a slightly higher rate of bladder cancer.7
Finally, an intriguing study done at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles tested women with a bladder cancer/hair dye connection for certain genetically determined enzymes involved in clearing arylamine (an ingredient in permanent hair dye) from the body. Researchers already knew that people with the “slow” version of the enzyme take longer to clear arylamines, but what they found was shocking: Non-smoking women with the slow gene who used permanent hair dye had almost three times the risk for bladder cancer.8
If you regularly use hair dye, don’t despair. Your first step should be to discontinue or reduce your use of permanent, dark-colored hair dyes. Studies have shown that the darker the dye, the greater the risk. This is because darker hair dyes contain more of the offending chemicals.
This is particularly critical if you smoke, have a history of chronic bladder infections or if there’s a history of bladder or breast cancer in your family. In fact, in these cases, it is probably unwise to regularly use permanent hair dye at all—even lighter colors. Instead, consider other options, such as henna, semi-permanent dyes, highlights and rinses.
If none of these appeal to you, Aveda makes a dark, permanent hair dye that is 97-percent plant-based. This could be a good place to start.
But, if you just cannot give up your hair care routine, you can take the following precautions before and immediately after you color your hair to help reduce your risk of cancer:
- Drink plenty of clean water before, during and after getting your hair colored. This will keep urine moving through your bladder, reducing your exposure to the carcinogens in the hair dye.9
- Take 1,000-5,000 mg/day of vitamin C and 700-2,000 mg of bioflavonoids before you color your hair. Vitamin C unites with the highly reactive free radicals, preventing them from causing cellular damage. It also stimulates the body’s production of glutathione, a key player in detoxification processes. Bioflavonoids work together with vitamin C to form collagen, one of the body’s main structural proteins.
- Take either a high-quality greens supplement or 450-525 mg of milk thistle extract (standardized to 80 percent silymarin) immediately after your appointment to help detoxify the chemicals in the dye.
Trading Wrinkles for Paralysis
In another attempt to reclaim the fountain of youth, women around the globe subject themselves to chemical injections to either plump up the skin or relax the muscles around the eyes in an effort to erase wrinkles and obliterate creases. And, far and away, Botox is the number one chemical of choice.
In fact, Botox parties have become a sort of coming-of-age ritual for many American women. But what is it exactly that we are not only celebrating, but willingly shooting into our face?
Botox is the shortened, more consumer-friendly trade name for botulism toxin, a neurotoxin produced by the Clostridium botulinum bacteria. It is one of (if not the) most toxic substance known to man and can cause botulism (think life-threatening food poisoning).
Botox was first used therapeutically in the field of ophthalmology in the early 1970s to treat strabismus (crossed eyes) and blepharospasm (uncontrollable blinking).10 Some 20 years later, in 1993 and 1994, Botox was used to treat spasms of the lower esophagus, as well as excessive sweating.11-12
Around that same time (1992), two Canadian physicians published a study on the use of Botox to treat frown lines,13 and the world of cosmetic surgery has never been the same. By 2007, Botox became the most common cosmetic procedure in the U.S., with more than 4.6 million injections given. Worldwide, the Botox market is projected to reach $2.9 billion by 2018.14
How is it, in all this hoopla, that we’ve somehow ignored the fact that we are using a deadly toxin to treat wrinkles. Not treat cancer. Not cure AIDS. To smooth out wrinkles!
Because we’ve been led to believe that Botox is safe. But is it actually?
Botox use has been linked with several negative side effects. On the minor side, these can include fatigue, flu-like symptoms, headaches and dry mouth. On the more serious side, risks range from allergic reaction and muscle weakness to difficulty swallowing and respiratory failure, leading to death.15-19
Non-cosmetic use of Botox has been linked to 28 deaths,16 while cosmetic use is associated with a range of very unattractive side effects,15-16,19 including:
- Drooping eyelids
- Uneven smile
- Inability to close your eyes
- Loss of muscle function in the jaw
- Swelling or redness at the injection site
Another, more concerning side effect associated with cosmetic use of Botox includes the risk of the chemical spreading to areas of the body, away from the injection site.17 The effect is so common and so concerning that, in April 2009, the FDA issued a mandatory boxed warning for all Botox packaging, indicating that the effects of the botulism toxin can spread from the injection site to other areas of the body, creating symptoms similar to those seen in botulism,20 including muscle weakness, swallowing difficulties, pneumonia, breathing issues and even speech problems.18
Then there’s the “Botox mask,” that look of no emotion due to paralysis of the facial muscles. Turns out, there may be more going on with this issue than just paralysis.
Research has shown that Botox actually impairs your ability to read emotions.21 According to lead author David Neal, “If muscular signals from the face to the brain are dampened, you’re less able to read emotions.”
A similar study published in 2010 supports this finding.22 Researchers asked 41 first-time female Botox users (for use of frown lines) to read 60 emotionally charged sentences—20 angry, 20 sad and 20 happy—before Botox injections then again two weeks after the injections.
