My Cosmetic Chemical Cocktail

by | November 15, 2010
filed under Feminism

Last week I picked up AG Hair Cosmetics’ fastFWD dry shampoo  and when I got home I noticed it contained the following ingredients: aluminum starch octenylsuccinate, butane, and propane.

While none of these is on the “Dirty Dozen” list of the worst chemicals to avoid, it struck me as probably not a great idea to rub lighter fluid and heavy metals into my head on a regular basis. Turns out the aluminum starch octenylsuccinate is probably the most hazardous to my health, and the other ingredients aren’t so hot for the environment. Even though I don’t think of myself as someone who uses a lot of cosmetics, it got me wondering what other chemicals I was using every day.

It’s shocking and a little depressing to think how prevalent these chemicals are in the products we use every day.

The fact that there are so many toxins in our cosmetics is a feminist issue, because it’s primarily women who are expected and pressured to use these products, although the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics does a great job noting the chemicals in men’s products as well.

But what can you do when it seems practically impossible to find safe products? Changing social standards to lessen the pressure to use beauty products is a long-term process. But in Annie Leonard’s video “The Story of Cosmetics” (below), she makes an important point: “It turns out the important decisions don’t happen when I choose to take a product off the shelf; they happen when companies and governments decide what products should go on the shelves.”

Although Leonard’s film talks about US laws, we deal with similar issues in Canada. The Canadian Cancer Society and the Suzuki Foundation would like to see clear warning labels on personal care products to help consumers decipher the risks, and there are other labelling loopholes to be closed, such as the one that allowed an incomplete ingredients list on my moisturizer because it has a “therapeutic” function (UV protection).

Then there’s the fact that companies aren’t forced to disclose ingredients lists to Health Canada until days after products hit the market. How does that make any sense?

So take a look in your bathroom cupboard and if you aren’t happy with what you find, contact your Member of Parliament and the Minister of Health.


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  • Rachel G.

    Great topic! In the last year I’ve started to take a hard look in my bathroom cabinet and been pretty surprised by what I found there. It can be totally overwhelming when you realize pretty much everything you rely on to stay clean and pretty is full of mysterious synthetic ingredients that may or may not be good for you. And it really is hard to find alternatives, unless you decide to make it all yourself! It’s best to have your own informed comfort level about what you’re willing to have in your products and what can slide. I personally try to find products with as few synthetic or petrochemical ingredients as possible – mostly for environmental reasons, but also for health. (I think some of the health risks I’ve seen talked about are a bit overblown, but there is no question these ingredients are not good for the environment.) Organic health food stores are a good place to start, but a lot of the stuff I use I have to purchase online because even at organic stores there is a surprising amount of dirty cosmetic products on the shelves. Bottom line, you need to read the labels on everything, even if the bottle says “Natural Organic Super Pure and Non-Toxic.” Because 9 out of 10 times, it’s probably not.

  • bernard

    “It turns out the important decisions don’t happen when I choose to take a product off the shelf; they happen when companies and governments decide what products should go on the shelves.”
    they make the same point in the story of bottled water but they argue that our choices do have an effect. so which way is it?

    i would also suggest “slow death by rubber duck” if you are interested in other chemicals

    However, are you actually going to change you choice of chemicals because of this?

  • jarrahpenguin

    Hi Bernard. Thanks for commenting. I haven’t seen the Story of Bottled Water but I don’t think the Story of Stuff folks were trying to argue you shouldn’t take any personal responsibility. What I think is that consumer power can be somewhat effective and consumers should try to avoid harmful products, but assuming that this will solve the problem has two problem.

    The first problem is that consumers can’t and shouldn’t be expected to fully screen the multitude of chemicals in all these types of products. It wasn’t too difficult to analyze using the dirty dozen list, but the EU has banned more than 1000 chemicals from cosmetics and I can’t imagine Canadians realistically cross-referencing a list like that with the ingredients in their shampoo. While Canada does try to restrict use of over 500 products on a hotlist, the list has no real teeth, as ingredients can still be present as by-products, as long as they aren’t used directly and intentionally.

    Second, Canada’s labelling laws mean consumers who do want to know what’s in their cosmetics have to go the extra mile to find out all the ingredients, at least in the case of ones with “therapeutic” uses. Consumers’ ability to make healthy choices are limited by government inaction to close labelling loopholes.

    In terms of my choices, I’ve decided there are a few products I’m going to stop using entirely (that particular toothpaste, the eyeshadow, the blow-out balm, and the facial cleanser), which I felt had the worst ingredients list overall. I’ll keep using the DivaWash and probably the shaving lotion because they had the best ingredients list. The others I’ll use up and then commit to trying to find products for next time that at least come out clean on the dirty dozen list.

    Also thanks for the book reference – will definitely check it out!

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