Are cosmetics making us sick? Five surprising facts that you probably don’t know

The documentary Toxic Beauty takes a look at the potentially harmful ingredients used by the cosmetic industry.

By Davida Gragor

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a U.S. non-profit, says American women slather an average of 168 chemicals on their bodies every day. The cosmetics industry claims that consumers have nothing to worry about. But according to Toxic Beauty, a new film from the documentary Channel, many ingredients in beauty products have been linked to health issues, including hormonal disruption, certain cancers and infertility.

In the documentary, we meet scientists, regulators and consumers who are looking for an answer to one very important question: Are cosmetics making us sick? Here are some things we learned from the film.

Beauty industry regulation is a ‘post-market’ system

Among many Canadians, there’s a general assumption that the government protects consumers from harmful ingredients in the products we buy. While this may be true for food, the film says the beauty industry is far less regulated.

Manufacturers must provide Health Canada with a list of ingredients in personal care products, and these products are expected to meet certain requirements, but regulation happens after putting them on store shelves.

“It’s not like you have to test the product first, make sure it’s safe, and then it goes on the market,” says Julie Gelfand, former federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development. “No, it goes on the market, and then if there are incidents, that’s when the regulatory system kicks in. Nobody’s testing to see if that eyeshadow has in it what it says it has in it.”

Baby powder with talc may pose serious health risks

The connection between asbestos and cancer has been well established. However, not many people know that talc — the main ingredient in baby powder — is mined, and that many talc mines also contain asbestos. While manufacturers have long claimed their products are safe, asbestos contamination in personal care products is a concern among many scientists, advocates and consumers, who believe talc is a dangerous, carcinogenic ingredient to use on our bodies, especially over long periods of time.

In Toxic Beauty, we follow the class action lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson and meet women who claim that their cancer was caused by prolonged use of the company’s baby powder products.

Only 500 cosmetic ingredients are banned in Canada vs. 1,300 in Europe

The European Union has banned more than 1,300 ingredients from being used in personal care products, while Canada’s lists around 500 ingredients as either prohibited or restricted. The U.S.? 11. According to the documentary, many cosmetic ingredients still allowed in North America have been linked to cancer or are suspected endocrine disruptors, chemicals that interfere with the hormones in the body.

Others have been associated with everything from headaches to organ damage to early onset of puberty. These potentially hazardous ingredients are found in many common personal care products such as makeup, shampoo and even shaving cream.

Essential oils aren’t necessarily good for you

Essential oils are quickly becoming a massive trend in the personal care industry and are often advertised as a cure-all for many ailments. The global market is estimated to hit $15 billion US by the year 2026.

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While these oils may smell great to some, “natural” doesn’t mean safe. These concentrated, highly potent plant essences can irritate the skin and may cause other health issues. In Toxic Beauty, professor of environmental health Maryse Bouchard cites lavender oil as an example. “It’s being used in a lot of products, and it's actually a pretty powerful endocrine disruptor,” she says.

The words ‘fragrance’ and ‘parfum’ may be hiding potentially hazardous ingredients

Companies generally want to keep their signature scents a secret, so the Canadian and U.S. governments allow manufacturers to use the word “fragrance” or “parfum” on packages instead of listing all of their ingredients. Some see this rule as a loophole in the industry. “Those catch-all terms can conceal a range of potentially hazardous chemicals,” Gelfand says in the film.

In a study of 17 popular fragrance products, the EWG reported an average of 14 “secret” chemical ingredients not listed on the product labels.

At the end of the day, the only way to know which personal care products are safe to use is to be an informed consumer. Watch Toxic Beauty.

Available on CBC Gem

Toxic Beauty

documentary Channel