Researchers found that Botox slowed the reading of the emotional sentences, demonstrating the theory of facial feedback on emotional cognition. In other words, it’s not that the Botox keeps them from showing emotion. It blocks the brain from registering the emotion in the first place. Given this, researchers believe their results “raise questions about effects of Botox on cognition and emotional reactivity.”
When it comes to Botox, your best bet is to just say no. And if you decide to give it a shot (literally), then at least you are doing so with your eyes wide open.
Seven Skin Scare Ingredients
It wasn’t all that long ago that many believed—erroneously—that anything you applied topically to the skin did not pass through the skin to enter the bloodstream. Obviously, we now know just how wrong we were.
That’s why, in Europe, there are more than 400 chemicals that are not allowed to be included in beauty products. However, here in the United States, many of these ingredients are still allowed to be included in cosmetics. Here are a few that you should make sure your skin care products don’t contain.23
There are three types of ethanolamines to look out for—triethanolamine (TEA), diethanolamine (DEA) and monoethanolamine (MEA). These are usually colorless and are used as a cleanser, emulsifier (holds water and oil together), foaming agent or emollient (to help retain moisture). They can also be used to adjust the pH of a product. For these reasons, you’ll most likely find them in lotions, night creams, etc.
In general, research has shown a “strong link” between ethanolamines and liver and kidney cancers. But the more specific concerns are related to TEA and DEA. TEA has been implicated in several allergic reactions, including eye problems and dry skin and hair. Other research indicates that it could become toxic if absorbed frequently and consistently for a long period of time.
In the case of DEA, an animal study by the National Toxicology Program showed a connection between cancer and DEA.24 While it did not establish a link with cancer in humans, other evidence indicates that a particular kind of DEA—cocamide DEA—can cause carcinogens to form when the chemical is used on the skin. It is especially dangerous when used in formulations that also include nitrates.
Parabens are synthetic preservatives that include four classes—methyl, propyl, butyl and ethyl. Many different sources list parabens as “highly toxic,” and even more disturbing is the suggestion that parabens are xenoestrogens, meaning they have an estrogenic effect on your body.
Propylene glycol (PG) is usually a mix of synthetic petrochemicals. In fact, it is found in brake and hydraulic fluid, and is the active ingredient in antifreeze!
Manufacturers often include it in skin and hair products such as moisturizers, suntan lotion, antiperspirants and lipsticks to hold in moisture. This is ironic when you consider that the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) indicates that PG is slightly hazardous in case of skin contact! The MSDS suggests that, in the event of skin contact, “to immediately flush skin with plenty of water. Cover the irritated skin with an emollient. Remove contaminated clothing and shoes. Cold water may be used. Wash clothing before reuse. Thoroughly clean shoes before reuse. Get medical attention.”25
The reason? Propylene glycol has been known to cause allergic and toxic reactions, including irritation of the eye, mucous membranes and upper respiratory tract. It has also been found to break down protein and the structure of your cells.
Sodium Lauryl (or Laureth) Sulfate
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a foaming agent in many shampoos and skin cleansers. (Sodium laureth sulfate is the alcohol form of SLS.) Don’t be fooled by the “comes from coconut” diversion; these are synthetic chemicals that are also used as detergents in car washes and engine degreasers.
Many sources claim that SLS contains large amounts of nitrates that, when used in conjunction with other chemicals, can form nitrosamines (a kind of carcinogen). Plus, SLS has been associated with eye irritation, skin rashes, diarrhea, hair loss, scalp dryness (like dandruff) and allergic reactions. According to the Journal of the American College of Toxicology, SLS damages your hair follicles, actually causing your hair to fall out!
Additionally, it is quickly and easily absorbed into your body and stored in your eyes, brain, heart and liver for up to seven days. In that time, it can slow wound healing, cause cataracts and strip your hair and skin of key nutrients, including essential fatty acids and amino acids—the very nutrients it needs to build and maintain collagen and elastin!
Fragrance can be a tricky ingredient. For example, the label may not even say synthetic fragrance. In fact, it is more likely to simply say fragrance, perfume or parfum. And the label “fragrance” does not mean just one ingredient—it can contain as many as 200 ingredients that will likely not be listed!
On the light side, synthetic fragrances can cause headaches, dizziness, rash, hyperpigmentation, coughing, vomiting and skin irritation. On the more dangerous side, exposure has been shown to distress the central nervous system.
This antibacterial is often used in skin cleansers, antibacterial gels and toothpaste. The scary part is that it is chemically similar to Agent Orange. It is so dangerous that the EPA considers it a pesticide and highly toxic. It has also been shown to disrupt hormone function.
One of the reasons it is so dangerous is that it stays in your body, often accumulating in your liver, lungs and kidneys. Over time, the amounts stored can reach toxic levels.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, urea is a primary cause of contact dermatitis. The two most common forms of urea are imidazolidinyl and diazolidinyl (also called Germall II and Germall 115). Most commonly used as a preservative in shampoos, body washes and skin cleansers, urea is a formaldehyde donor, meaning it releases formaldehyde at certain temperatures. In the case of diazolidinyl, it releases formaldehyde at just over 10º F.
