Sugar, Spice, and Chemical X
These are the ingredients chosen to create beauty products!
Last week, self-proclaimed clean and nontoxic beauty brand Olaplex went viral on TikTok for its use of the fragrance chemical lilial. Lilial has been labeled “reprotoxic”: it’s linked to adverse effects on fertility and fetal problems — that doesn't seem very nontoxic to me. The committee on consumer safety for the European Commission stated lilial “cannot be considered as safe,” and it’s now banned in the EU (it’s not banned in the US). Due to the ban, Olaplex removed lilial from its products this year. While this might seem like a win for consumers and their health, it's also indicative of a much bigger problem: misinformation about the harmful chemicals in consumer products.
Chemical exposure in the US has grown 6-fold since the 1970s. American women use an average of 12-16 products a day — around 200 chemicals. Tragically, there’s evidence of nearly 300 industrial chemicals and pollutants — some of which have been banned for decades — in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies. This means even before birth, humans are polluted with substances like phthalates, lead, pesticides, and perfluorochemicals, as researchers found. There’s no way this doesn't have an effect on health.
Chemicals found in everyday products can possibly increase inflammation, imitate hormones, and even change DNA. While we’ve grown up in an age accustomed to chemicals, if you think about it, chemicals are powerful, man-made substances; they have the potential to wreak havoc on bodily organs. Scientists looked at 231 cosmetic products, including foundations, mascaras, and lipsticks, and determined about half of them had high levels of PFAS — a chemical that builds up in the blood and is linked to cancer, liver damage, and infertility. One study from UC Davis looked at the effects of DDT, a banned pesticide, across human generations. It found that granddaughters of grandmothers who were exposed to DDT had higher rates of obesity and earlier first menstrual periods — that’s toxic damage spanning three generations. Another recent study claims that exposure to lead gasoline (which was eventually banned in 1996) lowered the IQ of about half of the US population. I wrote more about chemicals being a likely cause of the recent staggering rates of infertility in a previous newsletter.
The health effects of chemical exposure in consumer products are usually more insidious. As Nneka Leiba, a director at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) says, “Cancer is on the rise, infertility is on the rise, allergies in children are on the rise, and people can’t figure out why. The increases are not just due to genetics and new diagnostic techniques.”
So why are companies and industries allowed to use these chemicals? The main argument is that the low amounts used in products are safe. While that might be true for one product in a vacuum, we can’t forget that we are inundated with thousands of chemicals each day from other sources like beauty and health products, water, cookware, food, and the air. It’s not so much that one product will create disease, rather, it’s the detrimental effects of the accumulation and chronic exposure of chemicals.
When was the last time your doctor tested you for chemicals? We don't have to wait for a capital “D” diagnosis to realize the detriments of these substances. They might already be affecting sleep, digestion, or mood, albeit at a low level.
Experts don’t even know the full extent of the impacts of chemicals on human health. Shockingly, “of the more than 40,000 chemicals used in consumer products in the US, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), less than 1% have been rigorously tested for human safety.” Chemicals are tested for safety only if a potential risk is likely, i.e., “chemicals are deemed safe until proven dangerous.” Even when chemicals are deemed dangerous, it’s difficult to ban them because the EPA must prove “unreasonable risk.” This is why asbestos, a well-known carcinogen that kills 12,000-15,000 Americans per year, is still not entirely banned. Olaplex removed lilial after years of using it in their Hair Perfector product — what harmful chemicals are we using now that have yet to be flagged, let alone banned, by regulators? As beauty journalist Jessica DeFino points out, the FDA even admits to allowing neurotoxins, like lead, in lipstick:
Alas, consumers are left to fend for themselves. Though we’re doused in chemicals on a daily basis, there are a few things we can do that can have a big impact on our exposure. Here are some tips:
Use products with natural ingredients - This one is huge. Whenever you can, opt for natural personal hygiene and beauty products. Many people complain that natural ingredients don’t have the same efficacy as chemical products. While that might be true, you’re probably doing your body a favor in the long-run.
Don’t trust the label and read the ingredient list! - If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Olaplex, plastic, asbestos, food additives, pesticides, cigarettes … (should I go on?), it’s that companies and manufacturers are probably making dubious claims to consumers when it comes to the safety of their products. Instead of blindly trusting brands, research products and ingredients for their safety. The EWG has a database of products, ingredients, and brands they’ve analyzed for potential safety concerns.
Eat cruciferous vegetables - Cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, kale, and asparagus can help support the body’s natural channels of elimination and main detoxifying organs, like the liver and kidneys.
Until next time,