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August 18-24 2007 Vol 210 No 3510


Time to face facts

by Francesca Price

The personal cost of using a multitude of cosmetics and skincare products could be far higher than you think.

One of the things I find hardest to change in my efforts to be green is my beauty regime – testimony to either my vanity or the power of the advertising industry. Unfortunately, I am not alone. A straw poll of friends and colleagues reveals a group of women who eat organic, resist drugs wherever possible and won’t go near a chemical cleaning product but continue to slather their skins with synthetic creams and wash their hair with products boasting 30 or more unpronounce‑able ingredients. The general feeling is that when it comes to appearances you want every weapon at your disposal.

Scratch the surface of the cosmetics industry and you realise how potentially risky that mentality is. Many women use around 20 products a day. If that sounds like a lot, then think what you’ve put on your body today. Shampoo, conditioner, moisturiser, deodorant, lipstick? It soon adds up.

As a result, women’s bodies end up absorbing three to five kilos of chemicals every year. It’s a cocktail of toxic, often controversial ingredients that need meet no safety standards other than the manufacturer’s own.

According to the Environmental Working Group, a third of all personal care products sold in the US contain one or more ingredients that are known, probable or possible human carcinogens. In the early 90s, studies linked the use of talcum powder with ovarian cancer. Today the big two are parabens and phthalates. Phthalates can disrupt normal hormone development and have been linked to cancer. A recent study even suggested a connection between phthalate exposure and men’s expanding waistlines.

Parabens were recently found in the tumours of breast cancer patients – although so were many benign chemicals. Although there is no conclusive proof that these chemicals will make you sick, plenty of studies suggest that they may not be doing you much good, either – so it’s up to you to make the call.

Cosmetic companies argue that the chemicals in their products are used in such minute quantities that they couldn’t do you any harm. However, there are no studies into the cumulative impact of using such products day after day for 20 to 30 years. Or the effect of piling one chemical ingredient on top of another, and another.

There is also the wider environmental impact of these products, which are either washed down our drains or released through our bodies into oceans and waterways. Hormone-disrupting chemicals are being held responsible for the feminisation of fish and possibly the overall lower sperm count in men today.

What’s worth noting is that the natural cosmetics industry, which used to have one percent of the market, is now growing at 20 percent a year. L’Oréal is greening up its act since taking over the Body Shop, and Clarins has just bought a stake in the French organic firm Kibio.

“Consumer aspirations for natural products are growing,” says L’Oréal New Zealand’s communications manager, Tanya Abbott, “and in particular they are eager for organic products. It is therefore quite natural that the L’Oréal group want to be present in this rapidly expanding consumer product segment.”

The important message for consumers is to wise up. Many products falsely claim to be “natural” or “pure”. A product advertising itself as 80 percent “organic” might be 80 percent water and 20 percent toxic chemicals.

The best way to find out what’s in any product is to read the label.

“Look at the first three ingredients on the packet,” says Elizabeth Barbalich, founder of the Wellington-based Antipodes skin care range. “If they say things like water, shea butter, avocado oil – products you recognise – you’re probably okay. If not, move on.”

Peter Allard, chief executive of Living Nature, whose skincare products are 100 percent natural, says their research indicates that “if you have a chemically based preservative system in your product, it negates or overrides the natural ingredients anyway”.

As a quick consumer guide, look out for: parabens in moisturisers and foundations; sodium lauryl sulphate in shampoos; coal tar in hair dyes; talc in blusher and eyeshadow; propylene glycol in face cleansers and sunscreens; formaldehyde in shaving creams and deodorants; and phthalates (DEP, DBP, DEHP), which are not generally listed on the bottle but will be found in the packaging of anything that contains fragrance. Look for fragrance-free and unscented products, instead.

Email: ecolojgic@xktra.c2o.nzj

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