At lunch a few weeks ago, when my friend told me about high levels of formaldehyde reportedly found in the hair treatment Brazilian Blowout, I almost choked on my apple. The year before, I had tried out the product after a bad haircut led to a frizzy debacle on my head. The treatment was expensive enough—would I now have to pay with my life?
The courts are still trying to untangle the facts. Meanwhile, I discovered that my salon uses keratin, a natural alternative. But who knew? As a teenager, I didn’t think to ask the content of the treatment or what its effects might be. This Blowout blowup got me thinking about the unknown chemicals that we’re exposed to each day.
Have you ever walked into Abercrombie, and been overcome with the smell of their signature perfume, Fierce? Teens Turning Green, a student-led movement to target and eliminate toxic exposures that threaten public health, protested the fragrance after the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found diethyl phthalate, a harmful chemical in the perfume.
Diethyl phthalate sounds like gibberish to me, and I doubt that the average American would be able to identify or define it either. The chemical is linked to sperm damage in men, among other issues. But we shouldn’t single out Fierce; according to EWG, over 17 popular perfumes contain an average of 14 potentially harmful chemicals. They’re not on the labels, invisible until they show up in a health problem, like allergic reactions or hormone disruptions. I was shocked to learn that 89% of the 10,500 chemicals found in cosmetics have not been tested for safety.
Cosmetic hazards abound
There are hazards everywhere: coal tar in shampoos and hair dyes, formaldehyde in deodorant, shaving cream, and nail polish, and bronopol in moisturizers and body wash. A variety of skin care treatments are also considered “high hazard” by EWG. This doesn’t bode well for teenagers like me whose biochemistry is still developing and who thrive on personal care products—using more than the average adult. Apparently, we are more sensitive to the “hormone disrupting” chemicals residing in many popular products, putting us—teens—more at risk.
Teens Turning Green has a “Dirty Thirty List” to describe the worst offenders. Many of these chemicals have been banned in Europe and Canada. Although the EU has banned over 1,000 chemicals, the US has banned only nine. Our slow progress is largely because our 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) hasn’t been revised or edited since the day it was introduced. Among a list of complex issues, the outdated act allows companies to keep most of their information secret, doesn’t require certain chemicals to be tested for safety, and prevents the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from reporting or banning chemicals found in commonly used substances.
The hidden toxins in cosmetics and the flaws of TSCA are now in the spotlight. Last summer, EPA proposed a new law, and many other organizations continue to raise public awareness and protest the potentially harmful chemicals in our daily lives.
The point of such campaigns isn’t to scare us, or to make us paranoid about every perfume spritz. The point is to teach us to question what we use on our faces, bodies and hair and not assume it’s “safe” just because it’s available in a local salon. Shiny, smooth hair is nice—but not nearly as nice as staying alive.
Here is one good site to check out what’s in your products.
Photo credit: Creative Commons