You don’t have to go far to find shelves and shelves of products promising everything from smoother skin to fewer wrinkles. Women have used cosmetics throughout history to bring color to their faces and to make them smell good. Today, a wealth of personal care products are used by men, women, and children. But there is an untold and very ugly story behind some of these products.

Many of these products are a veritable chemical soup, and the fact is that some of what makes these products good at beauty are chemicals that may be bad for health.

One such group is phthalates (thay-lates), chemicals that are found in all kinds of beauty products, including nail polish. Although approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in beauty and personal care products, some phthalates are banned in Europe because of some growing evidence that they may cause cancer. If you think this just affects women, you’re wrong. Phthalates are used in all sorts of personal care products, including colognes and skin products used by men and women. Shampoos and hair care products can contain dangerous chemicals as well. One of these is sodium lauryl sulfate. That sounds like a harmless-enough substance; in industrial use, it is known as a surfactant. The purpose of a surfactant is to de-grease and break down substances. It’s used in many cosmetics to help get a clean, fresh feeling. However, sodium lauryl sulfate is thought by some to be associated with an increased risk of cancer. Another hair-raising substance is methylisothiazoline (MIT), which frequently appears on shampoo labels. MIT has been linked to nerve damage.

Shaving cream contains a-pinene, a chemical that some believe is risky for the immune system. Blush may contain red dye number 3, which has been associated with breast cancer. Most colognes and perfumes contain toluene, a suspected carcinogen. Another ingredient in fragrances is benzaldehyde, which has been linked to kidney damage. Dangerous substances have been found in everything from toothpaste to bubble bath, from lipstick to mascara. My position on cosmetics is to be cautious, not alarmist. In this country, cosmetics may contain only ingredients currently deemed to be safe. I think that the jury is still out on some of these substances and that it is risky to gamble your health on a certain body lotion or hair conditioner. Here are my tips which I think offer a sensible approach:

  1. Start to read the labels on all of the products that come in contact with your body. Chemicals can get into your body through the skin—just think about the nicotine patch. Some of the substances on your body will get into your system.
  2. Educate yourself on substances used in these products. Just because some website says something is dangerous does not mean it is. Learn what you can.
  3. Formulate your own opinions. My approach is to avoid even questionable substances if there are good alternatives available.
  4. Find natural products whenever possible. If they are not available where you shop, ask for them. Demand increases supply!


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