The Price of Beauty: Chemicals in My Cosmetics?


I am not a morning person, but every day a host of personal care products — from toothpaste to mascara — help me transform from hermit crab to butterfly. Yet some environmental groups claim that there’s a dark side to my routine: I may be lathering up and caking on a host of dangerous chemicals.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the average woman uses 12 personal care products a day. I use about 18. They suggest that I and women like me should reconsider what and how many products we use, and they set up a database to help in the process called the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (EWG is one of 10 “founding members”) also suggests using this database.

But will it really help? Probably not. An examination of some of the claims these groups make reveals that their science is “skin deep” — in fact, much of it is plain wrong. There is little evidence that personal-care products are the bane that these groups claim.

For example, the “Skin Deep” database ranks my toothpaste 4 and my soap 5 on a one-to-10 hazard scale. Both products share the same “hazard,” 1,4-Dioxane, a chemical ranking 10 on the Skin Deep hazard scale. The group’s database indicates that nearly 12,000 products might contain this substance.

Am I concerned? Not at all. This chemical isn’t even an ingredient in these products; it is a trace-level contaminant associated with making other ingredients.

There isn’t any data indicating that trace exposures to 1,4-Dioxane pose any problems. Indeed, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “The 1,4-dioxane levels we have seen in our monitoring of cosmetics do not present a hazard to consumers.” Of note, FDA has the power to pull any product off the market that poses a real risk to human health.

To justify its ranking of 1,4 Dioxane, EWG cites research that is not relevant: a handful of studies showing that rats exposed to high levels of the chemical formed tumors and suffered kidney damage. But humans are not rats and our exposure is multitudes lower. At high enough doses, rats even get cancer from high doses of chemicals found in broccoli, carrots, and peas! Will EWG call those goods hazardous?

There aren’t any studies linking the chemical to cancer in humans. A few studies link it to kidney problems in workers exposed to it over a long period, which is not relevant to the trace amounts in consumer products.

EWG claims that another culprit is my moisturizer. Supposedly, it contains an allegedly high-level hazard chemical listed in the Skin Deep database: vitamin A. Listed as Retinyl Palmitate in the EWG database, vitamin A/retinol helps control wrinkles.

Would I rather die than live with premature wrinkling? Not exactly. I accept the risk because it’s close to zero.

In fact, EWG bases it claim largely on a federal National Toxicology panel report that cites a handful of rodent studies and “mixed” research on humans as to both benefits and potential risks. The report draws no substantial conclusions on cancer in humans.

Ironically, if people trust EWG about the need to avoid skin products with vitamin A, they may actually face increased cancer risks because it is a key ingredient in sunscreens. And unlike EWG’s skin-deep science, there is considerable evidence that overexposure to the sun causes skin cancer. In fact, it is the leading cause of skin cancer.

Despite this reality, EWG launched an incredibly irresponsible campaign last year attacking sunscreens, suggesting they cause cancer. The Skin Cancer Foundation weighed in:

After reviewing the recently released report from The Environmental Working Group, The Skin Cancer Foundation’s renowned experts have come to the conclusion that there is no scientific evidence to support claims that retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) is a photocarcinogen in humans.

We haven’t ventured far from my bathroom sink, and it’s obvious that EWG’s claims don’t hold water. These examples reveal two fundamental flaws with the entire Skin Deep database: over-reliance on rodent studies and a focus on theoretical “hazards” rather than real risks — which requires consideration of exposure levels.

To avoid liability for its outlandish claims, EWG includes a note within its product profiles:

Actual health risks, if any, will vary based on the level of exposure to the ingredient and individual susceptibility — information not available in Skin Deep.

So what is the point?  EWG tells us under the Skin Deep website link “What you can do” — meaning, you can donate to EWG.

The EWG site might as well say, “Our data is essentially meaningless, but we hope it will scare you into giving us money.” Then EWG and other activists can use that money to support government regulations to take away your freedom to use a number of valuable personal care products.