David Suzuki: Harmful chemicals can hide in cosmetics

Every day, we slather ourselves with liquids, lotions, and potions—from shampoo and soap to deodorant and makeup. After all, most of us want to look and feel clean and to smell nice. It's not uncommon for a single person to use 10 or more personal-care products daily.

We don’t usually think of our cosmetics as a source of pollution. But U.S. researchers found that one eighth of the 82,000 ingredients used in personal-care products are industrial chemicals, including carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, plasticizers, and degreasers.

Take a look at the ingredient list on your bottle of shampoo or hand lotion. Most of us would have a hard time identifying which chemicals in the typically long list of ingredients may be harmful to human health or the environment.

Chances are your personal-care products contain “fragrance” or “parfum”—often the last item on the ingredient list. Fragrance recipes are considered trade secrets so manufacturers don’t have to disclose the chemicals they include. More than 3,000 chemicals are used to create “fragrances”, usually in complex mixtures. Up to 80 percent of these have never been tested to see whether they are toxic to humans.

These fragrances are not just found in perfumes and deodorants but are also in almost every type of personal-care product, as well as laundry detergents and cleaning products. Even products labelled “fragrance-free” or “unscented” can contain fragrance, usually with a masking agent to prevent the brain from perceiving odour.

The negative effects of some fragrance ingredients can be immediately apparent, especially for the growing number of people with chemical sensitivities. For example, fragrance chemicals can trigger allergic reactions, asthma attacks, and migraines. Researchers have even found evidence suggesting that exposure to some of these chemicals can exacerbate or even contribute to the development of asthma in children.

Other chemicals may have harmful effects that don’t show up right away. For example, diethyl phthalate (DEP) is a cheap and versatile chemical widely used in cosmetic fragrances to make the scent last longer. But it is associated with a range of problems. The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has listed it as a Category 1 priority substance, based on evidence that it interferes with hormone function. Phthalates have been linked to early puberty in girls, reduced sperm count in men, and reproductive defects in the developing male fetus (when the mother is exposed during pregnancy).

Some research has also suggested that phthalate metabolites may contribute to obesity and insulin resistance in men. Health Canada has moved to ban six phthalates in children’s toys, after evidence showed that prolonged exposure can cause liver or kidney failure, but it has no plans to regulate the chemicals in cosmetics. DEP is also listed as a Priority and Toxic Pollutant under the U.S. Clean Water Act, based on evidence that it can be toxic to wildlife and the environment.

Fragrance chemicals often harm the environment. Some compounds in synthetic “musk”, which wash off our bodies and find their way into nature, remain in the environment for a long time and can build up in the fatty tissues of aquatic animals. Researchers have found in fish in the Great Lakes, and they’ve found that levels in sediment are increasing.

In response to the sensitivity many people have to airborne chemicals, a growing number of offices and public spaces are becoming “fragrance-free”. This is a great initiative, but what are these and other harmful chemicals doing in our cosmetics in the first place?

Canada’s regulations don’t measure up to standards in other parts of the world. The European Union restricts many fragrance ingredients and requires warning labels on products if they contain any of 26 allergens commonly used as cosmetic fragrances. Europe also prohibits or restricts the use of chemicals classified as carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins in personal-care products.

The David Suzuki Foundation and other organizations are working for safer products. We’re conducting a survey to raise awareness and to find out what’s in the products people use every day. We plan to present the results in September, along with recommendations for strengthening laws to protect Canadians and our environment from harmful chemicals in personal-care products.

You can help out by becoming more aware of what’s in the products you use and switching to products that don’t contain harmful ingredients.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.




Apr 13, 2010 at 5:46pm

Thanks, David. We need more awareness about this. A related problem is with laundry products, especially the toxic and foul-smelling softeners and dryers sheets, which are completely unnecessary in Vancouver.

JoAnn Fowler

Apr 18, 2010 at 8:39am

In October 08 Sappho Cosmetics was launched - 100% free of parabens, phthalates, dimethicone, mineral oil - free of all synthetic chemicals as a result of research by my self and realizing I could no longer with any consciousness work as a makeup artist without being able to offer an alternative to the chemically laden products available on shelves today. Sappho Cosmetics is in 5 lower mainland stores and is being used by many celebrities on television and films alike. It is also being embraced by BC ers who care about the environment, their health and who still want to wear makeup!

JoAnn Fowler

Apr 18, 2010 at 8:43am

A group of teens from a lower mainland highschool have adopted Sappho Cosmetics for their marketing project/competition with the aim of educating teens on the dangers of chemicals in makeup up and offering information on alternatives available for them today! We will be visiting 5 highschools starting April 22 disseminating information about chemicals, 'how to make-up' and color matching


Apr 19, 2010 at 11:30am

It is very difficult to find products that are free of chemicals that are proven to compromise our health. Even after having bought organic products and other supposedly safe products, upon reading the fine print, I have found there to be unhealthy chemicals used.

We recently found a local outfit <a href=http://www.ferlowbotanicals.com/products.phtml>Ferlow Botanicals</a> that appear to have the same concerns and produce an uncompromised product.

Ken Barth

Apr 26, 2010 at 1:45pm

Is BC Greenwash full of chemicals David?


Mar 18, 2011 at 4:23pm

I believe with all these chemicals introduced into our food & beauty products should be clearly monitored. I have discovered that the by product from oil crude that we use for fuel, creates sulfate. And Alberta carries the most sulfate blocks in acres that can not be disposed of eco friendly. All sulfur mines have been shut down world wide. And the sulfur has been added to all our foods & beauty products. Sulfur is a carcinogen, and it boils down to money. Instead, a mass legit petition and blackballing companies that create toxins should be avoided. This is very hard to do because we are surrounded by it daily. But when we have highly respected researchers, doctors & scientists. Their morals should be respected first over money by the government. David Suzuki is a respected and well known intelligent individual. Having citizens like these should push more at the government as their profession is a respected one.But with all these toxins around us, is a way of controlling the population by killing us off. I'm sure if we tell the prime minster how would he like it if, the food he eats is loaded in chemicals that causes cancer in their body. Not to mention the lack of control of regulations & guidelines for the so called heart & stroke check symbol. In general there should be 0 saturated and 0 trans fats. NOT JUST 0 TRANS FATS. But if you look at the ingredients on the labels, there is lots of stuff there that does not make it 0 TRANS FAT free. If this changes and it is regulated they will lose money in the pharmaceutical industry to control High cholesterol patients. But even as simple as washing your hands and hair, enters the bloodstreams on a daily basis. This includes our so called fluoride is good for your teeth deal by a dentist. Where their is research of something good there is 5 other doctors saying the opposite that it is bad. They are alternatives and that is all natural. See a Chinese herbal expert and aromatherapist as well, along with other many natural experts out there. I have proved my doctor wrong and lowered cholesterol with out pharmaceuticals with the use of white tea "silver needle". I also limit many uses and watch not just the label saying free from what ever toxin or organic. Do your research good in each ingredient on how & where it comes from or its made. There are available MSDS sheets and many resources out there for chemicals and uses. Black ball the bad company's and tell the government to wake up and think health and safety first. Peace