Chemicals in cosmetics - are they safe?

Are personal care products full of carcinogens and other toxic chemicals?
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  • Updated:24 Jun 2009

04.Putting it all in perspective

Almost all cancers can be attributed to known carcinogens and carcinogenic lifestyles, such as tobacco, alcohol, sun, excessive red and processed meats, lack of fruit and vegetables, obesity, bacteria, viruses and lack of exercise.

Yet with so many people getting cancer these days, not to mention the apparent increase in fertility problems, allergies, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome and other modern-day maladies, you can’t help but wonder about man-made chemicals in our food, homes and the environment. Given the ubiquity of their use, it’s easy to blame ingredients in cosmetics. Many substances haven’t been well studied, and there are vested interests on both sides ensuring the message about the safety or danger of chemicals gets maximum – and credible – airplay.

The US-based health and environment advocacy coalition, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, is lobbying to get the personal care products industry to phase out use of chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and other serious health concerns, and replace them with safer alternatives – already with some successes.

Should you be worried?

Many chemicals used in personal care products are dangerous in high concentrations, high dose (when administered to laboratory animals) and industrial quantities. Some people may also suffer an allergic reaction to the smaller quantities, such as you’d find in personal care products.

The various websites that warn about chemicals in cosmetics often refer to hazards and warnings in the chemicals’ material safety data sheets (MSDS). Each chemical’s MSDS provides information about its properties, how to handle it, all possible hazards (accidents, prolonged exposure and so on) and how to deal with them. They can be easily found by googling both the chemical name and MSDS online. However, MSDSs aren’t targeted at consumers; they’re relevant for people who work with industrial quantities of concentrated chemicals, not those who use them in diluted and very small quantities.

Many warnings also relate to the effects of large doses of chemicals on lab animals, typically rats and mice, which aren’t a reliable prediction of the effects small doses will have on humans. For example, substances that cause cancer in mice don’t necessarily cause it in rats and vice versa. Human beings also live more complex lives, exposing ourselves to food, lifestyle and environmental factors that may increase or decrease the carcinogenic potential of a given substance. Conversely, however, substances safe for lab animals may be dangerous for humans.

Many of the websites providing this information have a vested interest in scaring consumers. They’re often selling so-called “natural” products that claim not to contain dangerous chemicals, or books highlighting the dangers of common cosmetics. Some scientists seeking more funding have also been accused of disseminating doubt, essentially scaring money out 
of people for further research.

Dermatology and toxicology experts CHOICE spoke to agreed that based on current knowledge, cosmetics ingredients in the marketplace are safe to use as directed. “These chemicals are used in very small quantities and some, like shampoos and so on, for only a very short period of time,” says Dr Rosemary Nixon, from the Australasian College of Dermatologists. “Cosmetic products are defined by their temporary effects and inability to change our body’s physiology. Very little, if any, of the product would be able to penetrate the outer layer of the skin.”

In the future, when these chemicals have been in use for many decades and/or more rigorous studies have been conducted, some long-term detrimental effects may be discovered for ingredients currently accepted as safe (see Challenging Assumptions in Toxicology Testing).

For now, in the absence of good evidence of harm, consumers need to decide for themselves whether the benefits of using products containing these ingredients outweigh any potential risks and whether these risks are greater than the known lifestyle-related risks mentioned above. Buying major international brands or at least steering clear of products without an ingredients list is your best bet if you 
are concerned.


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