Personal care or personal harm? The ugly side of beauty

The global chemicals industry is booming, largely as a result of increased demand for personal care products. According to researched published by The Environmental Working Group, the average American adult uses 9 personal care products each day, with 126 unique chemical ingredients. KPMG estimate that the global personal care industry will increase between 3.5-4.5% over the next five years to generate a total market value of $US500 billion by 2020.

The allure of low-cost, no-name cosmetics and personal care products is a game of Russian roulette for a number of reasons. Firstly, if the ingredients are not clearly listed, consumers are at risk of severe allergic reactions from heavy metals, synthetic dyes, fragrances and other chemicals that may be present in excessive concentrations. Secondly, counterfeit products are commonly sold online at a fraction of their recommended retail price. Although they may look and feel similar, the ingredients may be vastly different. Thirdly, if products are purchased online they can sidestep regulatory processes established to ensure quality safety. Additionally, it is important that consumers are aware of differences in regulatory standards between developed and developing countries.

According to the World Health Organization, personal care products and cosmetics are known to contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals. A collaborative investigation was undertaken to demonstrate the human health impact of these chemicals, drawing on expertise from prominent United Nations agencies. Evidence suggests that pregnant women may endanger unborn foetuses, especially if chemical exposure occurs from a number of sources.

Choice, an Australian consumer watchdog, suggests that consumers should be wary of products containing mineral oils, sodium laureth sulphate, propylene glycol, phthalates and parabens. Each chemical is used for a different purpose though collectively they are linked to substantial health risks. Phalates have been linked to endometriosis and early puberty in girls, and reproductive organ abnormalities and reduced fertility in males. Products that contain “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” or “mercurio”, otherwise known as the potent neurotoxin “mercury”, should not be used as they may cause neurological disorders through dermal exposure. Mercury is a known ingredient in skin whitening products. The World Health Organization confirmed that the products are available for sale over the internet and can be easily obtained in Brazil, Russia and Mexico.

People in search of the perfect smile are purchasing low-cost teeth whitening kits online. Products that come with the risk of overly high hydrogen peroxide concentration that can induce chemical burns on the gums and cause permanent damage to enamel. In Wales, a father and son were jailed for knowingly selling unsafe, dangerous products causing serious harm to unwitting members of the public. Analysis of the whitening products found 65 times the legal concentration of hydrogen peroxide that caused bleeding gums, foaming mouth and high sensitivity. Dental organizations therefore recommend that patients only purchase whitening products from reputable sources or have treatments performed with expert care.

Recent legal cases against personal care brand Johnson & Johnson drew widespread attention to talc-based products and the potential link with cancer. Although the evidence-base requires further research, the company was required to pay multi-million dollar compensation of victims who developed ovarian cancer as result of using talcum powder.

Intimate products are found to be equally as harmful. Personal lubricants often contain a plethora of chemicals. A study in the Lancet medical journal found the detergent in lubricant increased the risk of HIV infection in sex workers when used multiple times per day. The detergent nonoxynol-9 was found to damage the mucosal lining of the vagina that acts as a natural barrier to infection.

A large part of the problem with the personal care health risks is that insufficient research has been done to examine safe limits of exposure to chemicals. Some manufacturers and regulatory bodies argue that personal care products are used for short periods of time and are not ingested, therefore limiting exposure. Other critics argue that dermal absorption can result in health conditions. If associations are found, more should be done to regulate use of chemicals for consumers and public health.

The safest policy is to go natural. Consider natural alternatives to body lotions including sweet almond oil, coconut oil or olive oil, all of which can be used as make up remover. Purchase cosmetics that do not contain talc, parabens or synthetic fragrances to avoid irritation and the potential for allergies. Personal lubricants containing natural ingredients are sold as alternatives to a chemical concoctions, or all-natural sweet almond oil offers a safe, non-sticky alternative when used without barrier contraception.

Most importantly, consumers should read the ingredient list of products before purchasing to make an informed decisions and determine whether beauty is worth the risk. Finally, cost is a significant indicator of quality when purchasing from reputable sources, so if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

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