Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Price of Beauty

I don't know about you, but when I was in 7th grade I wore an embarrassing amount of makeup. I thought I looked fantastic with my glitter-lined eyes, blackish-blue mascara, shimmery pink blush, and metallic pink lip gloss (this was 1999, don't judge). Looking back at old photos from that year I can't help but cringe at the fact that I left the house that way, but hey, at least I wasn't alone. Indeed, almost all of the girls in my grade shellacked their faces with cosmetics newly purchased from the mall or the Walgreens down the street. And you know what? I turned out alright. I wear almost no make up now save for some occasional eyeliner and mascara. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I wore more make up during my 7th grade year than I have in every year thereafter added together. So when I first came across this article in the New York Times this week, I rolled my eyes and dismissed it as all-too-familiar hand-wringing over the "horror" of preteen girls experimenting with "mature femininity" -- something I care about but have heard over and over and over again. I mean, I made it through unscathed, didn't I? Things can't have changed that much in the last ten to fifteen years, right?

Well, apparently I was wrong.

My interest in cosmetics started at a young age. If you look in my old photo albums, you'll find at least a handful of photos of me as a four year old with a full-on face of (smudged, extremely poorly applied) makeup. I adored my Tinkerbell Pink-A-Boo nail polish that I could brush on and peel off at will. I even had hard plastic tubes that looked like lipstick that I would swipe across my lips and then follow with a satisfied lipsmack. What was I doing? I was mostly imitating my mother, my aunts, and my grandmother, all of whom I had watched meticulously apply makeup in the morning or before a party. I was just having fun pretending to be a grown-up.

Fast forward to the first decade of the 2000s. Makeover parties are now de rigueur among preschoolers and elementary school kids. Spas and salons aimed at the three to nine year old crowd are popping up across the United States and Europe. Brits across the pond have marketed padded bikinis and pole dancing kits to little girls. Companies stateside market high heeled shoes to little girls as well as  kid-sized thongs emblazoned with lines like "wink wink" and "eye candy." Trampy Bratz dolls have largely replaced a comparatively tame Barbie, a much maligned figure who at least had a job. I think it's fair to say that things have worsened since I was a little girl.

I'm not saying that this sexualization of young girls is something new or that the makeup-play in my own childhood was entirely innocent and unworthy of feminist examination. I was actually kinda obsessed with the trappings of femininity as a wee tot. But the key difference here is that I was pretending to be a grown-up in the comfort and security of my own home. I was playing a game. I didn't wear makeup out of the house until middle school, I didn't think it was normal or appropriate to get professional manicures and pedicures (I knew those were for moms only), and I certainly didn't wear high heeled shoes except when I was playing dress up in my own room. As a third grader, I wanted to grow up to be a scientist, not Hannah Montana.

It should come as no surprise that the girls affected by this trend of getting older younger wind up using  cosmetics as they become tweens and teens at higher rates than girls of older generations. The New York Times reports that
Regular use of certain cosmetics is rising sharply among tween girls, according to a new report from the NPD Group, a consumer research company. From 2007 to 2009, the percentage of girls ages 8 to 12 who regularly use mascara and eyeliner nearly doubled — to 18 percent from 10 percent for mascara, and to 15 percent from 9 percent for eyeliner. The percentage of them using lipstick also rose, to 15 percent from 10 percent.
And according to a Neutrogena representative, "at least three out of four consumers age 14 to 17 are using a foundation product, and usage is actually a bit higher for mascara and lip gloss."

If that sounds like exaggeration to you, consider these statistics:
In a study [done in 2007], 55 percent of 6- to 9-year-old girls said they used lip gloss or lipstick, and nearly two-thirds said they used nail polish, according to Experian, a market research company based in New York. In 2003, 49 percent of 6- to 9-year-old girls said they used lip gloss or lipstick.
What's wrong with wearing a little lipstick, you might ask? Well, in 2005 Better Nutrition magazine published a run-down of some of the harmful chemicals commonly found in lipstick:
 "In addition to phthalates (which can cause kidney and liver damage and harm a developing fetus), lipstick may contain the possible human carcinogens butylated hydroxytoluene, polyethylene, dimethicone and a slew of artificial colors derived from coal tar. And if you wear lipstick every day, you'll ingest at least 4 pounds of it over your lifetime."
Frightening, right? And this problem isn't confined to just lipstick either. As girls get older, they use more and more beauty products with dangerous chemical contents on a daily basis. Most teens use between 15 - 20 products daily, while adult women use at least 5 fewer than teens and men use about 6 products total. 15 - 20 may sound like a whole lot of beauty products, but think again about what you use in an average day. Almost every day I personally use shampoo, conditioner, facial cleanser, body wash, sunscreen, deodorant, chapstick and sometimes eyeliner and mascara. That's 9 products right there. It doesn't seem too much of a stretch to get to fifteen or even twenty if you add in the average woman's makeup and hair styling routine.

