How Toxic is Your Skin Care Really?


Can you trust labels such as “natural” and “organic” and what about “trusted” names like Johnsons & Johnsons?

Most consumers believe if a label says “organic”, “ natural” or “safe”, it must be true. We assume that there are regulations that govern what companies can claim on their personal care product packaging. This assumption makes sense—food labels are highly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and many of the same claims appear on both food and cosmetic products. But the ethos of food labels does not extend to cosmetic labels. The truth is, the 60 billion dollar beauty industry is hardly regulated, leaving marketing teams free to paste half-truths and all out lies on labels. The onus falls on consumers to learn how to decipher the truth and use the information to make choices that fit within their comfort zone and lifestyle.

The exciting part of getting learning to decipher label claims is that consumers are making a difference. By choosing not to purchase products emblazoned with false claims, consumers are forcing manufactures to produce healthier alternatives and honest labels.  Recent headlines show this. Johnson & Johnson pledged to remove certain chemicals from its baby products by 2013. Following the positive press, Johnson & Johnson announced they would also remove formaldehyde from products and extend the program to its adult products by 2015. Affected branches of Johnson & Johnson include Neutrogena, Aveeno and Clean & Clear.

After being in the industry for over twenty five years, I admit I am somewhat cynical and jaded. I find myself thinking, “we have been bathing our children in formaldehyde and harmful chemicals for generations and only now Johnson & Johnson is taking them out?” The Johnson & Johnson website reads,

“Because every moment with your little one is precious.

For more than a hundred years, new mothers have trusted the JOHNSON’S® Brand to provide the purest, gentlest and mildest care for their babies—from the first morning cuddle to the last bedtime kiss”.

This is an ad for baby products containing formaldehyde and other harmful chemicals. I also can’t help but wonder who is going to use these between now and 2013 when they “change their formulas” to “ remove certain chemicals”.  Is Johnson & Johnson really okay with babies being bathed in these chemicals for the next year? And just what are the chemicals they are removing? According to Johnson & Johnson they already have “the purest, gentlest and mildest” products.  A list provided would help consumers know what to look for and avoid in other products.  We should be able to see which chemicals they are excluding from their new formulas and the criteria and evidence on which these decisions are made. Is this the team choosing which chemicals to exclude the same team that deemed the current products “the purest, gentlest and mildest”? Although I do think it is a step in the right direction, we have a long way to go before we can trust cosmetic label claims. Unfortunately, the popular strategy in this industry is to eliminate the current bad ingredient buzz (like parabens or sulfites) and replace them with new chemicals that the consumer has not heard of, yet may not be any better for you.

Most chemicals were introduced to skincare to cut costs and improve texture and shelf life, not to improve results or health. Most chemists formulating with these chemicals had no idea of the effects on our health. There were no peer-reviewed studies or databases. The story is not unlike the massive numbers of Americans smoking in 50’s before research showed the adverse health effects of tobacco products. While writing my book Look Great, Live Green, I tried to contact any CEO or chemist for of one of the many cosmetic companies that use questionable ingredients. I wanted to see if they would slather their child, or themselves with the chemicals that are in one application of their products. Out of the dozens that I contacted repeatedly, not one responded. If there is no reason to doubt the safety of these chemicals, why were so many CEOs and chemists unwilling to be interviewed?

It may sound like I am advocating that we remove all synthetic ingredients from cosmetics—that is not the case. The common thought that everything natural is good for you and everything synthetic is bad simply is not true. Unfortunately, this makes your job as a consumer even more difficult. For example essential oils can be harmful  and synthetichyaluronic acid is not. With all this information and that lack of help from labels it can be daunting to decipher what is right for you and your family. It can seem overwhelming to learn enough to accomplish a simple task such as which shampoo to buy. I like to tell my clients to live what I call the 85/15% life style. 85% of the time I eat organic, healthy, watch what I put on my skin, eliminate other toxins such as plastic food storage and water bottles and live an overall healthy life style. The other 15% of the time I have my version of vitamin J, or junk. Life is simply to short to live without a dose of junk. Occasionally I eat ice cream and french fries, and highlight my hair with synthetic dye. The key is that I know the harmful effects I am exposing myself to by highlighting my hair. I am choosing my poison, not allowing the poison to be chosen for me. The more we understand about the toxins we are exposed to, the more we can limit our exposure to the level with which we are comfortable.

Deciphering the truth behind the cosmetics industry is a daunting task. I suggest taking it in small steps and making a few simple changes. Here are 10 facts you need to know in an effort to understand just what is X Chemical. These facts illustrate just how misleading labels can be. If labels were clear and honest, consumers could reduce their risks of cancer and other disease by shunning unsafe products and shopping for safer alternatives. While these labels are currently rare, increasing demand will force companies to change their policies and increase the availability of the clear and honest labels. This phenomenon is well illustrated by the organic food industry, which has escalated to its current $8 billion market share over the last decade.

Ten Important Facts About Cosmetics Labels

1. Cosmetics are the least regulated products under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The FFDCA does not require pre-market safety testing, review, or approval for cosmetics.

2.The U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pursues enforcement action only after the cosmetic enters into the stream of commerce or sometimes after it is on the shelf.

3.The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that 884 of the chemicals available for use in cosmetics have been reported to the government as toxic substances.

4 A U. S. General Accounting Office report notes that the FDA has committed no resources for assessing the safety problems of those chemicals which have been found to cause genetic damage, biological mutations, and cancer. Because of minimal regulation, products plainly dangerous to your health can be, and are being, sold.

5.  FDA officials have found that many cosmetic manufacturers lack adequate data on safety tests and have generally refused to disclose the results of these tests.

6. The FDA estimates that only three percent of the 4,000 to 5,000 cosmetic distributors have filed reports with the government on injuries to consumers. In addition, it is estimated that less than 40 percent of the nation’s 2,000 to 2,500 cosmetic manufacturers are even registered.

7. In 1990, there were some 38,000 cosmetic related injuries that required medical treatment in the U.S. That figure does not include the many people who use cosmetics and suffer from allergies, irritation, and photosensitization

8. The skin is extremely permeable. Cosmetic ingredients most certainly are absorbed through the skin. Some chemicals may penetrate the skin in significant amounts, especially when left on the skin for long periods, as in the case of facial makeup. One study showed that 13 percent of the cosmetic preservative butylate hydroxytoluene (BHT) and 49 percent of the carcinogenic pesticide DDT (which is found in some cosmetics containing lanolin) is absorbed through the skin.

9. FDA policies and those of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA), the U.S. trade association, which represents the multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry, are mutually supportive. The major priority of the CTFA is to prevent “new and unnecessary” label warnings.

10. Label warnings are even more critical in view of the escalating incidence of cancer, now striking nearly one in two men and more than one in three women in their lifetimes. Still sharper increases are anticipated in coming decades.



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