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Beauty and the Chemical Beast

mspencers Icon Posted by Miranda Spencer

October 15th, 2007

Today, October 15, is “Blog Action Day“, an annual event that gives bloggers the world over the opportunity to write about a common topic. This year, the topic is the environment, so I’m opting to focus once again on women’s environmental health.

Considering the last couple weeks of maddening media, it’s refreshing to find a positive development. Namely, a mainstream feature article essentially warning women against using cosmetics.

Headlined “Is Your Make-up Killing You?” the 2,000-plus-word October 5 piece by Natasha Courtnay-Smith in Britain’s Daily Mail focused on 20-something sisters Charlotte and Emma Kohl. * The Kohls used lorry-loads of chemical-laden make-up and affiliated products each day, from tan-in-a-bottle to tooth whiteners. These “beauty junkies,” tried giving up the products for a week, using natural ones in their place and foregoing chemical-based home-cleaning products. They then had their blood and urine tested for the presence of some of the chemicals found in the cosmetics.

Chemical-Laden Cosmetics
As the article’s intro pointed out, “[British] Women absorb 5 lbs of chemicals from cosmetics every year – from cancer-causing compounds in face cream to arsenic in eye shadow.” Emma’s favorite lip gloss contained 28 manmade chemicals, her deodorant 26, and Charlotte’s hairspray 23. Among other things, we learn that :

• Parabens, a preservative found in 99 percent of “leave on” cosmetics, are known hormone disrupters that can mimic estrogen, longterm exposure to which has been linked with increased rates of breast cancer. In one study parabens were found in 18 to 20 percent of breast-cancer tissue samples (causality hasn’t been proven, but the connection is disturbing)
• Phthlates found in some lotions are known carcinogens and have been shown to affect the reproductive system and fetal development
• Propylene glycol, found in soaps and blushers, “has been shown in large quantities to depress the central nervous system.”
• Those who use permanent hair dye “are more than twice as likely to develop bladder cancer as those that don’t.”

More significantly, in a point seldom made beyond scientific and environmental media, the piece noted that “a growing number of experts belive these substances have a cumulative effect on our bodies” [emphasis mine]. “They think the ‘chemical cocktail’ inside us is contributing to the increased frequency of a host of illnesses ranging from eczema to cancers as well as developmental problems” in children. Courtnay-Smith quotes physician, author, and environmental health specialist Dr. Paula Baillie-Hamilton, who notes,

It’s difficult to see the link between chemicals in cosmetics and damage to health unless you stand back and look at the wider picture….We are surrounded by [manmade] chemicals: in the air, in our food, in our water and especially in our cosmetics, and the fact is that our bodies can’t break many of these substances down…

At the end of the brief experiment, Charlotte and Emma’s levels of most of the chemicals tested had dropped substantially (though I suppose many still linger in their bodies). For example, Emma’s levels of triclosan (a probable human carcinogen and endocrine disruptor) dropped from 90 mg/l to 2 mg/l in eight days.

According to the article, the Kohl sisters ultimately stayed with many of the synthetic-chemical-free products they’d tried (many of which they found as good as their old ones). They decided to continue using some of their favorite products, but cut back on quantity.

Another Look
The makeup “detox” was done as part of a documentary by British television host Sarah Beeny, “Beauty Addicts: How Toxic Are You?” which aired October 11. For the past two years, Beeny has minimized her use of makeup as part of a personal quest to reduce the presence of chemicals in her life. (Not mentioned in the article: Beeny began her mission because a test of chemicals in her body by the environmental group WWF showed very high levels of certain toxics . These included PCBs and the banned pesticide DDT, both linked to breast cancer, among other things.)

Despite its sensationalistic headline,the Daily Mail article deserves kudos for encouraging readers to look more closely at the products they use, and for bucking a mainstream culture that increasingly values “beauty” born of artifice. The latter got me thinking. Let’s put more make-up-free faces in the media, so people will get used to the idea that our health is more important than a manufactured beauty ideal.

We can start that process by “coming out” with our “real” faces. So I’m hereby initiating a mini project called “The Face of No Make-Up” –a take-off on how actresses and models are hired to be “the face of” fashion designers and perfume brands. Over the next month or so, I’ll collect photos of women of all ages sans make-up, then post them on a “Face of No Make-up” website I just created.

I’ve started by posting a photo of myself. I never wear make-up, save for formal occasions –partly for health reasons, partly because my skin seems to be hypersensitive to it, and mostly because I can’t be bothered. This is what 48 looks like. Not glamorous, but not so bad, eh? You’ll also find a pic of Sarah Beeny, mentioned above.

Now I need your help, WIMN’s Voices readers and writers! Please send photos of yourself without makeup to me at mirandasp@comcast.net. Include “The Face of No Make-up” in the subject line, and provide your first name and age at the time of the photo.

*The link to this story is no longer active.

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