Given how many young girls consume cosmetic products with contaminants, there ought to be an uproar about the damage being done to the next generation's health. In addition to causing simple irritation, many of these chemicals have been found to be carcinogenic, lead to fertility problems, and disrupt regular hormone levels. 

These chemicals are particularly damaging to young women who are just beginning puberty and who have not finished developing fully. In an article for RHRealityCheck, Sarah Seltzer reminds us that
in adolescence, when hormones are fluctuating, the reproductive system is developing, ...[and] sensitivity to these chemicals may in fact increase. "We're certainly concerned about teens in particular because during adolescence they're going through a lot of radical changes to their physiology," says Dr. Rebecca Sutton, the staff scientist for [Environmental Working Group] ... "All these changes are guided by hormones, so if we've got hormonally active ingredients in personal care product entering their bodies, there's a higher risk."
Jeanne Rizzo, executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund, adds onto this explanation that “puberty is a time of rapid cell development. Tissues are more sensitive to external toxicants, including those that can impair fertility and increase the risk of breast cancer.”

In a different study, "the Mount Sinai School of Medicine looked at girls younger than 10 with early onset puberty and discovered a high incidence of endocrine disruptors that are found in some nail polishes and other cosmetics."

Although young girls are at high risk of developing problems linked with chemicals in cosmetics, they of course are not the only group affected. In men, exposure to phthalates has been shown to "interfere with the production of testosterone, and they're linked to health effects like lower sperm counts, birth defects of the penis, testicular tumors." As with most environmental pollutants, these harmful chemicals disproportionately affect women of color as beauty products aimed at this specific demographic--like chemical hair straighteners and skin whitening creams--tend to have a higher concentration of toxins. Women who come into regular contact with toxic beauty products by working at hair and nail salons are perhaps in the gravest danger--and are likely to be women of color. In addition, pregnant women of all races and ages who are regular cosmetic users are at particularly high risk, according to the New York Times.
[The recently released President's Cancer Panel] report warns about exposures to chemicals during pregnancy, when risk of damage seems to be greatest. Noting that 300 contaminants have been detected in umbilical cord blood of newborn babies, the study warns that: “to a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted.'"
Equally disturbing: A 2005 study found that babies exposed to phthalates while in utero "were more likely to exhibit what may be anomalies in the placement of their penises."

How can cosmetics companies justify the use of dangerous chemicals in the face of such evidence? Well, most cosmetics companies claim that the dangerous chemicals found in their beauty products only appear in small quantities and therefore are nothing to worry about. I couldn't disagree more. Repeated daily exposure to harmful chemicals like phthalates and parabens do add up and can very easily lead to health problems. Scientists have shown repeatedly that toxic chemicals in cosmetics, regardless of amount, "accumulate in the body's fatty tissues, where they can remain for years and damage your cells." That obviously creates a problem if a young woman begins using lipstick (61% of lipsticks, by the way, contain lead) at the age of 13 and continues to use it almost daily for the rest of her life.  

As of right now, the cosmetics industry is largely unregulated. Unlike food or drugs, beauty products do not require FDA approval or safety testing before they are sent to market. There is no standard which must be met for beauty products to carry the "natural" or "organic" label either. As a result, thousands of chemicals that could potentially threaten consumer health can be found in the personal products we use on our bodies every day.

As someone who lost a loved one to breast cancer less than a year ago and is interested in someday becoming a mother, consumer safety matters a whole lot to me.  So what are we the consumers to do? Thankfully there's Skin Deep, a database of cosmetic products and their contained contaminants, but it's unrealistic to think the majority of women--especially young women--will utilize this website. I've known about it for over a year now and I almost always forget to check it before I go out and buy a new bottle of conditioner or lotion or what have you. What we really need is legislation that mandates safety testing for cosmetics as well as legislation that outlaws the use of harmful chemicals in our everyday products.

