Beauty's Most Controversial Chemicals

Cosmetic labels used to advertise what they contained, but now they tout what they don’t: BPA, phthalates and parabens. Learn how these chemicals affect our health and beauty.

| September 12th, 2011

Take a moment and mentally replay your daily personal care routine: soap, shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, deodorant, foundation, mascara.

The list goes on and on.

That’s normal. If you’re an average American woman, you use at least a dozen different products every day without blinking. But we’re becoming increasingly aware that certain ingredients in these products could harm our health and beauty.

This awareness is reflected on store shelves. Beauty product labels used to advertise what they contained, but many now tout what they don’t. A quick glance down the cosmetics aisle and your brain will register terms like BPA-, phthalate- and paraben- free. But what to these chemicals actually mean to our health and beauty?

In the US, over 10,000 industrial chemicals are used as ingredients in personal care products. Most occur in low levels that are considered safe—but they aren’t tested for safety with long-term use before they hit stores. The F.D.A.’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors flat-out states that “a cosmetic manufacturer may use almost any raw material as a cosmetic ingredient and market the product without an approval from the F.D.A.”

MORE: Are You Using Toxic Cosmetics?

Most of the worry is placed on ingredients that act as endocrine disruptors.

Your endocrine system is a system of glands that regulates biological processes like growth and development, metabolism, tissue function and mood. It secretes hormones into the bloodstream, which act as messengers, telling different parts of the body what to do. An endocrine disruptor is a synthetic chemical that does what its name implies—it messes with your body’s natural signals.

These hormone doppelgängers have the potential for a wide variety of side effects, ranging from milder issues like acne and weight gain to potentially serious conditions like birth defects and cancer. Since beauty products are directly applied to the skin, harmful compounds enter the bloodstream directly, bypassing the protective mechanisms in the gut and liver. Even more importantly, toxins can accumulate in our bodies because we don’t get rid of them as fast as we are exposed, a process called bioaccumulation. So even low doses, if frequent and sustained, can lead to dangerous concentrations within us.

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is the most talked about endocrine disruptor of concern. Although its hormone-mimicking activity has been known for decades, it’s still commonly used in the making of cosmetics and their plastic containers.

COLUMN: BPA: The Unfriendly, Everyday Chemical, by Dr. Oz & Dr. Roizen

Multiple studies have linked BPA exposure to detrimental developmental effects. The evidence was strong enough for several countries—including Canada, Denmark and  China—to ban or limit the use of BPA in baby bottles and other child-targeted products. Pregnant women, too, are recommended to avoid BPA. As the authors of a recent review study wrote, when it comes to exposure in the womb, "we don't know what a safe level of BPA is."

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