​Toxic Beauty

Peter Dingle PhD exposes the danger of chemicals that lurk unknown to us in the beauty products we use daily

The use of cosmetics dates back thousands of years and was originally designed to colour, scent and adorn the body. The first recorded use of cosmetics was as early as 4000BC by the Egyptians, who used coloured minerals such as malachite and clay ochre to add colour to the face and body. Greek women used a poisonous lead carbonate to achieve a pale complexion which sometimes cost them their lives; practices like this have been used even up to more recent times.

The ancient Sumerians, Babylonians and Hebrews also applied cosmetic products. The most significant development of skin care was the invention of soap by the Hittites of Asia Minor around 600BC.

These original cosmetics gave way to the first development in skincare products, which were intended more for hygiene purposes than for the beautification of the body.

In the Middle Ages, the use of soap became controversial with the Catholic Church outlawing its use as it was felt that exposing the flesh to bathe was evil. In the early 1600s, cosmetics were identified as a method of covering the cars left from smallpox and women started wearing "beauty patches", which were carried in small metal boxes. These then evolved into a variety of modern foundation compacts, which women still use to powder their faces when away from home.

Historically, (and to some degree even now) women have used cosmetics that (unbeknownst to them) contain a number of toxic ingredients. These include the heavy metals lead and mercury, and coal tars, which lead to significant facial and skin damage as well as other toxic effects.

Subordinating health to fashion is not new. However, the issue has become more complicated by the development and introduction of many new chemicals without adequate toxicological studies. In most countries, these products do not fall under regulatory scrutiny unless a health claim is made for a product or damage to the environment warrants investigation.

More recently, we have been brainwashed into thinking that we need to apply more and more chemicals onto our skin and hair to make us look healthier and younger – without giving even a second thought to what those chemicals are and what they are really doing to us.

Today, the increased use of chemicals on our bodies and in our homes and environment is out of control.

It is true today that synthetic chemicals are unavoidable, but there are some that we choose to use religiously. Cosmetics and personal care products ( PCPs) are particularly important because they are in intimate contact with our bodies. Using them is a matter of personal choice. We can avoid many of these chemicals. The power to make healthier and safer choices is in our hands.

Most consumers are not concerned with the ingredients they are using because they trust the government, which consumers imagine carefully regulates these chemicals, along with the manufacturers and suppliers, to provide safe products. Many consumers simply do not recognise the chemical substances listed on the labels.

Public awareness about the potentially harmful formulations of cosmetics and other personal care products is woefully deficient.

The cosmetics industry continues to justify using chemicals that potentially cause adverse health effects by stating that the chemicals are at significantly low levels and therefore do not pose a threat to human health. Consumers are led to believe that the ingredients have been adequately tested and are safe for use. In reality, most of the chemicals that are in cosmetics and personal care products that many of us use every day have barely been tested! The magnitude of their potential adverse effects is unknown. And this is without mentioning the increasing occurrence of asthma or our ever increasing affliction with 21st century diseases: multiple chemical sensitivity, autoimmune disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome, and allergies.

The full effects of these chemicals will not be known for a very long time, as the study of toxic substances is still in its infancy. It relies on the crude method of using test animals and extrapolating these results to humans. Even if we could do all the tests we needed, it would take us hundreds of years and unimaginable amounts of money just to carry out the type of testing we do at present if we were to apply it to all existing chemicals.

Many of the ingredients used in personal care products are industrial chemicals, solvents and petroleum byproducts that, when used in other contexts, come with safety warnings about use and exposure.

It is not just the chemicals that are of concern, but the fact that we are using more and more of these products, from an earlier age and for a longer period of time.

With each successive generation, we apply more chemicals more frequently than ever before in human history.

Our exposure to cosmetics and personal care products continues to increase each year. According to the Environmental Working Group, on average a woman will have around 185 chemicals on her skin daily, and a man will have around 85. A study on the extent to which we use these products found today's usage of personal care products and cosmetics around six times more than in 1983. The average woman now uses around 12 cosmetics and up to 25 different products, with more than 25% of women using 15 or more a day, exposing themselves to more than hundreds of different chemicals each day. The average male uses half this. The study found, for example, that liquid foundation is applied daily by 68.7% to 74.8% of women, and 23.4% of women applied the product twice a day, on a daily basis. Between 65.3% and 82.9% of people use shampoo daily and 26.6% use shampoo twice a day.

Right now, research shows that these products can be produced with lower and lower toxicity. They can also be designed to work - to have real benefits without causing harm. In fact, some manufacturers are committed to these principles. Buy safer products or stop buying hazardous ones. This may force the big multinationals to respond by manufacturing with safer ingredients, gradually removing the most toxic - but only if we, the consumers, use our market pressure and take our money elsewhere. Ironically, we hold the most power. Knowledge and positive action based on that knowledge is the way toward creating the changes we want.

I did my PhD in the early 1990s on formaldehyde exposure. It was clear then that this chemical caused a lot of problems and caused cancer in animals and probably in humans. It was not until round 2013 that most of the big manufacturers said that they were going to remove this chemical – more than 20 years too late. In large part, this can be attributed to the self regulating nature of the cosmetics industry and the inadequate government regulatory bodies that fail to protect the welfare of consumers.

Despite the finding, in a 2011 survey by Deloitte, that 57% of consumers said safety was their No 1 concern when buying personal care products, our awareness about toxic chemicals in these products remains extremely insufficient.

Peter Dingle

Dr Peter Dingle (PhD) has spent the past 30 years as a researcher, educator, author and advocate for a common sense approach to health and wellbeing. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor. He is Australia’s leading motivational health speaker and has 14 books in publication.