Want to cut down on the toxic chemicals in your cosmetics? Start reading the labels on all the beauty products you purchase and make use of Skin Deep if possible. The following are some of the worst and most common chemical offenders as identified by the Breast Cancer Fund:
Phthalates are a group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are found in cosmetics like nail polish and in synthetic fragrance—both perfumes and fragrance ingredients in other cosmetic products. Phthalate exposure has been linked to early puberty in girls, a risk factor for later-life breast cancer. Some phthalates also act as weak estrogens in cell culture systems. (Edited to add: Phthalates can also be found in most sex toys. Check out if you want to find phthalate-free toys)

1,4-dioxane is not listed on ingredient labels. It is a petroleum-derived contaminant formed in the manufacture of shampoos, body wash, children’s bath products and other sudsing cosmetics. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has ranked it as a possible carcinogen, and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) has identified it as a reasonably anticipated carcinogen.
 Parabens are a group of compounds widely used as an antifungal agent, preservative and antimicrobial in creams, lotions, ointments and other cosmetics, including underarm deodorants. They are absorbed through the skin and have been identified in biopsy samples from breast tumors.
Ethylene oxide is found in fragrances and is commonly used to manufacture popular brands of shampoo. It is classified as a known human carcinogen and is one of the 48 chemicals that the National Toxicology Program (NTP) identifies as mammary carcinogens in animals.
Placental extract is derived from human or animal placentas and is used in hair conditioners, shampoos and other grooming aids, particularly those marketed to women of color. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) has identified progesterone, the major hormonal contaminant in placental extracts, as a reasonably anticipated carcinogen. (Okay, this one is just gross!)
Lead may be a contaminant in over 650 cosmetic products, including sunscreens, foundation, nail colors, lipsticks and whitening toothpaste. Lead is a proven neurotoxin, linked to learning, language and behavioral problems. It has also been linked to miscarriage, reduced fertility in men and women, and delays in puberty onset in girls.
Aluminum is found in some underarm antiperspirants. Like cadmium, aluminum is a metal that mimics estrogen and can also cause direct damage to DNA. Studies have not shown a direct causal link to breast cancer risk, but breast tissue has been shown to concentrate aluminum in the same area where the highest proportion of breast cancers are originally diagnosed.

Many sunscreens contain chemicals that exert significant estrogenic activity, as measured by the increase in proliferation rates of human breast cancer cells in vitro. Studies show these chemicals are accumulating in wildlife and humans.
Want to take action now? Click here to tell Congress that we need to be protected from dangerous chemicals in cosmetics.

Want to read more? Check out Stacy Malkan's awesome book Not Just A Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.
Want to read more without a trip to the bookstore or library? Check out the following:
Want to watch a slightly corny but highly informative video on the scientific connection between cosmetics &  breast cancer?

In the end, I think it's important to acknowledge that the beauty industry does not have our best interests in mind. As an industry that works hand in hand with advertising to prey on women's insecurities, it's highly unlikely that you've ever thought of the beauty industry as your friend. But in addition to pushing unrealistic beauty ideals and notions of femininity, the beauty industry simply does not care about your health.

When it comes to young women wearing makeup, I used to agree with the approach taken by one mother quoted in the New York Times: 
“... I’d rather my girls try it and decide they don’t need all these products to be beautiful, and then do something more vital with their time and money and efforts, like write a poem or take a walk or save the world.”
Now that I know how dangerous cosmetics can be, I'm not sure sure I'd say the same thing.

What do you think?

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Blogger niazb said...

I think alot of women feel how you do with the wearing the outragouse amounts of makeup back when they were younger. We've all got those embarasing pics with the blue eye shadow and glitter! HAHA! But whats not a laughing matter is the link between makup and cancer. My grandpa always had warned us women in the family of all the chemicals in makeup but we all don't pay as much attention becuase too often women risk their lives to be beautiful.

May 10, 2010 at 12:41 AM  
Blogger Aydan said...

Wow-- I came here via Feministe, and as a feminist environmentalist, I really like this post! I had never thought of the chemicals in personal care products doing particularly gendered harm because of usage patterns, before.

May 10, 2010 at 6:52 AM  
Blogger Becca said...

Laylee! I love this post. I assure you that when we have daughters and they are old enough to be dousing their faces with makeup to go to middle school, you and I will be looking at the labels and making sure that they have skin and health friendly makeup products to play with. I don't see anything wrong with youthful experimentation with makeup as long as the parents are reading the labels and I really wish that we lived in a society where they didn't have to. Many of the toxic chemicals found in personal care products here in the States are banned in Europe.

May 10, 2010 at 9:31 AM  
Blogger admiral alanna said...

amazing post!! those statistics about rising usage of beauty products for young girls are terrifying... and all those crazy products like the high heels and thongs for little ones?? that's insane! i knew things were crazy, but i didnt know it had gotten that out of hand. as you know, i pretty much never wear make up, but i do use other products like hair dye, which i'm sure is full of chemicals, but it's not listed on Skin Deep. so now i have plenty of good reasons to give people asking me why i dont wear makeup, but perhaps i'm a hypocrite for my red hair...
great post, laylee. you are a wonder.

May 19, 2010 at 7:06 PM  

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