The Toxic Treatment: Harmful Chemicals in Canadian Cosmetics

By Bird, Madeleine; Madray, Sandra | Women & Environments International Magazine, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Toxic Treatment: Harmful Chemicals in Canadian Cosmetics


Bird, Madeleine, Madray, Sandra, Women & Environments International Magazine


Moisturizers, conditioners, hair dyes, lipstick, nail polish, perfumes and soaps: all of these are cosmetics and some are hard to avoid. Canadians spend approximately $5.3 billion on cosmetics annually, and yet we give very little thought to the long-term health effects of the ingrethents in our morning lather.

It is not difficult to argue that the cosmetics industry benefits greatly from women's wallets. Women buy and use more cosmetics than men. On the average, women use approximately 12 beauty products with 168 unique ingrethents daily, some of which may be associated with cancer, reproductive toxicity or hormonal disruption. Compared to men's average daily use, 6 products with 85 unique ingrethents, women are potentially more at risk for adverse health effects from cosmetics. Despite claims of "healthy-feeling" hair or skin, daily, we support an industry that generally does not consider our long-term health, nor have they been required to do so.

In late 2006, mandatory cosmetic labeling instituted by the Canadian Federal Government required all cosmetics to have labels disclosing most of their ingrethents. The labeling names harmonize with those of the European Union (EU) and the US. While this is a positive step in consumer right-to-know, many women are still unaware that a cosmetic may contain toxic substances or contaminants harmful to their health.

Manufacturers claim that their products are safe because, they argue, low levels of toxic ingrethents should not affect human health. Perhaps cosmetics are safe for the short-term, but mounting scrutiny of the cosmetics industry, along with scientific evidence of long-term health effects of some cosmetic ingrethents, are telling us to take a second look at the pretty jars that line our bathroom shelves and the regulations that govern them.

Our Exposure

The skin, our largest organ, does not discriminate. It easily absorbs cosmetic ingrethents, safe or toxic. Repeated lowlevel exposures may accumulate through a woman's lifetime. Troubling is the fact that we are allowed to be exposed to possible human carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, possible human reproductive or developmental toxins, neurotoxins, allergens or sensitizers through the use of cosmetics containing such toxins.

Girls often start experimenting with cosmetics at a very young age, thereby increasing lifetime exposure. Puberty is a critical development time for both girls and boys and exposure to reproductive and/or hormonal toxins often start before puberty.

Toxic chemical exposure during the child-bearing years is also a concern. Some toxic chemicals found in cosmetics, such as phthalates, have been found in the cord blood that nourishes a developing fetus. The continued usage of products with ingrethents that are hormone disruptors and developmental or reproductive toxins may put newborns at risk for developing cancer later in life.

We should not forget the myriad of other chemicals that are part of our daily exposure, such as those from plastics, car exhaust, household chemicals, pesticide residue on food and trace chemicals in water. Also, chemicals have the potential to interact with each other by way of the additive effect or synergy. Given the gross lack of data on the long-term or combined health effects of the majority of cosmetic ingredients, low concentrations of toxic chemicals should not be reason for their approval.

Regulations and Trade Secrets

Health Canada regulates cosmetic ingrethents through The Cosmetic Regulations under the Food and Drug Act and a "Hotlist" containing more than 500 prohibited or restricted substances for cosmetic use. By comparison, the EU banned more than 1100 such ingrethents, but the US, only 10.

Manufacturers are required to send Health Canada a list of ingrethents only 10 days after a product goes on the market. The Canadian government keeps a database of all cosmetics and their ingrethents sold in Canada. …

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