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What's In Your Shampoo? Demanding Safer, Not Just More, Choices

July 22, 2010



What toxic chemicals did I lather all over myself when I took my shower this morning? This was the question that came to mind after watching The Story of Cosmetics: The Ugly Truth of Toxins In and Toxins Out by the folks at The Story of Stuff. In this video, Annie Leonard takes a look at how major loopholes in the U.S. federal law enable the multi-billion dollar cosmetics industry to include chemicals in their products with very little study done about their effects on consumers. The video was launched a day after Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) introduced legislation that would toughen safety standards for beauty products and require regular government testing for hazardous ingredients.

Sure, I had heard about lipsticks manufactured by major brands containing lead when the story broke a few years ago, one that prompted me to toss out my lipsticks and consider whether I could live without a shade of “passionate plum” on my lips (I could). What I learned from this video is that all kinds of personal care products, including those for babies and children, contain chemicals, ranging from carcinogens and toxins to those whose effects have yet to be studied.

More significantly, the video made me reconsider my assumption that the responsibility of consuming safely lies solely with me, the consumer, but that the government and product manufacturers have their respective roles to play too. Because the laws permit the cosmetics industry to regulate itself, all ingredients are not required to be listed on labels. Also, terms like “herbal,” “natural,” and “organic” have no legal definition, which means anyone can slap the label on their product regardless of what it contains. Even if manufacturers insist that the low dosage of chemicals in their products render them harmless, the effects of frequency usage and of combining multiple products remain under researched. As the video puts it, we may be given endless varieties in lip color and shampoo, but what about choices that really matter, like choosing products that are safe?

Of course, this issue especially affects women given that on average, women use twice as many personal care products daily. Also, seeing as some of the chemicals such as mercury, triclosan, and flame retardants absorbed into the body remain in our systems, babies are being born “pre-polluted.” Workers in beauty and nail salons, mostly women,  who are continually exposed to hazardous chemicals have also been known to suffer health damage as a result.

Brands that purport to be women-friendly often prove to be otherwise. For example, brands that market themselves as part of the cause of fighting breast cancer continue to use carcinogens in their products--a phenomenon known as “pink washing.” Furthermore, products that contain extremely high toxins such as hair relaxants and skin whitening creams targeted for children’s use are not only compromise their health, but send problematic messages about accepted beauty standards.

The Women’s Media Center has organized initiatives like the upcoming Spark Summit to educate and empower girls on their rights and push back against forces that undermine their well-being. Even as we continue to train ourselves to read the insidious messages of beauty circulating in the media and to use tools like www.cosmeticsdatabase.com to make wiser consumer choices, efforts ought also be directed at the industry and government to do their part in ensuring health and safety for all.

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