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The Secret Lurking in Your Bathroom Cabinet. By Jennifer

September 23, 2010

Your morning routine: First, a breakfast of fresh organic eggs, whole wheat and strawberries, then a jog and a bit of yoga. All that you do for the health of your body. Alas, there is one last step: a shower. It is here where even the most health conscious of people faulter, unknowingly dousing themselves, and subsequently the environment, in a cocktail of chemicals.

The skin is an incredible organ, the largest in the body. It lives, breaths, and consumes. On average, skin absorbs 60% of substances that it is exposed but this number fluctuates based on the temperature of the skin, duration of exposure, and added components, such as alcohol, which can increase uptake. Of course, it is because of skin’s incredible absorptive power that many medicines, such as birth control and nicotine patches, are delivered through the skin.

The average American uses 9 to 15 personal care products everyday, all of which we would like to believe are safe, but none of which are regulated by the FDA. Surprisingly, despite the obvious power of skin to absorb both the good and the bad, cosmetics companies in the United States are not required to do any form of safety testing and can therefore use almost any chemical, regardless of risk. The safety of cosmetics is largely judged on a trial and error basis. Products are deemed safe until otherwise noted. The problem is that the only governing body regulating the cosmetics industry is the cosmetics industry itself.

Under the existing law- The Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938- decisions of ingredient safety are given to the industry itself. This outdated act means that the FDA cannot force cosmetics companies to conduct safety assessments or to recall dangerous products. For example, the FDA failed to recall a skin whitening cream, even though it was found to contain illegal levels of toxic mercury.

Product marketers twist information to their benefit. They will highlight in commercials and ads the vitamins and minerals they put in their products which will be absorbed into your body which will make you healthier, but they will deny that the paraben, phthalates, fragrances and dyes will also be absorbed. This assumption certainly has the potential to be a grave one.

Commercials for Clean and Clear, Neutrogina, and other personal care products will have you believe that their product will have you look younger and be healthier. They will have you believe that you need to become dependent on the litany of their products, washing, soaping, moisturizing, firming, and toning to be a healthy and beautiful human being. You need to buy this cream for dry skin, this one for oily, this shampoo for straight hair and this one for curly. Even the word “organic” is often enough just a marketing scheme, as cosmetic companies can claim their product to be organic despite them containing an insignificant amount of organics and a significant amount of harmful chemicals. So much money has been poured into the cosmetics industry with no accountability in return.

It is therefore critical that we all become smarter consumers of personal care products, looking at labels on our shampoos and body washes as we would our look at those on our foods, if not even more closely, as the regulations are less stringent. Sodium lauryl or laureth sulfate, a detergent found in the vast majority of shampoos, body washes, and toothpastes, even those that claim to be “organic,” has been shown to cause skin damage and act as a neurotoxin. Studies support the carcinogenic effects of the ambiguous and misleading ingredient “fragrances” found in almost all products. One resource that is definitely worth utilizing is “Skin Deep,” a non-profit database which provides consumers with information about the safety of ingredients and products.

Sadly, as of now, we live in a system which values profit and consumerism over health and the general good. Above and beyond being aware of the products you use in your everyday life, you can also support the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in the 2010 Safe Cosmetics Act, which will phase out ingredients linked to cancer, birth defects and developmental harm, insure full disclosure of ingredients, create a health-based safety standard, and require data-sharing which will make more research available, as well as more alternatives to animal testing. You can also take matters more directly into your own hands, as there are many recipes available on the web for making natural soaps, shampoos, toners, etc.

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