This is what makes it so dangerous, as formaldehyde has long been considered toxic and a carcinogen. This colorless, unstable gas has also been associated with menstrual irregularities, birth defects and chromosomal changes, as well as depression, headaches, joint and chest pain, allergies, ear infections and chronic fatigue.
Rather than risk unwanted (and unnecessary) potential side effects, your best bet is to check the ingredient lists of your skincare products. If you see any of these ingredients listed, toss the product. If you have any hesitations, there may be a middle ground.
The more bad ingredients a product contains, the worse it is. Also, the closer an ingredient is to the top of the list, the more of that ingredient that product contains. As such, if your product only contains one or two suspect ingredients or if the ingredients are at the end of the ingredient list, you may consider holding on to the product and simply buying a cleaner version once yours is empty.
Next, seek out products that don’t contain these types of synthetic ingredients. A quick Google search of “natural skin care” will bring up a good list to get you started. You can also visit safecosmetics.org for a list of companies that meet a number of “clean” and chemical-free standards.
There are many, many issues we could discuss when it comes to nails. First, there’s the risk of fungal infections that frequently come with acrylic nails. Then there’s the risk of thinning nails and even UV damage from the new gel manicures. And when it comes to nail hardeners, they often contain chemicals that are overly drying and can actually cause brittle nails.
However, the most concerning issue for your nails comes from the polish itself. Most nail polishes contain a number of toxic ingredients, including phthalates and toluene.
In the case of phthalates, the biggest issue comes from dibutyl phthalate (DBP). This plasticizer is so concerning that the European Union has banned its use in all cosmetics, including nail polish. Here in the U.S., manufacturers began eliminating DBP from nail polish in late 2006.
The primary reason for the backlash is that DBP has been found to be a powerful endocrine disruptor. This can lead to complications within your hormone system, including learning disabilities, brain development issues, fertility issues and increased risk of breast, prostate, thyroid and ovarian cancer.
Toluene is a hazardous chemical used to dissolve paint. It has a very distinct aroma, such as that found in commercial paint thinners.
Toluene is so dangerous that it is recommended that you avoid inhaling it. Pretty hard to do when you are getting a manicure or pedicure. The reason is toluene inhalation has been linked to confusion, weakness, memory loss, nausea and loss of both color vision and hearing. Even more serious side effects include unconsciousness and death.26
Rather than risk known carcinogens and neurotoxins in the quest for decorative nails, opt instead for a quick nail buff. These are becoming increasingly popular at many nail salons and include a natural cleaning and buffing of the nails to produce a natural shine.
You can also look for products that are DBP and toluene-free and bring those with you to your next mani/pedi.
Beauty at What Cost?
We all want to look our best, but we shouldn’t have to sacrifice our health to do it. By knowing what to look out for and how to find safe and effective alternatives, you can look and feel great for many, many years to come.
- Bolt HM, Golka K. Crit Rev Toxicol. 2007;37(6):521-36.
- de Sanjose S, et al. Am J Epidemiol. 2006 Jul 1;164(1):47-55.
- Pollan M, Gustavsson P. Am J Public Health. 1999 Jun;89(6):875-81.
- Zhang Y, et al. Am J Epidemiol. 2008 Jun 1;167(11):1321-31.
- Rauscher GH, et al. Am J Epidemiol. 2004 Jul 1;160(1):19-25.
- Gago-Dominguez M, et al. Int J Cancer. 2001 Feb 15;91(4):575-9.
- Andrew AS, et al. Int J Cancer. 2004 Apr 20;109(4):581-6.
- Gago-Dominguez, M et al. Carcinogenesis. 2003 Mar;24(3):483-9.
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- Scott AB, et al. Lancet. 1993;341(8839):244-5.
- Bushara KO, Park DM. J Neurol Neurosurgery Psychiatry. 1994;57(11):1437-8.
- Carruthers JD, Carruthers JA. J Dermatol Surg Oncol. 1992;18(1):17-21.
- Chapman P. Companiesandmarkets.com. May 10, 2012. http://www.companiesandmarkets.com/News/Healthcare-and-Medical/The-global-botox-market-forecast-to-reach-2-9-billion-by-2018/NI2991.
- Markus R. Baylor College of Medicine. September 30, 2009.
- Cote TR, et al. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005;53(3):401-15.
- FDA.gov. http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2008/ucm116857.htm.
- CBC News. January 13, 2009. http://www.cbc.ca/news/story/2009/01/13/botox.html.
- Fda.gov. August 3, 2009. http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2009/ucm175013.htm.
- Neal DT, Chartrand TL. Soc Psychol Personal Sci. 2011 Nov;2(6):673-8.
- Havas DA, et al. Psychol Sci. 2010 July;21(7):895-900.
- Keith C. What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You. http://suisskin.com/toxicskincareingredients/.
- Fda.gov. http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductandIngredientSafety/SelectedCosmeticIngredients/ucm109655.htm.
- Sciencelab.com. http://www.sciencelab.com/msds.php?msdsId=9927239.
- Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Toluene. http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/chem_profiles/toluene.html.